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“Can You Make Yourself Smarter?” (A-Hurley)
Suppose that the Commonwealth of Virginia is considering investing limited resources in
“brain game” online programs intended to make high school students “smarter.” You are a
cognitive psychologist hired to offer a 1-page brief, advising the governor as to whether this is
a good use of its money. Using the Hurley article on training intelligence as your primary
source, make a recommendation and defend it. See the first three pages of this document for
specific guidelines about margins, etc.
Your first sentence should be a thesis: an explicit statement of your position (e.g., “I [do not]
recommend that the Commonwealth of Virginia invest its limited resources in . . .”). Then
build a carefully reasoned, concise argument to explain your position. Your last sentence
should be a repeat of your thesis.
Some things you may want to consider (and which you can find in the Hurley article and/or the
various sources below, and/or through other research you track down) are below. Note that you
are not going to be able to answer all these questions in your 1-page brief. So, you have to
decide which ones are going to be most relevant to the case that you want to make. In the
interest of space, you may wish to focus on a specific example or two to make your point. Use
evidence wherever possible, by saying “For example, according to X,…”:

What is intelligence? What are its different types, and how are they described?

How is intelligence measured?

What do brain training programs at the moment look like? What effects do they have?

How does working memory relate to fluid intelligence?

What are the benefits of training working memory? Are there any downsides?

How do other scientists feel about this research?
Here are some resources I tracked down on your behalf, and you will be able to find others
(many of these offer links to other resources):…

Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008). Improving fluid
intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, 105(19), 6829-6833. Essays are to be exactly 1 page in length, with ~250 correctly spelled words,
put together in complete and meaningful sentences. It is hard to write in a compelling, concise
manner. I expect that you will go through many drafts before getting to your final draft. Use 12
point Times font, double-space the text of the paper, and use 1-inch margins on each side.Centered on the first line beneath that should be a creative title specific to your essay. The
number of words in your essay—not including title or header—should follow in parentheses. See
page 3 of this document for a sample that shows exactly (except for the essay itself of course)
how your document should look when you hand it in.
Citing your sources: I expect that you will be able to complete your essay using the assigned
article, and by tracking down other interesting and relevant pieces of information. (For each
assignment, I’ve given you a few places to start.)
Yes, you should cite your sources by referring to them in the following way: “According to
Weisberg et al. (2008), . . .” or “Colapinto (2007) has reported that . . .” Once you have cited an
article in a particular paragraph, chances are that for this particular assignment, you will not need
to include the citation to that particular article again in that particular paragraph. If you cite
material from an article other than the one that is to serve as your primary source, then you
should include these references in APA format on a 2nd page, entitled “References” (see the
web and/or one of us if you’re not sure how to create a reference page in APA format). Do not
use or cite Wikipedia. This is not appropriate.
Do not use direct quotations in this essay. None. Nada. Zip. Especially given how short your
essay will be, I want all the words to be your own.
Plagiarism is a serious offense.

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Can You Make Yourself Smarter? –
April 18, 2012
Can You Make Yourself Smarter?
Early on a drab afternoon in January, a dozen third graders from the working-class suburb of
Chicago Heights, Ill., burst into the Mac Lab on the ground floor of Washington-McKinley
School in a blur of blue pants, blue vests and white shirts. Minutes later, they were hunkered
down in front of the Apple computers lining the room’s perimeter, hoping to do what was, until
recently, considered impossible: increase their intelligence through training.
“Can somebody raise their hand,” asked Kate Wulfson, the instructor, “and explain to me how
you get points?”
On each of the children’s monitors, there was a cartoon image of a haunted house, with bats
and a crescent moon in a midnight blue sky. Every few seconds, a black cat appeared in one of
the house’s five windows, then vanished. The exercise was divided into levels. On Level 1, the
children earned a point by remembering which window the cat was just in. Easy. But the game
is progressive: the cats keep coming, and the kids have to keep watching and remembering.
“And here’s where it gets confusing,” Wulfson continued. “If you get to Level 2, you have to
remember where the cat was two windows ago. The time before last. For Level 3, you have to
remember where it was three times ago. Level 4 is four times ago. That’s hard. You have to keep
track. O.K., ready? Once we start, anyone who talks loses a star.”
So began 10 minutes of a remarkably demanding concentration game. At Level 2, even adults
find the task somewhat taxing. Almost no one gets past Level 3 without training. But most
people who stick with the game do get better with practice. This isn’t surprising: practice
improves performance on almost every task humans engage in, whether it’s learning to read or
playing horseshoes.
What is surprising is what else it improved. In a 2008 study, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin
Buschkuehl, now of the University of Maryland, found that young adults who practiced a
stripped-down, less cartoonish version of the game also showed improvement in a fundamental
cognitive ability known as “fluid” intelligence: the capacity to solve novel problems, to learn,
reason, to see connections and to get to the bottom of things. The implication was that playing
Inside a Ch
the game literally makes people smarter.
Read More »
Psychologists have long regarded intelligence as coming in two flavors: crystallized intelligence,

