Brain games are now a $300 million a year business, but do they actually work? If you google “boost brainpower,” you’ll find all kinds of come-ons and promises, with little or no scientific proof that these mental workouts will make you any smarter. While research shows that mental activities—particularly puzzles and video, online, card or board games played against the clock—can help improve memory, until recently, IQ was believed to be determined by genes and therefore impossible to raise.
New studies challenge that notion. Scientists now know that we have two types of intelligence. Crystallized intelligence is the knowledge you accumulate. The other type, fluid intelligence, pertains to problem solving skills, reasoning and abstract thinking. We know that crystallized intelligence grows - why else would we go to school? But until very recently, researchers didn’t think there was any reliable way to lift fluid intelligence, since it was viewed as genetically determined.
Can brain training raise IQ?
Two studies by a team at the University of Michigan suggest that it is possible to increase fluid intelligence in both adults and elementary and middle school students. Earlier research had suggested that training the brain to do certain tasks improved performance of those specific tasks but didn’t translate to overall gains in intelligence. The new studies indicate that the increases in IQ produced by the brain training method are more long lasting.
What kind of brain training was used? The first study, published in 2008, involved 70 healthy adults who took IQ tests before and after training. The participants tracked small squares on a computer screen that popped into a new location every three seconds, and pressed a button when the current location duplicated from two views earlier. At the same time, consonants were played through headphones and the participants were told to press a button if the letter was the same as that heard two plays earlier. The training included 20 minute sessions over 8, 12, 17 or 19 week days. The study with kids was similar, but was set up more like a video game with a cartoon character (instead of squares) that moved around. Kids received the training 15 minutes a day for a month.
How much did IQ improve? In the adult study, the research team reported that the IQs of trained individuals increased “significantly more” than adults assigned to a control group, and that the more training the volunteers got, the higher their new IQ scores. In the kids’ study, fluid intelligence in some of the youngsters increased about five points after a month of training, but no gains were seen in other participants, perhaps because they found the exercises too hard or too boring and didn’t concentrate on them. Among the kids who did gain IQ points, the improvement was still seen during a follow-up evaluation three months later.
What do these findings mean? While we don’t yet know how (or if) the IQ improvements seen will affect the participants over time, these studies were the first to show that it is possible to improve on fluid intelligence, at least as measured by IQ tests. And it suggests that short-term training actually can boost brainpower. The scientists also think this type of training may help kids with developmental delays and older adults with memory decline, but further research would have to be done to see if that is true, since these studies only involved healthy volunteers.
What else, besides heredity, influences IQ? A study in Sweden of more than 1.2 million men who underwent physical fitness and intelligence tests at age 18 (a requirement for military enlistment) linked cardiovascular fitness during the teen years to higher IQ, higher educational achievements (such as getting a college degree or going to graduate school) and higher earning power as adults.
Mounting evidence suggests that both physical and mental activity can improve brainpower and keep your mind and memory sharp as you age. Another proven strategy: during pregnancy, women can boost their babies’ IQ by increasing their intake of fish with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.