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Can Cognitive Training Make You Smarter?: Interview with Author Dan Hurley

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Dan Hurley is one of my favorite science journalists. Not only does he write about issues that interest me, but he doesn’t sacrifice the nuance, or the humor. Dan’s popular feature in The New York Times Magazine, “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?” brilliantly presented multiple perspectives in the cognitive training debate. In his latest book, “Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power“, Dan expanded his investigation of the cognitive training literature and also reviewed other interventions that attempt to increase intelligence. I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to see how science works (i.e., how messy it really is behind the scenes), including its real human dimension.

What in the world compelled you to jump into the swamp that is the cognitive training literature?

When I was in third grade, I still couldn’t read. Mrs. Browning, my teacher at Whittier School in Teaneck, N.J., told my mother, “Daniel is a slow learner.” And then I was saved by Spider-Man. My best friend started reading it with another kid, and then I started reading it, as best I could. Soon we were writing our own comic books, and by sixth grade, I was getting straight A’s and on my way to becoming a writer. Ever since, I’ve wondered what really happened back then: did reading and writing comics actually make me smarter?

Then, a few years ago, I was assigned to write an article for Neurology Today about drugs being tested as a means to improve the cognitive abilities of people with Down syndrome. I talked to Alberto Costa, who was then running the first clinical trial in young adults with Down syndrome, using a drug that had been successful in the mouse model of Down syndrome. I ended up writing a profile of Dr. Costa for the New York Times Magazine, and then I wondered whether any research was being done on improving intelligence in otherwise healthy people. The article I wrote for the NY Times Magazine, “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?” became one of the magazine’s most-emailed stories of the year. That led me to write a book, and here I am.

How do you define “intelligence”?

Psychologists define it with tests. But those tests are ultimately designed to measure the real-world ability to figure things out, solve problems, and see meaningful patterns in the world around us. And it’s not just “book smarts.”  It includes our ability to understand ourselves and those around us, to handle whatever life throws at us, to make sense of things. Intelligence is what allows us to learn from our experience, to gain insight into life, to juggle multiple demands. With the internet these days, information is everywhere. But intelligence is how we make sense of all that information.

You spend some time in the first chapter defending the importance of intelligence. Why did you feel the need to do that. Do you think intelligence is underrated in society?

If you’ve ever been called “stupid,” as I was a kid, you know how intensely personal and important it is. If you’ve ever had a learning-disabled child, or if your parent is becoming impaired by Alzheimer’s disease, you know how important intelligence is. The evil history of eugenics actually started in Britain, with researchers who decided that IQ was almost entirely genetic in nature, and so they concluded that only smart people should have kids. That view was widely adopted in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Laws were passed requiring the sterilization of cognitively disabled people, and refusing entry to immigrants who tested poorly on IQ tests.  The Nazis carried this view of human nature to its horrific conclusion, which explains why they murdered tens of thousands of cognitively disabled people in their gas chambers. These days, it’s become politically incorrect to talk about intelligence. The intelligentsia (pun intended) prefer to talk about grit and determination, or “emotional” intelligence. But wishing away the importance of intelligence doesn’t make it go away.

What do you think being smarter by IQ test standards buys you in life?

Malcolm Gladwell actually wrote in “Outliers” that if he could “magically” increase your IQ by 30 points (as if there could be no other way) you would not really benefit. That’s ridiculous. Anyone with a serious cognitive impairment, including those who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, can be truly disabled by it. If you want to write a good novel, if you want to work for Google or some other cool company, if you want to complete college – all of those things require some serious intellectual firepower. Today we live in a knowledge economy, where most of the good jobs require critical thinking, the ability to learn and communicate and understand complexities. Factory work is disappearing. Getting smarter empowers you to succeed in life.

Does anyone in the cognitive training field agree on anything?

