Smarter is an excellent primer on the new science concerned with improving a person’s intelligence. Because the science is not universally accepted (a few skeptics find the plethora of studies since 2008 to be unconvincing), author Hurley devotes much of the book discussing and evaluating the various studies. But the more interesting part of the book is its description of the fundamentals of being “smarter.” Such as:
- There is a critical difference between short-term memory and working memory. Short-term memory is the ability to quickly restate some information – like a list of numbers – that you have been given. (The vast majority of untrained people can restate 5-9 numbers, but with training can vastly increase that number.) By contrast, working memory consists of your ability to play with or manipulate the information that you have been given. Short-term memory has almost nothing to do with intelligence or problem-solving, but working memory is closely correlated.
- The most famous test of working memory is called n-back because the subject is read a list of letters and then presses a button whenever the subject hears a letter that was previously read n- characters back (“n” can be 2, 3, 4, etc.). Most people can remember if a letter was read two characters back, but most people can’t remember if a letter was read three characters back. Training can result in modest improvement.
- There is also a fundamental difference between fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence “is the underlying ability to learn, the capacity to solve novel problems, see underlying patterns, and figure out things never explicitly taught.” By contrast, crystallized intelligence includes “your treasure trove of stored-up information and how-to knowledge, which keeps growing as you age.” IQ tests measure a combination of fluid and crystallized intelligence. The essential issue of this new science is whether brain-game training that improves a person’s working memory will improve that person’s fluid intelligence.
Author Hurley examines a variety of brain-training games that are being marketed to make a person smarter – Cogmed, Lumosity, Posit Science, LearningRx, and First-Person Shooter games. He also evaluates some old-fashioned bromides – physical exercise, music, and meditation – plus Adderall, creatine, a nicotine patch, and fish oil. Then, before applying himself to the most promising games and bromides, Hurley has his IQ and fluid intelligence tested.
The book concludes on an ambivalent note. Although Hurley clearly believes in the science (it seems as one-sided as the global-warming debate among scientists), his final chapter concedes that his regimen of Lumosity, exercise, music, meditation, a nicotine patch, and, for good measure, some additional n-back training, resulted in his IQ increasing only one point and his fluid intelligence increasing only three percentiles. He called the change measurable; I call it statistically insignificant.
Although it would be nice to have a means to being smarter, I’m a bit relieved that I don’t need to join a gym for my brain and then put my brain through its paces for 30-60 minutes every couple of days.