Brain Training: Image of Brain Crossing Finish Line

So maybe we can make ourselves smarter?

I noted in an earlier post that as powerful as deliberate practice can be for mastering particular skills or knowledge, recent research suggests that we eventually run up against the limits of our intellectual capabilities. In particular, the capacity of our working memory seems to have significant impact on what we can ultimately achieve.

So, are there ways to improve our overall intellectual capacity? It was with this question in mind that a handful of recent articles in The New York Times caught my eye.

In the first, Dan Hurley asks Can You Make Yourself Smarter? The answer is not an unequivocal “yes,” but the research that has been done so far certainly offers hope. Hurley’s article focuses on “crystallized” intelligence – basically, the stuff we store up over time – versus “fluid” intelligence, which is the domain of working memory. In particular, he discusses the work of psychologists Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, whose experiments suggest that working memory can indeed be enhanced through certain types of brain training. There are doubters, to be sure, but there are also other studies that seem to support Jaeggi and Buschkuehl’s conclusions.

Of course, as Gretchen Reynolds argues, we already know about one straightforward way to improve brain function: exercise.(I also touch on the power of exercise in earlier posts on improving memory and being a better learner.) In her article How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain, Reynolds notes that “scientists in just the past few months have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhance cognitive flexibility.” In particular, exercise seems to promote the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus (a key area for learning and memory) and – just as importantly – helps these neurons form connections with other neurons, an essential step for the neurons actually becoming useful to us.

In an earlier article, How Exercise Can Prime the Brain for Addiction, Reynolds draws on the same research to highlight how people who exercise regularly may have a harder time breaking addictions than those who don’t. But the real headline in this story, in my opinion, is researcher Justin Rhodes’ point that “what the study shows is how profoundly exercise affects learning.” Basically, exercise seems to make it harder to forget what we have learned – which may, unfortunately, include learned behavior like an addiction.

Bottom line: The research showing that regular physical exercise can enhance our learning abilities and improve memory continues to mount. At the same time, there is quite a bit of evidence suggesting that exercising the brain through cognitive training may, in fact, have significant impact on working memory.

Given all of the other benefits of regular exercise, it seems like a no-brainer (;-)) to make it a part of your lifelong learning habits. And personally, I’m becoming sold enough on the concept of brain training to at least take it for a spin. How about you?

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