Purchasing and Practicing Artificial Intelligence

by Lauren Hasek

Swinging a bat, riding a bike, typing and playing a musical instrument show neuroplasticity, which is commonly referred to as muscle memory in action. All four tasks improve when repetition leads to motor learning, following the “practice makes perfect” mantra ingrained into every budding musician or athlete.

Does muscle memory function in the brain for intelligence, like it does in muscles for motor function? Imagine if playing online games to build intelligence was equivalent to going to the gym to build muscles or the batting cages to practice your swing. The latest workout fad extends the concept of neuroplasticity to mental capacity, offering to make you smarter through the use of online brain-training games.

Brain-training games are projected to be a three billion dollar industry by 2016. Advertisements for companies, such as Luminosity, Nintendo’s Brain Age, Fit Brains, and Brain Metrix are inundating social media with promises of improved memory, attention, and cognitive function in all age groups. This new industry begs the question: is there any true validity in these claims? Can purchasing an online subscription make you smarter? Might it have some greater value for our society?

Brain-training programs target the recent findings that improving short-term (“working”) memory through control of attention may produce an increase in fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence can be conceptualized as thinking ability, or how well the brain works through problems.

Imagine you are asked to solve a logic problem you have never encountered before. All the information you need is given; it does not rely on any prior knowledge of the subject. Your short-term memory is the scrap sheet of paper where you work through the problem. Fluid intelligence defines how efficient you are at using that paper to sort and process the given information to solve the problem. This problem-solving exercise is modulated by your concentration and attention toward the task.

Overall intelligence quotient tests are a way of quantifying fluid intelligence. They are given at a young age, and provide a standardized point for comparing social potential. High scores are desirable because they are strongly correlated to future academic achievement and professional success. This is because IQ tests do not measure facts or depth of knowledge, but rather comprehension, judgment and reasoning

In 2008, Dr. Susanne M. Jaeggi of University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology and other researchers from the University of Bern, found significant improvements in fluid intelligence following regimented training on working memory. The training consisted of a task as simple as asking subjects to remember and recall auditory cues and visual sequences in tandem. This requires the participant to remember two different types of stimuli at the same time: one that they hear and one that the see.

These findings challenged the long-standing assumption that fluid intelligence is a static trait sculpted soon after birth by largely genetic and environmental factors. Since fluid intelligence is correlated with success, it is not surprising that the study has since sparked the creation of IQ training. But follow-up studies have shown mixed results. Longitudinal studies are now underway, investigating how long these supposed gains in fluid intelligence last, and if they are linked to gains in job or scholastic performance.

Meanwhile, Jaeggi’s training has been adapted into games by companies such as Luminosity and Nintendo. For a set monthly fee (usually around $15), brain-training websites offer personalized training programs “built on proven neuroscience research.” Luminosity offers customer testimonials that translate their time playing the website’s games to real-world improvements in job performance, as well as in mental and physical aptitude.

While many of the websites target working-age adults, others claim to prevent memory loss in aging populations or boast integration into nursing home programming. Brain training is often seen as a preventative measure to help an aging mind stay sharp. However, for younger generations, the push is proactive; Nintendo markets “devilishly tricky training for the modern mind” through its Brain Age series for kids, teens and young adults.

What these companies forget to mention is that the science behind brain-training games is not 100 percent proven. If brain-training games produce improved memory, attention and cognitive function as they advertise, those who play brain-training games should show a measurable increase in IQ. While the paper published by Jaeggi and her colleagues paper reported an increase, the study had a number of fundamental flaws.

The IQ test administered in Jaeggi’s study was given for 10 minutes, as opposed to a full 45 minutes. Critics argued that the study participants were therefore not given the opportunity to perform the most difficult parts of the test, and so the assessment did not challenge their fluid intelligence. Additionally, the version of the IQ test administered contained two working-memory tasks, one of which was very similar to the procedure all the participants were trained on.

This could explain the increased IQ reported by the study. Repeatedly playing brain-training games will improve performance on those games, but it does not necessarily transfer to unrehearsed mental tasks – the problem solving that involves fluid intelligence. Just last year, two studies were published that failed to reproduce the effect of training on fluid intelligence.

If brain-training games don’t improve cognitive performance, what does? Substantial literature supports the positive effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance. Around 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week increases immediate mental and physical well-being and reduces risk factors for heart disease, stroke and dementia. Preliminary findings from some of the first longitudinal studies on lifetime exercise suggest regular physical activity throughout life leads to improved cognitive function and memory, and may reduce the risk of developing dementia later in life. Tired or stressed? Buying into the gimmicks of the gaming industry may not be the best way to clear or re-energize your mind. But exercise may be.