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Can Intelligence Be Trained? Martin Buschkuehl shows how

Today I had a great con­ver­sa­tion with Mar­tin Buschkuehl, one of the Uni­ver­sity Martin Buschkuehl of Michi­gan Cog­ni­tive Neu­roimag­ing Lab researchers  involved in the cog­ni­tive train­ing study that has received much media atten­tion (New York Times, Wired, Sci­ence News…) since late April, when the study was pub­lished at the Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sciences.

Ref­er­ence: 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 of the United States of Amer­ica, 105(19), 6829–6833 (You can read it here, with subscription).

Before you keep read­ing, let me clar­ify a cou­ple of terms:

- “Work­ing Mem­ory” is the abil­ity to hold sev­eral units of infor­ma­tion in our minds and manip­u­late them in real time. For exam­ple, imag­ine I ask you to remem­ber, and then say back­wards, the 7 dig­its of my phone number.

- “Fluid intel­li­gence” can be described as the abil­ity to deal with new chal­lenges and new prob­lems, those that we encounter for the first time.

Dr. Buschkuehl, nice to talk to you. Can you first pro­vide us with some con­text on your research?

My col­lab­o­ra­tor Susanne Jaeggi and I started our train­ing work four years ago in the Lab of Prof. Wal­ter Per­rig at the Uni­ver­sity of Bern, Switzer­land. Now we are both Post Docs in Prof. John Join­des Lab at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan. We devel­oped a com­plex com­put­er­ized task and have tried it in a num­ber of stud­ies. We reported our results in two unpub­lished dis­ser­ta­tions, but this is the first time it has been pub­lished in a peer-reviewed journal.

Could you please explain the train­ing involved in this par­tic­u­lar study?

We recruited 70 stu­dents aged around 26 years and set half of them on a chal­leng­ing computer-based cog­ni­tive train­ing reg­i­men, based on the so-called “n-back task.” This is a very com­plex work­ing mem­ory task that involves the simul­ta­ne­ous pre­sen­ta­tion of visual and audi­tory stim­uli. The exper­i­men­tal group watched a series of screens on their com­put­ers, where a blue square appeared in var­i­ous posi­tions on a black back­ground. Each screen appeared for half a sec­ond, with a 2.5 sec­ond gap before the next one appeared. While this hap­pened, the trainees also heard a series of let­ters that were read out at the same rate. task.jpg

At first, stu­dents had to say if either the screen or the let­ter matched those that popped up two cycles ago. The num­ber of cycles increased or decreased depend­ing on how well the stu­dents per­formed the task. The stu­dents sat through about twenty-five min­utes of train­ing per day for either 8, 12, 17 or 19 days, and were tested on their fluid intel­li­gence before and after the reg­i­men using the Bochumer-Matrizen Test (this is a problem-solving task based on the same prin­ci­ple as the very well known Raven’s Advanced Pro­gres­sive Matri­ces. How­ever, it is more dif­fi­cult and there­fore espe­cially suited for aca­d­e­mic samples).

What were the results?

Par­tic­i­pants in the exper­i­men­tal group did sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter on the fluid intel­li­gence test (which was not directly trained) than par­tic­i­pants in the con­trol group. Those in the con­trol group had not gone through any train­ing. The con­trol group did improve slightly, but real “trainees” out­per­formed them (see Fig­ure Xa). Fur­ther­more, we found that the improve­ment was dose-dependent: the more they trained, the larger the gain on fluid intelligence.


Images: PNAS.

We just pub­lished a mar­ket report to cover the grow­ing brain fit­ness soft­ware mar­ket. A com­mon ques­tion we get is, “How are com­put­er­ized pro­grams like the one you used fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from, say, sim­ply doing many cross­word puzzles?

First, thank you for send­ing the report along. Fas­ci­nat­ing to see what is start­ing to hap­pen in this field.

In terms of why our pro­gram worked, I could say that the pro­gram has some inher­ent prop­er­ties that are at least in this com­bi­na­tion unique to our train­ing approach. Our pro­gram is:

  • Fully adap­tive in real-time: The per­son using the pro­gram is truly pushed to his or her peak level all the time, thereby “stretch­ing” the tar­geted ability.
  • Com­plex: We present a very com­plex task, mix­ing dif­fer­ent forms of stim­uli (audi­tory, visual) under time pressure.
  • Designed for Trans­fer­abil­ity: The tasks can be designed in a way that do not allow for the devel­op­ment of task-specific “strate­gies” to beat the game. One needs to truly expand capac­ity, and this helps ensure the trans­fer of to non-trained tasks.