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? –
the treasure trove of stored-up information and how-to knowledge (the sort of thing tested on
“Jeopardy!” or put to use when you ride a bicycle); and fluid intelligence. Crystallized
intelligence grows as you age; fluid intelligence has long been known to peak in early
adulthood, around college age, and then to decline gradually. And unlike physical conditioning,
which can transform 98-pound weaklings into hunks, fluid intelligence has always been
considered impervious to training.
That, after all, is the premise of I.Q. tests, or at least the portion that measures fluid
intelligence: we can test you now and predict all sorts of things in the future, because fluid
intelligence supposedly sets in early and is fairly immutable. While parents, teachers and others
play an essential role in establishing an environment in which a child’s intellect can grow, even
Tiger Mothers generally expect only higher grades will come from their children’s diligence —
not better brains.
How, then, could watching black cats in a haunted house possibly increase something as
profound as fluid intelligence? Because the deceptively simple game, it turns out, targets the
most elemental of cognitive skills: “working” memory. What long-term memory is to
crystallized intelligence, working memory is to fluid intelligence. Working memory is more
than just the ability to remember a telephone number long enough to dial it; it’s the capacity to
manipulate the information you’re holding in your head — to add or subtract those numbers,
place them in reverse order or sort them from high to low. Understanding a metaphor or an
analogy is equally dependent on working memory; you can’t follow even a simple statement like
“See Jane run” if you can’t put together how “see” and “Jane” connect with “run.” Without it,
you can’t make sense of anything.
Over the past three decades, theorists and researchers alike have made significant headway in
understanding how working memory functions. They have developed a variety of sensitive tests
to measure it and determine its relationship to fluid intelligence. Then, in 2008, Jaeggi turned
one of these tests of working memory into a training task for building it up, in the same way
that push-ups can be used both as a measure of physical fitness and as a strength-building task.
“We see attention and working memory as the cardiovascular function of the brain,” Jaeggi
says.“If you train your attention and working memory, you increase your basic cognitive skills
that help you for many different complex tasks.”
Jaeggi’s study has been widely influential. Since its publication, others have achieved results
similar to Jaeggi’s not only in elementary-school children but also in preschoolers, college
students and the elderly. The training tasks generally require only 15 to 25 minutes of work per
day, five days a week, and have been found to improve scores on tests of fluid intelligence in as
little as four weeks. Follow-up studies linking that improvement to real-world gains in

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? –
schooling and job performance are just getting under way. But already, people with disorders
including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.) and traumatic brain injury have
seen benefits from training. Gains can persist for up to eight months after treatment.
In a town like Chicago Heights, where only 16 percent of high schoolers met the Illinois version
of the No Child Left Behind standards in 2011, finding a clear way to increase cognitive abilities
has obvious appeal. But it has other uses too, at all ages and aptitudes. Even high-level
professionals have begun training their working memory in hopes of boosting their fluid
intelligence — and, with it, their job performance. If the effect is real — if fluid intelligence can
be raised in just a few minutes a day, even by a bit, and not just on a test but in real life — then
it would seem to offer, as Jaeggi’s 2008 study concluded with Spock-like understatement, “a
wide range of applications.”
Since the first reliable intelligence test was created just over a hundred years ago, researchers
have searched for a way to increase scores meaningfully, with little success. The track record
was so dismal that by 2002, when Jaeggi and her research partner (and now her husband),
Martin Buschkuehl, came across a study claiming to have done so, they simply didn’t believe it.
The study, by a Swedish neuroscientist named Torkel Klingberg, involved just 14 children, all
with A.D.H.D. Half participated in computerized tasks designed to strengthen their working
memory, while the other half played less challenging computer games. After just five weeks,
Klingberg found that those who played the working-memory games fidgeted less and moved
about less. More remarkable, they also scored higher on one of the single best measures of fluid
intelligence, the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Improvement in working memory, in other
words, transferred to improvement on a task the children weren’t training for.
Even if the sample was small, the results were provocative (three years later Klingberg
replicated most of the results in a group of 50 children), because matrices are considered the
gold standard of fluid-intelligence tests. Anyone who has taken an intelligence test has seen
matrices like those used in the Raven’s: three rows, with three graphic items in each row, made
up of squares, circles, dots or the like. Do the squares get larger as they move from left to right?
Do the circles inside the squares fill in, changing from white to gray to black, as they go
downward? One of the nine items is missing from the matrix, and the challenge is to find the
underlying patterns — up, down and across — from six possible choices. Initially the solutions
are readily apparent to most people, but they get progressively harder to discern. By the end of
the test, most test takers are baffled.
If measuring intelligence through matrices seems arbitrary, consider how central pattern
recognition is to success in life. If you’re going to find buried treasure in baseball statistics to

