SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND59ILLUSTRATIONS BY KATE FRANCISSPECIAL REPORTEDUCATIONBUILDINGBETTER BRAINSBy John Jonides, Susanne M. Jaeggi, Martin Buschkuehl and Priti Shah Recent studies indicate that some types of brain training can make you smarter
noticed a difference in their daily activities. One individual, for example, reported sharper chess skills, stating, “I can plan fur-ther ahead.” Another said that it felt easier to sight-read music while playing the piano.How is this possible? Researchers have long believed that fluid intelligence—which refl ects how well you tackle a new task rather than what facts you possess—is a fi xed attribute, directly inherited or acquired very early in life. Indeed, evi-dence shows that fluid intelligence, as with height, is highly heritable, by some estimates as much as 50 to 80 percent. Yet intelligence can still be honed. Just as nutrition can influence height, environmental variables can also either brighten or be-leaguer minds. Consider the Flynn effect: over at least the past 65 years measured intelligence, such as scores on the SAT, has steadily increased even though the genetic constitution of the population has not changed measurably.Because high fluid intelligence typically leads to academic achievement and career success, scientists have long sought to alter it by various means, among them teaching reasoning strat-egies and test-taking skills. Most of these pursuits have met with limited or no success. More recently, though, in our laboratories and others, researchers have begun exploring the idea that some cognitive training activities—in particular, tasks that exercise working memory—can make a difference. Working memory, also referred to as short-term memory, keeps vital information at the ready so that other parts of the brain can tap it to solve problems. Mental arithmetic, for example, relies on working memory. More broadly, this storage system in the brain appears to be one of the key components of fluid intelligence. Many studies fi nd that variation in working memory ac-counts for at least 25 percent of the variation in fluid intelligence among individuals. Our own research confi rms that inculcat-ing this skill can lead to higher scores on standard tests of fluid intelligence for children and adults alike. Surprisingly, the train-ing does not appear to expand the capacity of working memory but rather the ability to tune out distracting information. Fur-thermore, we and other researchers have found that as training progresses, the brain regions taxed by working memory become less active, as if they become more efficient in their functioning. These same areas are more engaged, however, when the brain is at rest. This pattern suggests to us that our program leaves the brain better primed to perform a wide array of tasks.