Get Even Smarter?

Last month Nature published a study that said training your brain was pretty much useless. While practicing a particular task might make you better at that task, the improvement was nontransferrable. Doing crosswords doesn’t make you smarter, it just makes you better at doing crosswords. Those sad findings were reported all over the place.

But despair not fellow dullards! A study published this month concludes just the opposite. Participants who completed four weeks of memory training not only improved their performance on the Stroop task, which measures mental vitality, but also significantly improved reading comprehension. From the paper:

… our discovery that [Working Memory] training can yield improvements in reading skill, even among college-aged participants, encourages enthusiasm for the increasingly popular belief that [Working Memory] training can be used as a general tool for promoting important cognitive skills.

So what’s the deal? Somebody has to be wrong, right?

I called up one of the authors of the study, Jason Chein, who pointed out that the Nature article looked at online games that purport to improve mental functioning. He wasn’t surprised that those games were ineffective. But he thinks the jury is still out on the broader question of whether you can get smarter by performing certain mental exercises. That said, he thinks his study and other working memory studies show that “something real is being demonstrated.”

(The abstract for the study, published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, is here. The authors are Jason M. Chein and Alexandra B. Morrison of Temple University.)

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