A handful of researchers, most of them connected to Georgia Tech, continue to loudly insist that intelligence training is a bunch of baloney, that it’s like “cold fusion.” But those arch-skeptics have pretty well lost the argument. At this point, the vast majority of the 200 or so researchers I interviewed believe that cognitive training can work. The Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Air Force, the Marines and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IAPRA) wouldn’t be funding this stuff if it were make-believe. Nor would the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke. The legitimate questions that need to be answered are: Which methods work best? How long do you have to do them? Who benefits? Should the methods be combined?  As with any new area of medical research, larger and longer studies are needed to clarify uncertainties.

What areas of the cognitive training field are most contentious?

Even some of the psychologists who have found strong benefits for training feel nervous about the commercial advocacy of companies like Lumosity. We all know that physical exercise builds muscles…but we don’t yet know exactly which kinds of cognitive exercises work best. That said, I have counted about 75 randomized, placebo-controlled trials (and they’re all cited in my book) demonstrating significant benefits from various kinds of cognitive training—from “working memory” training to physical exercise, learning a musical instrument, mindfulness meditation, transcranial direct-current stimulation and more. I found only four randomized, placebo-controlled trials that found no benefit whatsoever. That’s pretty overwhelming.

You quote Susanne Jaeggi as saying, “We really think the question at this point should not be whether cognitive training works, but for whom and why.” I found this to be quite sensible. Does anyone in the field disagree with that sentiment?

That is the view of almost every credible researcher in the field. And I have to say, I was very, very nervous about sounding overly positive and hopeful about this subject. I am a born skeptic. To be a science reporter requires a fundamental level of doubt and skepticism about just about everything. A good friend of mine from college loves to goof on how, whenever he tells me anything the least bit surprising, I repeat it back to him in a tone of disbelief. I’m really a bit of a nut in that regard. My first science book, “Natural Causes,” was all about the wacky world of dietary supplements, where companies keep promoting products that have been proved to be ineffective and often unsafe. It’s very unlike me to promote anything. So it took many interviews with many researchers, and many visits to scientific labs and meetings around the country, to convince me that most researchers are pretty well in agreement that cognitive training can, at the very least, help some of the people some of the time.

Was Randy Engle the most skeptical scientist that you spoke to?

Randy is brilliant and personable and funny. He is one of the most important psychologists of the past 20 years. For that reason, his skepticism toward intelligence training scared the beeswax out of me. But I found nobody else with his level of extreme skepticism toward the field of cognitive training. He seems personally offended by the idea, as though other researchers are trying to pull the wool over the rest of us. Perhaps Randy is right and everybody else is wrong. But it sure didn’t seem that way to the many other researchers I interviewed.

How did Engle’s views on the malleability of intelligence change throughout your investigation?

He started out by noticing some problems in a major 2008 paper by Susanne Jaeggi, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He described these problems in detail in scientific papers and at meetings.  He published a couple papers finding no benefits from training. Then he published papers attacking Cogmed, a form of computerized working-memory training offered by psychologists. Since then, however, Randy has published a paper showing that training one kind of working memory does benefit other kinds of working memory. And he has stated at scientific meetings that he does believe that it’s possible to improve attention through training. So his views have evolved, although he remains intensely critical of some of the published literature.

You spoke to K. Anders Ericsson, who studies the development of expertise. Does he think that cognitive training increases in intelligence are irrelevant to the development of world-class expertise?

Ericsson believes that the benefits you get from practice apply only to the specific skill you’re practicing. He published studies showing that even if you practiced memory tricks to learn how to remember a hundred random numbers in a row, you still were no better at remembering a hundred letters in a row, or anything else. In the lingo of psychologists, he believes that training doesn’t “transfer.” Malcolm Gladwell made Ericsson famous in “Outliers” by describing his so-called “law” of 10,000 hours of practice. Ericsson has published studies suggesting that talent doesn’t matter, and that the only thing that does matter is practicing for 10,000 hours in order to become an expert. Whether you want to be a concert pianist or a world-class chess player or anything else, supposedly all you need to do is practice for 10,000 hours and then you’ll be a master.

What do you think of Ericsson’s perspective?

