Wednesday 26 December 2012

How to boost your IQ

Intelligence is sometimes disparaged in refined circles, but there’s always a market for anything which boosts IQ. Some of the most popular offers are effort-free: pills which contain fish oil or stimulants, tricks which boost memory, and simple ways of reading much faster. These draw in gullible crowds, who soon lose interest and move on to other pastimes. Of course, getting a free lunch is an understandable strategy. In Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Jude is extremely disappointed to find out that books that teach you how to speak a foreign language do no such thing. He imagined they would reveal a set of tricks, and was dismayed to see they required large amounts of learning and repetition. Like Jude, most of us would like to find the shortcut to brilliance.

Of greater interest are the approaches which demand a lot of effort.  For example, most people can remember 7 digits, plus or minus 2, as Miller’s famous paper put it. A good digit span test, with plenty of trials, is a very efficient, quick and dirty IQ test. Anyone who cannot remember more than 3 digits forwards very probably has severe learning difficulties. At the other end of the spectrum, high digits-forwards do not predict high intelligence very well. Some duller respondents simply have larger short term memory stores. (However, digits-backwards is a much better predictor of ability. Something about the extra difficulty of holding digits in memory while repeating them back in reverse order is more taxing, and more IQ demanding). Can the apparently fixed ability to deal with forwards digits be boosted?

There is a technique, though it takes an enormous effort to learn it. Digits can be learned in small groups and given a code. Thus, digit data get “chunked” and those chunks are remembered, and once unpacked they are converted back into the sequence of digits, so the end result is a higher effective digit span. Few people bother to do this (it takes about 20 months to perfect) and even those that succeed with digits get no advantage when tested with words. With great effort they have mastered a chunking task, but they have only advanced on a narrow front, and haven’t really increased their short term memory. Learning how to chunk notes is essential for music performance, chunking spatial configurations essential for chess, chunking apparently disparate symptoms essential for medical diagnosis, and chunking clues essential for forensic detection. Becoming an expert in any subject requires that you understand the underlying form by over-training in pattern recognition.

Nonetheless, if there was a way of training memory or attention and thus becoming permanently more intelligent it would be an attractive prospect. This high effort condition attracts hardier individuals, probably believers in what used to be called Protestant Self-Improvement (the sort of people who improve their French vocabulary while driving to work).

Does it work? Can one find a training result which generalises from a specific skill to general intelligence?
There is one technique which has come up with promising results. Under the acronym of N-back it combines plausibility with enormous effort, the key requirements of fanaticism. As an aside, any person who volunteers for a demanding and pointless task has to deal with cognitive dissonance: either “the task was useless and I am an idiot for having persisted with it OR the task seemed useless but I derived great benefit from it”. In Social Psychology this dilemma is called effort justification. Make the entry ritual to a group absolutely disgusting (humiliation, abasement and ingestion of foul substances) and the poor victims value membership more highly than if entry is a formality. Useless psychological therapies have their committed adherents, particularly when the premises are silly and the sessions are expensive.  Even training women in a pointless monitoring task helps them lose weight, presumably because they have to justify their efforts, and might as well do so by sticking to the recommended diets.

Back to N-back. Training starts with 2-back. A string of letters is presented continuously and all the subject has to do it to indicate which of those letters they saw 2 back in the sequence. Call it remembering what happened two verbal items ago. The visual version of 2 back is to remember in which quadrant of the visual field the target item appeared two items ago. So far, so gentle. Next, both tasks are done simultaneously, so you have to remember letters two back whilst you are also remembering visual positions two back. This is very much harder. Susanne Jaeggi (University of Maryland) proposed this variant in 2003 and has been publishing thereafter on results which seem to show a positive boost to fluid intelligence. Now comes the sadistic part. None of this is of any use to man or beast till you can get the poor subjects trained up to 4-back, and preferably 5-back. Keeping subjects motivated is a challenge. Roberto Colom (University of Madrid) managed to train 28 Spanish women up to 5-back, but these improvements in their working memory did not boost their fluid intelligence.

As Doug Detterman, a veteran of intelligence research observed: "We want IQ boosting to work, but we have been disappointed so often that we are cautious of any claimed result".

By the way, before entirely closing the door on IQ boosting as a pastime, it may simply be too late to do anything with adults. Craig Ramey (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) has shown in the Abecedarian project that massive early childhood intervention before age 5 seems to boost intelligence. Carrying on till age 8 adds nothing to the effects. The effect of training fades quickly over the years, but the residual effect lasts, and confers advantage. Despite this approach being the best validated of the child IQ boosting trials, contemporary replications are few. Ramey describes his own success as being due to his making it clear to his teachers that his aim was not to provide them with a job, but to require them to achieve a specified result. Most recently, he said he could do this for $11,000 per child. This is something to return to, but what avenues remain for adults who want to boost their intelligence?

Why not accept that the power of your central processor has some natural limits? In which skills should you invest your mental energies, so that you can stand on the shoulders of giants? If you want to invest 24 sessions of hard intellectual work, I suggest you do a course on statistics. In 24 sessions you should be able to cover basic descriptive statistics, the analysis of variance, path analysis, factor analysis and Bayes’ theorem. Then the world is your playground. The world cheats those who cannot count.

Perhaps we should all make it our new year’s resolution.

Happy New Year!


  1. IQ is of interest because measured IQs roughly correlate with various abilities in life, and correlate with the sorts of jobs people can do.

    Is there any evidence that extra IQ, as achieved in the ways you describe, correlates with anything useful?

  2. Some evidence from the N-back procedure, and also from the original Abecedarian study (Ramey et al)

  3. What can these dual-N-back-skilled freaks do that you and I can't?

    1. In those studies with positive results, these skilled freaks have higher fluid intelligence, which is the best thing to have, particularly early in life