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? –
give your team an edge by signing players unappreciated by others, you’d better be good at
matrices. If you want to exploit cycles in the stock market, or find a legal precedent in 10 cases,
or for that matter, if you need to suss out a woolly mammoth’s nature to trap, kill and eat it —
you’re essentially using the same cognitive skills tested by matrices.
When Klingberg’s study came out, both Jaeggi and Buschkuehl were doctoral candidates in
cognitive psychology at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Since his high-school days as a
Swiss national-champion rower, Buschkuehl had been interested in the degree to which skills —
physical and mental — could be trained. Intrigued by Klingberg’s suggestion that training
working memory could improve fluid intelligence, he showed the paper to Jaeggi, who was
studying working memory with a test known as the N-back. “At that time there was pretty much
no evidence whatsoever that you can train on one particular task and get transfer to another
task that was totally different,” Jaeggi says. That is, while most skills improve with practice, the
improvement is generally domain-specific: you don’t get better at Sudoku by doing crosswords.
And fluid intelligence was not just another skill; it was the ultimate cognitive ability underlying
all mental skills, and supposedly immune from the usual benefits of practice. To find that
training on a working-memory task could result in an increase in fluid intelligence would be
cognitive psychology’s equivalent of discovering particles traveling faster than light.
Together, Jaeggi and Buschkuehl decided to see if they could replicate the Klingberg transfer
effect. To do so, they used the N-back test as the basis of a training regimen. As seen in the
game played by the children at Washington-McKinley, N-back challenges users to remember
something — the location of a cat or the sound of a particular letter — that is presented
immediately before (1-back), the time before last (2-back), the time before that (3-back), and so
on. If you do well at 2-back, the computer moves you up to 3-back. Do well at that, and you’ll
jump to 4-back. On the other hand, if you do poorly at any level, you’re nudged down a level.
The point is to keep the game just challenging enough that you stay fully engaged.
Play a free online version of the N­back game.
To make it harder, Jaeggi and Buschkuehl used what’s called the dual N-back task. As a random
sequence of letters is heard over earphones, a square appears on a computer screen moving,
apparently at random, among eight possible spots on a grid. Your mission is to keep track of
both the letters and the squares. So, for example, at the 3-back level, you would press one
button on the keyboard if you recall that a spoken letter is the same one that was spoken three
times ago, while simultaneously pressing another key if the square on the screen is in the same
place as it was three times ago.
The point of making the task more difficult is to overwhelm the usual task-specific strategies