Ericsson’s claims have not been supported by other researchers who have found that talent does matter, and that training in certain tasks does result in “transfer” to improvements in other abilities. Some chess grandmasters practiced for much less than 10,000 hours before they reached the top, whereas other people can practice for much more than 10,000 hours and still not make it. The same is true of intelligence as a trait. Just because you study and study and study doesn’t mean you’re going to get into Harvard. We all know that. Some people are smarter than others. The real question is whether you can increase your intelligence so that the hard work you put in will pay off better.

What kind of effect does cognitive training have on the brain?

There is no question that training causes structural and functional improvement in the brain, as seen on MRI. Most of the changes are seen in the frontal areas of the brain, where high-level thinking occurs. Mindfulness meditation, for instance, has been shown to produce increased white-matter connections between the anterior cingulate cortex, an important region for complex decision-making, and the rest of the brain.

What cognitive functions did you find are most trainable?

Working memory is the ability to juggle multiple items of attention, to manipulate and analyze information. If you try to multiple 26 by 37 in your head, the reason it’s so hard is because of the demands it puts on your working memory. Tons of studies, including the latest one by Randy Engle, show that by training on certain kinds of working-memory tasks, you can improve your working memory overall. This is profoundly important for your ability to multi-task and think through complicated problems.

What interventions are the most effective in improving cognitive ability?

Working-memory training has proved really useful, although exactly which kinds of working-memory tasks are most useful remains unclear. Susanne Jaeggi has focused on the N-back task, which anyone can check out online at www.soakyourbrain.com.  Others prefer various other kinds of working-memory tasks. But plenty of research also shows that physical exercise, learning a musical instrument, and mindfulness meditation can all bring significant benefits. One of the coolest parts of my training was learning to play the Renaissance lute.

Teenagers everywhere want to know: are there any cognitive benefits of first-person shooter games?

Absolutely. These games are so good at improving reaction times that they are used by the U.S. military to train pilots and operators of drones. These games can also improve the “useful field of view,” your ability to see and respond to stimuli at the periphery of your vision, which is incredibly important when driving a vehicle. Other computerized games have been shown to improve older people’s ability to distinguish very fine differences in shades of gray. Strangely, this ability has been shown to be one of the single most important markers of longevity. So if you get better at it, will you actually live longer? That’s not yet clear. But improving your ability to see and respond to your environment can be potentially lifesaving.

How important is exercise?

Research has proved beyond doubt that the brain is actually connected to the heart and lungs via something called the “neck.” Physical exercise is perhaps the best-proved method for improving cognitive function in older people. It’s also critical for children and middle-aged sloths. Some researchers believe that cardiovascular exercise is best, while others insist that strength training is more important.

What about vitamins? Which one should take the most of if I want to think more quickly? Or should I just continue to drink lots and lots of caffeine?

I know that many people believe in the benefits of vitamins and dietary supplements. But there are no good studies showing that any of them really help cognitive function. Large studies of fish oil given to pregnant women have even suggested that there might be some risks to the intellectual abilities of their children. Caffeine, on the other hand, has been repeatedly shown to enhance not just attention, but motivation and even, most recently, memory. And if you can believe it, nicotine also helps. Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco are of course extremely dangerous and greatly increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and much more. But studies in both humans and animals confirm that nicotine, given through a patch or gum, can be a great cognitive enhancer. I actually started using a 7 mg nicotine patch and found it useful, without any noticeable addictiveness.

Can mindfulness meditation make you smarter? What cognitive functions are most affected by mindfulness meditation?

A series of studies by Michael Posner and Yi-Yuan Tang have shown that mindfulness meditation can enhance all kinds of cognitive abilities. Mind-wandering is not helpful when you’re trying to write an article or take a test. On the other hand, some recent studies have suggested that allowing your mind to wander can also be helpful when you need a breakthrough. Some of the greatest scientific insights have occurred when scientists were spacing out.

How transferable are improvements in specific cognitive functions to intelligence more generally?

