General intelligence measured by valid IQ has been defined in many different ways (review). It can be defined as follows:
the capacity to think, to solve novel problems, to reason and to have knowledge of the world.
How smart you are – your cognitive ability and performance – can potentially be improved by a number of neuroplasticity strategies, including working memory training, learning new thinking skills (‘mindware’), nootropics (phytochemicals, supplements and smart drugs), exercise, intermittent fasting, meditation, and tDCS. In this blog article I review three of these. Other strategies can be found here.
The Value Of A High IQ
There are many reasons why a high IQ is valued – reasons which may be purely personal. Here I simply want to touch on IQ in the context of our professional lives.
Being smart is ‘cognitive capital’ in our complex, high-tech, knowledge economy – in education, training and employment.
A high IQ is key to strategic thinking in which planning, decision-making and problem solving unfolds in the midst of complexity and uncertainty. IQ is thus of prime value for professionals and entrepreneurs who are strategizing and problem solving in far from stable environments. And the capacity to learn rapidly, and perform cognitively in a way that is efficient and effective, is premium.
The current economy has…
“…increased the importance of human capital. One element of human capital is cognitive ability: quickness of mind, the ability to infer and apply patterns drawn from experience, and the ability to deal with mental complexity. Another is character and social skills: self-discipline, persistence, responsibility. And a third is actual knowledge. All of these are becoming increasingly crucial for success in the post-industrial marketplace.”
Professor Jerry Muller, March 2013, Foreign Affairs
IQ Increasing Technologies: A Review
This article reviews three of the most effective IQ-increasing interventions that have a firm scientific basis – a basis in experimental laboratories and the exacting standards of peer-reviewed scientific journals. The methods described below are part of the accumulated understanding of the scientific community about what can increase IQ – not just temporarily but long-term.
1. Brain Training Software
Far-reaching advances in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience over the past decade have identified a close link between frontal lobe ‘working memory’ circuitry, and fronto-parietal problem solving, self-control and fluid reasoning circuitry. Our working memory is used for holding information in mind (images, concepts, language, numbers) for brief periods while engaging in active, goal-focused thinking or comprehension, while screening out distracting information. Working memory has a limited capacity, and the bigger that capacity the more the cognitive ‘RAM’ power a person has for processing information – to make connections, generate alternatives, and grasp relationships. This brainpower lies at the core of being smart. If super brain Eddie Morra in Limitless changed one thing in his brain, it was his working memory circuitry!
Software has now been developed for selectively targeting working memory circuitry, resulting in long-term neuroplasticity changes increasing short-term memory capacity, problem solving ability, self-control and overall IQ. This software is often based on a training exercise called the n-back.
A large-scale review published in 2011 on the effectiveness of n-back working memory training concludes:
“core working memory training studies seem to produce far-reaching transfer effects, likely because they target domain-general mechanisms of working memory. The results of individual studies encourage optimism regarding the value of working memory training as a tool for general cognitive enhancement.”
Does working memory training work? Psychon Bull Rev 2011
In choosing an n-back working memory training application, ensure that you have a version the incorporates interference control training, and executive function (e.g. attention control) training. Recent research (article 1, article 2) show that there is a crucial link between intelligence and working memory is in interference control – the ability to filter out distracting information that attracts your attention. This is an executive function. N-back training programs on the market do often do not incorporate this feature.
i3 Mindware incorporates interference control and implements the most scientifically optimized version of this type of working memory training. For a less intensive program, you may also consider BrainHQ, and Brain Workshop.
2. Nootropics (‘Smart Drugs’)
The issue of using medication for cognitive enhancement is controversial, but I am not discussing the ethics of this type of intervention here.
Nootropics – also known as smart drugs, memory enhancers, cognitive enhancers and intelligence enhancers – are drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals (a product isolated or purified from foods)that are designed to improve cognitive functions such as memory, attention and intelligence. The use of nootropics for cognitive performance is widespread.
In January, the prestigious science journal Nature launched an informal survey into readers’ use of cognition-enhancing drugs, and found large-scale use (link). One in five respondents said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory.
