Tuesday 6 January 2015

Creative memories

Perhaps I am slightly jaundiced about the benefits of memory, because my traumatised patients were trying so hard to forget, but the dream of boosting one’s intelligence never dies, and expanding one’s memory is seen as the royal path to that special power.

So, what can be achieved by training people in the N-back technique? You may have already guessed that my calm and balanced view is that the whole enterprise is a colossal waste of time which would be better spent learning how to play the cello.

Oshin Vartanian lives in Toronto, a city with a high tower with a glass floor where, if one is so inclined, one can dance with women one has never met purely for the vertiginous pleasure of waltzing over the streets which are clearly and terrifyingly visible very far below. My compliments to the unknown lady with whom I danced, and her wise word: “Just dance, and don’t look down”.

Here, as promised, is Oshin’s Powerpoint presentation:


Here is one of the papers on which his talk was based, published in the journal Neuroscience in 2013. Briefly, he found that a short regimen of WM training was associated with greater neural efficiency during engagement in a divergent thinking task, but not improved performance as measured by efficiency.


He has an on-going study due to finish this week in which the team are testing the relative effectiveness of a 10-day training regimen on the adaptive dual n-back task (vs. non-adaptive dual n-back task) on divergent thinking—but this time measuring originality, flexibility and appropriateness in addition to fluency. They will also score all responses using the consensual assessment technique for the quality of responses which Paul Silvia described in his presentation (see earlier post).

From my point of view the sample sizes are too small, and I wouldn’t bother to put any of these heads in a scanner, simply because reliable results require sample sizes approaching 500 subjects. However, these slight but significant results for N back keep alive the dream that you, by learning to remember pointless things which happened a few moments ago, might conceivably become more fluid in your intelligence and might even become more creative in your cello improvisations.

However, don’t use the N-back technique to learn to play the cello. Get a good music teacher, preferably one not interested in neuro-psychology.


  1. "From my point of view the sample sizes are too small... simply because reliable results require sample sizes approaching 500 subjects."

    What makes you say this? Even a modest effect size like r = .3 doesn't require a sample size of 200 to achieve a power of .95 for a good, low alpha like .01. Sample sizes of 100 are usually quite sufficient, so long as the instruments are sensitive and the effect size large enough to be worth bothering with. The only time I can imagine needing n = 500 is for something like a large-scale principal components analysis where many, many factors are being extracted.

  2. "So long as the instruments are sensitive" rather than a post-factual fishing expedition conducted on scans where there is no agreed method of establishing what constitutes a reliable observation of brain activity.

  3. Memories are the most beautiful events of life. You can always thought about them as lighter moments when you feel sad.