This is very dif­fer­ent from enhanc­ing task-specific capac­i­ties, such as mem­o­riz­ing lists of 100 num­bers, which have been shown not to nec­es­sar­ily trans­fer to related domains.

Can you give an exam­ple of the lack of trans­fer­abil­ity of other train­ing methods?

In Ericsson’s clas­sic paper (Eric­s­son, K. A., & Delaney, P. F. (1998). Work­ing mem­ory and expert per­for­mance. In R. H. Logie & K. J. Gilhooly (Eds.), Work­ing Mem­ory and Think­ing (pp. 93–114). Hills­dale, NJ: Erl­baum), peo­ple who could mem­o­rize 100 num­bers, using a vari­ety of mnemotec­nic tech­niques, could not get even close to 100 let­ters. Remem­ber­ing num­bers didn’t trans­late into remem­ber­ing other things, so it wasn’t a gen­eral mem­ory capac­ity that had been improved.

What are the par­tic­u­lar aspects of the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan study that sur­prised you the most?

First, the clear trans­fer into fluid intel­li­gence, that many researchers and psy­chol­o­gists take as fixed.

Sec­ond, I was sur­prised to see that the more train­ing the bet­ter the out­come. The improve­ments did not seem to peak early.

Third, that all trained groups improved, no mat­ter their respec­tive start­ing points. In fact, stu­dents with low­est fluid intel­li­gence seemed to improve the most. But that was not the main focus of our study, so we can not say much more about it.

How did par­tic­i­pants describe the expe­ri­ence, and their benefits?

Many liked the train­ing. They saw the chal­lenge, and tried hard to push them­selves through the train­ing to see how far they could go.

We did not ana­lyze how the fluid intel­li­gence gains trans­ferred into real life. But from an anec­do­tal point of view, many par­tic­i­pants have shared sto­ries of how they per­ceive a major ben­e­fit. Now they can fol­low lec­tures more eas­ily, under­stand math bet­ter etc.

There is a degree of arti­fi­cial con­tro­versy these days in the media and the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity on the respec­tive ben­e­fits of phys­i­cal or men­tal exer­cise. Your thoughts?

We obvi­ously need both. Phys­i­cal exer­cise keeps the body in a good shape but espe­cially in older peo­ple also leads to cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits. Men­tal exer­cise, like the one we used, can enhance impor­tant abil­i­ties and is most likely the most effi­cient way to improve a spe­cific cog­ni­tive process but also gen­er­al­izes to a broader range of skills, as we showed.

Research will need to help clar­ify who needs what type of exer­cise more. Some peo­ple may get enough men­tal exer­cise through very com­plex jobs and what they need is phys­i­cal exer­cise. For oth­ers, it may be the opposite.

What are your plans now?

First, to con­duct follow-up research to ana­lyze the neural basis of the improve­ment via neu­roimag­ing stud­ies and try to mea­sure ben­e­fits in real life.

But our main hope is to be able to inves­ti­gate and develop appli­ca­tions for peo­ple who need it most: chil­dren with devel­op­ment prob­lems, stroke/ TBI rehab, and older adults.

Also, let me note that there is a cross-platform appli­ca­tion avail­able (Note: Here), that allows to train with the dual n-back task and sev­eral other train­ing tasks that we devel­oped for other stud­ies. Although the appli­ca­tion is avail­able in Eng­lish, the Man­ual and the Brain­Twister Web­site are not at the moment. We are about to release an Eng­lish ver­sion, but unfor­tu­nately I can­not give you a release date right now. If the train­ing pro­gram is used for research (i.e. a train­ing study), it is pro­vided free of charge.

Mar­tin, many thanks for shar­ing your time and insights with us. Please keep us informed of new developments.

My plea­sure. We will.


Ref­er­ence: 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 of the United States of Amer­ica, 105(19), 6829–6833 (You can read it here, with subscription).

For related inter­views on work­ing mem­ory train­ing, see

Mem­ory train­ing and atten­tion deficits: inter­view with Notre Dame’s Bradley Gibson

Work­ing Mem­ory Train­ing: Inter­view with Dr. Torkel Klingberg

Work­ing Mem­ory Train­ing from a pedi­a­tri­cian perspective

And, if you want to try the task your­self before the offi­cial web­site men­tioned above is ready (and we’ll keep you updated), you can do so Here.

