The Day the Earth Stood Still

4/29/2008

    There have been several momentous milestones in human development... the taming of fire, the evolution of language, the development of writing, the appearance of craftsman and specialization in the early river-valley city-states... that have transformed what it means to be human. Today, came announcements of what I believe may possibly lead to the next transformation in human development. Two psychologists, Susanne Jäggi and Martin  Buschkuehl in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bern, have discovered a training technique that appears to significantly elevate fluid intelligence. Further, the technique shows a more-or-less linear dose-response relationship over a period of 8 12, 17, and 19 days (with 25 minutes of training per day). 
    What's so game-changing about these results is that, to my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has ever demonstrated transfer of training from a set of specific training exercises to achieve markedly improved results on IQ tests (the Raven Advanced Progressive Matrices (RAPM) and their more difficult cousin, the Bochumar Matrizen-test (BOMAT)). Other brain training programs such as Nintendo's Brain Age produce training-specific improvements in task-specific performances, but they haven't formally established the ability to elevate one's scores on IQ tests.
    As a teenager back in 1945, I fantasized that some day, science would find a way to boost our IQ's, and that when that day arrived, humanity would begin to bootstrap itself to become superhumanly smart. And the smarter we got, the better qualified we would be to render ourselves even smarter. In a relatively short time by archeological standards and an even shorter time in anthropological terms, we would would be as far above mid-20th-century humans as they were above our ancestral hominids. Comparatively speaking, a curve depicting scientific progress would begin to go straight up. Or so I thought in 1945.
    The significance of this isn't what it might do for you or what it might do for me, but what it might mean for humanity as a whole. And once it starts, it will only improve.
    On the flip side, these claims are based upon one small, short-term study that invites many questions. (Follow-up studies are underway.) For example, how much improvement is possible with continuing practice? Are these improvements permanent or is continuing practice required to maintain them? Does the rate of improvement vary with initial IQ? (Initial indications are that it does not, although it was also mentioned in the authors' paper (in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) that subjects with lower scores may have improved more.) Does this training effect structural changes in the brain? Are these improvements associated with improvements in memory? Are there memory training techniques that enhance long-term memory deposition? Would crystallized intelligence (vocabulary, general information, arithmetic) follow fluid intelligence up over a period of a few months or years? There will undoubtedly be a number of similar studies over the next few years.
    I'll be pursuing this further over the next few days. Stay tuned.
    There are other "brain booster" programs that claim long-term improvements in memory and other cognitive functions, such as Posit Science, which advertises a ten-year rollback in age-related cognitive decline. Posit Science two products are their Brain Fitness Program Classic, which addresses auditory processing, and their newer inSight, which trains visual operations. Each program costs $395 for a single user, or $495 for two users. Mindfit sells one product, Mindfit, with three tasks: Picasso, which trains visual short-term memory and pattern synthesis; Inside and Outside, which teaches you to pay attention to more than one stimulus at a time; and Two in One which trains you to perform two tasks simultaneously. Mindfit costs $139 if purchased online, or $149 with a boxed CD. Nintendo's Brain Age, Brain Age 2, Big Brain Academy, and Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day for the Nintendo cost $19.99 apiece new or approximately $10 used. The Nintendo DS itself costs $129.95.
    None of these brain training programs advertise an increase in IQ.
    Wired News recently published a list of currently available "smart drugs". (As of a few years ago, the leading "smart drug" was coffee with cream and sugar.) The herbs Lemon Balm and Huperzine-A have shown some benefits as memory enhancers.
    I wouldn't want to take "smart drugs" myself because of the dangers of possible side effects if they're used on a continuing basis.
    Two "smart foods" that have shown significant results in reducing age-related cognitive decline are strawberries and blueberries. (Tommie and I eat a few strawberries a day and get a little blueberry extract each day.) Exercise is also cited as beneficial for the brain.