It’s easy for psychologists to give you a series of tests, have you practice some exercises, and then run follow-up tests to see if you improve better than people who didn’t do those exercises. But figuring out what the real-world benefits are to those improvements is much, much harder. A recent study of older adults given just ten hours of training found that even ten years later, they still enjoyed significant benefits in daily functioning. A hundred years of studies have proved that IQ tests and other tests of cognitive function are very, very predictive of real-world abilities. They’re not perfect—no test is—but on average, just like blood-pressure tests, they’re pretty good at predicting how you’ll do in the future. Many large corporations, as well as the U.S. military, give these tests not because they love tests, but because they really help pick out people who can be successful from those who just lack the ability to learn and function.

If a person increases their IQ score by 40%, do you think that means they are 40% smarter?

If a person with an IQ of 85 increases his or her score by 40%, it would then be 119. Some part of that improvement might be just that the person is now better at taking tests. But some portion is also likely going to represent an increase in their real-world intelligence. On average–and only on average–that person should then be better able to handle college-level courses, to make inferences, learn from experience, and work in a complex environment. Of course, hard work and diligence still make an enormous difference in how well people actually do in life. But the whole point of cognitive training is to help them in real life–not just to improve a score on a test. Now very few researchers would claim that by training, you could increase your intelligence by 40 percent. That would be remarkable. But a number of studies have shown that the gains produced through training pay off in daily activities, so that they do, at some level, literally make people smarter.

Through training, how good at the n-back task did you become, and has that had any notable impact on your everyday life?

Like most people, I started out at 2-back and quickly reached 3-back. Eventually I mastered 4-back and occasionally succeeded at 5-back. I have since found myself working much more efficiently as a journalist, getting along better with my family and handling the many demands of life.

You had your IQ tested and it turned out to be quite high. But let’s say the test score happened to come out low. Would that have substantially changed your own perception of your intelligence? Would you have reassessed your options in life? Check yourself into the nearest institution and enjoy the free food and care?

Back in high school during the early 1970s, I went to a Free School without grades. There were no requirements and no tests. It was not even recognized by the state of New Jersey. I had to take the GED and SAT by myself in order to get into college. So I’ve never been a big believer in the meaning of tests, or the importance of putting a number on a person’s ability. Even so, it was scary for me to take those tests—but exciting too, kind of like the way a person would feel before jumping off a bridge attached to a bungee cord. I did not know in advance how I would do. I thought that perhaps I would still be the “slow learner” with a low IQ who has gotten this far in life just through hard work. Actually, I felt almost embarrassed at scoring high enough to qualify for membership in Mensa.

After you assess the results of your own cognitive training, you put it all in perspective by saying:

“And so what? Those are just numbers on a test. In the end, for all of us, the best test of cognitive abilities is one for which there is no answer key. It’s called life.”

I actually found that paragraph quite profound, and a bit of a turn from your defense of IQ-type intelligence in the first chapter. In what ways did your investigation change your views on intelligence, and the importance of IQ test scores?

I had the privilege while researching the book of meeting brain-injured veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Most of them had experienced “only” a mild TBI, but all of them had terrible problems at home, with their families, and on the job. Meeting them, and meeting other people facing serious cognitive problems, reminded me that intelligence is a matter of profound, real-life importance.  Even though intelligence tests can be a useful indicator of abilities, the tests themselves are not the point. This new field of science is aimed at helping people handle life better.

Do you regret entering the swamp?

Regret it?  I loved it. Trying to sense of this new field was exciting and fun. Testing out these methods on myself was exhilarating. Having the opportunity to convey an important new area of research to the public has been an honor. Plus, hey, I learned how to play the Renaissance lute.

© 2014 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved.

Note: For my own writings on the cognitive training literature, see here and here.

images credit: danhurley.com

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the measurement and development of imagination. His latest book is Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. theirmind 9:06 am 01/31/2014

    If I could choose stupid or smart, I would choose to maintain the current constant, that is, to maintain a little stupid enough.

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