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11 Responses

  1. […] Maybe we should begin think­ing of learn­ing as more than just a psy­cho­log­i­cal event. An arti­cle on the Sharp­Brains blog, Can Intel­li­gence Be Trained? pro­vides evi­dence that fluid intel­li­gence, the abil­ity to deal with new prob­lems, may be influ­enced by exer­cis­ing work­ing memory. […]

  2. dg says:

    hello.……i’m 88.… it still pos­si­ble for me to train the brain…even at this age i just love to be inquis­i­tive.…. about everything!!.…..thanks

  3. Alvaro says:

    Hello Dg! of course it is pos­si­ble! evry day you main­tain that curios­ity, you learn new things, you mas­ter new skills, you are stim­u­lat­ing your brain! check out this arti­cle on Ten Impor­tant Truths About Aging

  4. […] A recent sci­en­tific study is being wel­comed as a land­mark that shows how fluid intel­li­gence can be improved through train­ing. I inter­viewed one of the researchers recently (Can Intel­li­gence Be Trained? Mar­tin Buschkuehl shows how), and con­trib­u­tor Dr. Pas­cale Mich­e­lon adds her own take with the great arti­cle that fol­lows. Enjoy! […]

  5. james a. bellanca says:

    I recently dis­cov­ered your web­site. I am happy to see it. How­ever, I am dis­ap­pointed to see that you make no ref­er­ence to the work of Israeli cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist, Rueven Feuer­stein. In the early 60’s, his words caused a furor with Amer­i­can edu­ca­tors when he dared to sug­gest the fluid and plac­tic mind and
    its role in chang­ing intel­li­gence. His the­o­ries of struc­tural cog­ni­tive mod­i­fi­a­bil­ity and the medi­ated learn­ing expe­ri­ence along with the applied sys­tems for chang­ing the intel­lec­tual per­for­mance of spe­cial needs, chil­dren of poverty, brain dam­aged sol­diers and oth­ers have shown their effec­tive­ness in schools and clin­ics around the world. The use of his applied sys­tems to change minds pro­vides, I believe, a gold­mine of research­able meth­ods to iden­tify the most effec­tive prac­tices not only for young per­sons, but also for seniors. Of spe­cial note in Feuerstein’s sys­tems is the way he takes mind devel­op­ment well beyond the mem­ory to medi­ate the devel­op­ment of cog­ni­tive func­tions
    (e.g. pre­ci­sion, using mul­ti­ple sources of data, logic) and oper­a­tions (e.g. clas­si­fi­ca­tion, hypoth­e­sis test­ing, com­par­ing).
    You will find a more com­plete intro to his work at

  6. Erik says:

    My wife and I have looked at this pro­to­col and devel­oped a web appli­ca­tion that imple­ments it. It’s freely avail­able, and it’s at:

  7. Alvaro says:

    Hello James:

    Thanks for stop­ping by. Please don’t “be dis­s­a­pointed”. It doesn’t help any­one. You don’t hear us talk much about Vygot­sky or Luria, either, sim­ply because we focus on cur­rent research and cur­rent appli­ca­tions, which obvi­ously often build on pre­vi­ous researchers’ work.

    Feel free to share with us spe­cific sci­en­tific ref­er­ences for us to take a look at. What you say sounds very inter­est­ing, but, again, we are not a his­tor­i­cal site, but one that looks at lat­est tri­als and programs.

    What spe­cific pro­grams are being used today based on Dr. Feuerstein’s work? what recent clin­i­cal tri­als have been pub­lished on their efficacy?

    Look­ing for­ward to hear­ing from you!

  8. SwedishChef says:

    Here is a link to a group that dis­cusses dual n-back expe­ri­ences, suc­cesses, prob­lems, and FREE resources for the dual n-back exercise!


  9. Sabrina Anderson says:

    My 9 yr old has HFA/Aspergers and sever work­ing mem­ory issues.…cogmed was rec­om­mended but I’m hold­ing out for some­thing with more range/variety..please keep me posted on any new devel­ope­ments or studies.

  10. Alvaro says:

    Sab­rina, a trained neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist is the best per­son to know how to help your child.

    In order to be informed of lat­est research or pro­gram announce­ments, you can sim­ply sub­scribe to our newslet­ter (again, it will be your kid’s neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist the one best placed to put any news in perspective).


  11. […] Finally, a few months back I inter­viewed Mar­tin Buschkuehl, after his team pub­lished a study show­ing how com­put­er­ized work­ing mem­ory train­ing can enhance fluid intel­li­gence. One ques­tion was “How are com­put­er­ized pro­grams like the one you used fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from, say, sim­ply doing many cross­word puzzles?”. […]

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