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Michael Harper for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Now one Georgia Institute of Technology researcher says these claims are only half true. While these types of games may improve mental dexterity, particularly where memory is concerned, they cannot improve overall intelligence.
According to lead researcher Randall Engle, the difference lies in the definitions of intelligence and memory. Though improved memory may help a person recall events, information or people, improved intelligence would help a person better understand relationships between items or solve complex problems. Engle’s work can be found in Psychological Science, an Association for Psychological Science journal.
“It is hard to spend any time on the web and not see an ad for a website that promises to train your brain, fix your attention, and increase your IQ,” explains Engle, a psychological scientist at Georgia Tech. “These claims are particularly attractive to parents of children who are struggling in school.”
Previously, it was understood how there was a tight correlation between working memory capacity (or WMC) and general fluid intelligence. This supposed correlation between the two leads some to believe an increase in one would presumably increase the other. Therefore, games that were proven to increase WMC were believed to also increase overall intelligence.
Engle and his team put these theories to the test and asked 55 undergraduate students to play such games to train their brain and improve their cognitive skills. The participants were even paid extra for any improvement they made during the training as a way to ensure they advanced as best they could. These 55 students were split into two groups: one training on complex span tasks and one training on simple span tasks.
The complex span tasks have consistently acted as a good way to measure a person’s WMC. The simple span tasks, on the other hand, asked the students to recall a list of items in the order they were presented. These students performed these tasks against a control group that took part in visual search tasks, which, like the other tests, became more difficult each day.
The Georgia Tech researchers tested each of these students before and after they went through their training each day to understand how much they had improved and how their skills had transferred, if, in fact, they had transferred at all. After 20 days of training, Engle and his associates discovered it was only the complex scan tasks that improved WMC. No test they administered had improved general fluid intelligence.
“For over 100 years, psychologists have argued that general memory ability cannot be improved, that there is little or no generalization of ‘trained’ tasks to ‘untrained’ tasks,” explained Tyler Harrison, a graduate student at the Georgia Tech and the co-lead author of the paper. “So we were surprised to see evidence that new and untrained measures of working memory capacity may be improved with training on complex span tasks.”
In the end, Engle says assuming WMC and intelligence are identical is comparable to comparing height and weight.
“If they were, gaining weight would make you taller and losing weight would make you shorter — those of us who gain and lose weight periodically can attest to the fact that that is not true,” he said.