Can you get smarter?
Can you train intelligence?
Crossword puzzles, Sudokus and numerous brain jogging programs are supposed to improve the result in an intelligence test. But for all Knobel fans, scientists have a sobering message: In the long term, increasing the intelligence quotient (IQ) in adulthood is hardly possible.
It is different with children and adolescents. You build thinking skills and knowledge mainly through schooling. Assuming ideal support, they will have exhausted their individual intelligence potential by around 20 years of age. However, this only affects one of two components of intelligence: fluid intelligence (see box). By this, psychologists understand how quickly and flexibly we can process information. We need fluid intelligence in order to apply knowledge and skills, the so-called crystalline intelligence, effectively. What someone achieves in life is therefore a function of both intelligence components.
What is intelligence
Intelligence (Latin: intellegere = understand, recognize) describes the ability to think. It is made up of different sub-areas, for example logical reasoning, arithmetic, spatial imagination and memory.
Many psychologists divide intelligence into two components: fluid and crystalline intelligence. While the fluid part describes the flexibility with which we work on tasks and adapt to new requirements, crystalline intelligence includes the knowledge and skills acquired by a person.
The intelligence test uses the intelligence quotient (IQ) to put the individual result in relation to the general public. An IQ of 100 describes average intelligence. 50 percent of people have an IQ of 90 to 110. Only 2.5 percent are above 130 and are considered highly gifted. However, classic IQ tests do not measure intelligence components such as social and emotional competence.
Fluid abilities gradually decline from around mid-30s. Then it is still possible to improve in a certain task, for example in solving Sudoku. But such training only ever affects the mental processes that are necessary for this or similar exercises. Anyone who becomes a professional in crossword puzzles does not automatically sharpen their sense of numbers. Psychologists would say: The so-called remote transfer effect does not occur - i.e. the transfer of a specific increase in performance to the general ability to think.
Intelligence researchers are looking for effective training
This contradicts the findings of a research group led by Susanne Jäggi from the University of Michigan. In 2008, the scientists believed they had developed fluid intelligence training for adults. Targeted exercises for working memory should therefore have an effect on the IQ. Test subjects had to memorize the positions of boxes that lit up one after the other on a computer screen. As soon as a box appeared in the same place as the last but one, you should press a button. Then the psychologists continuously increased the difficulty of the task. It was now a matter of comparing the current position with that of three laps ago and so on. In addition, the test subjects had to memorize the letters they had played through headphones. Lo and behold: The double burden didn't just seem to expand working memory. The IQ values of the test subjects had also improved considerably after a few weeks of training. A sensation!
But soon many scientists reported criticism. They repeated the investigation using stricter methods - with disappointing results. It is true that the test subjects constantly improved their working memory. However, a transfer of this effect to fluid intelligence has not been confirmed.
Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at a research facility in Cambridge, came to the same conclusion in 2010. More than 11,000 test persons had previously trained their memory, reasoning and visuospatial skills online for six weeks. The performance of each individual had actually improved over time - but only in the known tasks. When the subjects were asked to take other, similar tests, they were no better than average.
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