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Can We Increase Our Intelligence?

Written By: Youki on March 11, 2009 2 Comments

In the quest for learning more about, ahem, language and learning, here’s a New York Times article on intelligence.  The article was written by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, two neuroscientists famous for their award-winning book, “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.”

Guest Column: Can We Increase Our Intelligence?

By Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt

It used to be believed that people had a level of general intelligence with which they were born that was unaffected by environment and stayed the same, more or less, throughout life. But now it’s known that environmental influences are large enough to have considerable effects on intelligence, perhaps even during your own lifetime.

Flynn first noted that standardized intelligence quotient (I.Q.) scores were rising by three points per decade in many countries, and even faster in some countries like the Netherlands and Israel. For instance, in verbal and performance I.Q., an average Dutch 14-year-old in 1982 scored 20 points higher than the average person of the same age in his parents’ generation in 1952. These I.Q. increases over a single generation suggest that the environmental conditions for developing brains have become more favorable in some way.

What might be changing? One strong candidate is working memory, defined as the ability to hold information in mind while manipulating it to achieve a cognitive goal. Examples include remembering a clause while figuring out how it relates the rest of a sentence, or keeping track of the solutions you’ve already tried while solving a puzzle. Flynn has pointed out that modern times have increasingly rewarded complex and abstract reasoning. Differences in working memory capacity account for 50 to 70 percent of individual differences in fluid intelligence (abstract reasoning ability) in various meta-analyses, suggesting that it is one of the major building blocks of I.Q. (Ackerman et al; Kane et al; Süss et al.) This idea is intriguing because working memory can be improved by training.


Research on working memory training, as well as Flynn’s original observations, raise the possibility that the fast-paced modern world, despite its annoyances (or even because of them) may be improving our reasoning ability. Maybe even multitasking — not the most efficient way to work — is good for your brain because of the mental challenge. Something to think about when you’re contemplating retirement on a deserted island.

[read the full article]

So, here’s a little memory game to get those brain muscles working!

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2 Responses to “Can We Increase Our Intelligence?”

  1. daveski on: 11 March 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Hm. I feel like my brain is shrinking as I spend so much time with mice everyday. But seriously, I think it’s a pretty hard sell to argue that we’re actually increasing our working memory now as we have everything available to us on Wikipedia and Google. Some hard-core English students of a past generation I met when I was living in Korea told me what they used to do to study English: to commit words to memory and guarantee that they would never forget, they would EAT their way through their dictionary, tearing out and eating each page after they had memorized its contents. Of course that just *might* have been a tall tale, but it made me think, even the idea of memorizing itself is making less and less sense to my hyperconnected self. And there must be a trick, a shortcut to the memory game you put up there, Youki…(???)

  2. Youki on: 12 March 2009 at 5:21 pm

    I agree, and the article does hedge its own arguments a bit. I do wonder about different types of memory, though. Your example seems to be related more to long-term memory, whereas the article is discussing working memory/short-term memory.

    Sure, information is so freely available to us on the internet, but we’re also learning that different sources of information provide different levels of reliability/legitimacy. So instead of going to one source for information, we evaluate multiple sources and end up with a composite result. I hardly think that makes us more intelligent, I think it’s just a different approach that is more favored by certain tests.

    oh that memory game is hard! I think a lot of it has to do with the objects used — I find it much more difficult to remember “colorful swirly thingy with oscillating circles” than typical memory games that have easily identifiable objects (like animals, or a deck of cards). It adds a new dimension to the game; not just remembering where something is, but what it is as well. Very interesting. It seems to really highlight cultural issues on tests – if we’re culturally familiar with the objects being used, our performance probably increases.

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