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? –
that people develop with games like chess and Scrabble. “We wanted to train underlying
attention and working-memory skills,” Jaeggi says.
Jaeggi and Buschkuehl gave progressive matrix tests to students at Bern and then asked them
to practice the dual N-back for 20 to 25 minutes a day. When they retested them at the end of a
few weeks, they were surprised and delighted to find significant improvement. Jaeggi and
Buschkuehl later expanded the study as postdoctoral fellows at the University of Michigan, in
the laboratory of John Jonides, professor of psychology and neuroscience.
“Those two things, working memory and cognitive control, I think, are at the heart of
intellectual functioning,” Jonides told me when I met with him, Jaeggi and Buschkuehl in their
basement office. “They are part of what differentiates us from other species. They allow us to
selectively process information from the environment, and to use that information to do all
kinds of problem-solving and reasoning.”
When they finally published their study, in a May 2008 issue of Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, the results were striking. Before training, participants were able to
correctly answer between 9 and 10 of the matrix questions. Afterward, the 34 young adults who
participated in dual N-back training for 12 weeks correctly answered approximately one extra
matrix item, while those who trained for 17 weeks were able to answer about three more
correctly. After 19 weeks, the improvement was 4.4 additional matrix questions.
“It’s not just a little bit higher,” Jaeggi says. “It’s a large effect.”
The study did have its shortcomings. “We used just one reasoning task to measure their
performance,” she says. “We showed improvements in this one fluid-reasoning task, which is
usually highly correlated with other measures as well.” Whether the improved scores on the
Raven’s would translate into school grades, job performance and real-world gains remained to
be seen. Even so, accompanying the paper’s publication in Proceedings was a commentary
titled, “Increasing Fluid Intelligence Is Possible After All,” in which the senior psychologist
Robert J. Sternberg (now provost at Oklahoma State University) called Jaeggi’s and
Buschkuehl’s research “pioneering.” The study, he wrote, “seems, in some measure, to resolve
the debate over whether fluid intelligence is, in at least some meaningful measure, trainable.”
For some, the debate is far from settled. Randall Engle, a leading intelligence researcher at
the Georgia Tech School of Psychology, views the proposition that I.Q. can be increased
through training with a skepticism verging on disdain. “May I remind you of ‘cold fusion’?” he
says, referring to the infamous claim, long since discredited, that nuclear fusion could be
achieved at room temperature in a desktop device. “People were like, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve solved
our energy crisis.’ People were rushing to throw money at that science. Well, not so fast. The

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? –
military is now preparing to spend millions trying to make soldiers smarter, based on workingmemory training. What that one 2008 paper did was to send hundreds of people off on a wildgoose chase, in my opinion.
“Fluid intelligence is not culturally derived,” he continues. “It is almost certainly the
biologically driven part of intelligence. We have a real good idea of the parts of the brain that
are important for it. The prefrontal cortex is especially important for the control of attention.
Do I think you can change fluid intelligence? No, I don’t think you can. There have been
hundreds of other attempts to increase intelligence over the years, with little or no — just no —
At a meeting of cognitive scientists last August, and again in November, Engle presented a
withering critique of Jaeggi and her colleagues’ 2008 paper. He pointed to a variety of
methodological weaknesses (many of which have been addressed in subsequent papers by
Jaeggi and others) and then presented the results from his own attempt to replicate the study,
which found no effect whatsoever. (Those results have yet to be published.)
The most prominent takedown of I.Q. training came in June 2010, when the neuroscientist
Adrian Owen published the results of an experiment conducted in coordination with the BBC
television show “Bang Goes the Theory.” After inviting British viewers to participate, Owen
recruited 11,430 of them to take a battery of I.Q. tests before and after a six-week online
program designed to replicate commercially available “brain building” software. (The N-back
was not among the tasks offered.) “Although improvements were observed in every one of the
cognitive tasks that were trained,” he concluded in the journal Nature, “no evidence was found
for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.”
But even Owen, reached by telephone, told me that he respects Jaeggi’s studies and looks
forward to seeing others like it. If before Jaeggi’s study, scientists’ attempts to raise I.Q. were
largely unsuccessful, other lines of evidence have long supported the view that intelligence is far
from immutable. While studies of twins suggest that intelligence has a fixed genetic
component, at least 20 to 50 percent of the variation in I.Q. is due to other factors, whether
social, school or family-based. Even more telling, average I.Q.’s have been rising steadily for a
century as access to schooling and technology expands, a phenomenon known as the Flynn
Effect. As Jaeggi and others see it, the genetic component of intelligence is undeniable, but it
functions less like the genes that control for eye color and more like the complex of interacting
genes that affect weight and height (both of which have also been rising, on average, for
decades). “We know that height is heavily genetically determined,” Jonides told me during our
meeting at the University of Michigan. “But we also know there are powerful environmental
influences on height, like nutrition. So the fact that intelligence is partly heritable doesn’t mean

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? –
you can’t modify it.”
Harold Hawkins, a cognitive psychologist at the Office of Naval Research who oversees most of
the U.S. military’s studies in the area, expressed a common view. For him, the question now is
not whether cognitive training works but how strongly and how best to achieve it. “Until about
four or five years ago, we believed that fluid intelligence is immutable in adulthood,” Hawkins
told me. “No one believed that training could possibly achieve dramatic improvements in this
very fundamental cognitive ability. Then Jaeggi’s work came along. That’s when I started to
move my funding from some other areas into this area. I personally believe, and if I didn’t
believe it I wouldn’t be making an investment of the taxpayers’ money, that there’s something
here. It’s potentially of extremely profound importance.” A similar view was expressed by Jason
Chein, assistant professor of psychology …
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