In 2008, Nature ran a commentary on this topic: Towards responsible use of cognitive- enhancing drugs by the healthy. This article is well worth the time it takes to read. The authors outline the evidence in favor of the effectiveness of “smart drugs” and I will quote at length from the section “Paths to Enhancement” which reviews the nootropics known to boost brain power:
Ritalin and Adderall
Many of the medications used to treat psychiatric and neurological conditions also improve the performance of the healthy. The drugs most commonly used for cognitive enhancement at present are stimulants, namely Ritalin (methyphenidate) and Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts), and are prescribed mainly for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Because of their effects on the catecholamine system, these drugs increase executive functions in patients and most healthy normal people, improving their abilities to focus their attention, manipulate information in working memory and flexibly control their responses…
A newer drug, Modafinil (Provigil), has also shown enhancement potential. Modafinil is approved for the treatment of fatigue caused by narcolepsy, sleep apnoea and shift-work sleep disorder. It is currently prescribed off label for a wide range of neuropsychiatric and other medical conditions involving fatigue as well as for healthy people who need to stay alert and awake when sleep deprived, such as physicians on night call. In addition, laboratory studies have shown that modafinil enhances aspects of executive function in rested healthy adults, particularly inhibitory control. Unlike Adderall and Ritalin, however, modafinil prescriptions are not common, and the drug is consequently rare on the college black market. But anecdotal evidence and a readers’ survey both suggest that adults sometimes obtain modafinil from their physicians or online for enhancement purposes.
A modest degree of memory enhancement is possible with the ADHD medications just mentioned as well as with medications developed for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease such as Aricept (donepezil), which raise levels of acetylcholine in the brain. Several other compounds with different pharmacological actions are in early clinical trials, having shown positive effects on memory in healthy research subjects.
The authors focus at length on the potential risks and ethical concerns of using nootropic cognitive enhancers, but conclude:
Like all new technologies, cognitive enhancement can be used well or poorly. We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function. In a world in which human work spans and lifespans are increasing, cognitive enhancement tools — including the pharmacological — will be increasingly useful for improved quality of life and extended work productivity, as well as to stave off normal and pathological age related cognitive declines. Safe and effective cognitive enhancers will benefit both the individual and society.
3. Cortical Stimulation
A number of studies in the last few years have shown very promising results from applying electrical current to the brain using a technology known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). tDCS is a noninvasive technique in which a weak current is applied to the brain constantly over time to excite or inhibit the activity of neurons.
In late 2010, a group of researchers from University College London and Oxford University published astudy showing that tDCS applied to the parietal lobes enhanced a person’s mathematical ability selectively, without influencing other cognitive functions. The improvement was found to have persisted six months after the training, showing the IQ gain was long-lasting.
Earlier this year a study was published in Clinical Neurophysiology showing that tDCS of a the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) improves working memory functioning. The dlPFC is a region in the frontal lobes toward the top and side: hence dorso (top) and lateral (side). The researchers report that there was significant improvement in speed of performance following tDCS on an n-back working memory task.
In another study published earlier this year, a team at Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney demonstrated that tDCS can dramatically improve insight problem solving. Three times as many cortically stimulated individuals succeeded in solving puzzles needing creative insight. People find it difficult to think outside of the box because their problem solving ‘mind set’ becomes crystallized by past experience. By inhibiting the activity of the left temporal lobe, and stimulating activity in the right temporal lobe, this team changed the balance between the two hemispheres of the brain, leading to better release from mental sets and better creative insight. One of the team, Professor Snyder, believes brain boosting headgear could be widely used.
“The thinking cap of the future is not one that helps us to remember facts as the internet has solved that problem, but one that facilitates learning and unlearning mindsets. It’s all about being original.” Professor Snyder
Some of the most recent work on tDCS was presented in September this year by Professor Prof Heidi Johansen-Berg and her colleagues at Oxford University. They found that just ten minutes of motor cortex brain stimulation increases the speed of learning motor skills. In their study a musical keyboard sequence was the learning task.
“While the stimulation didn’t improve the participant’s best performance, the speed at which they reached their best was significantly increased.”
The researchers envisage the technique could be used to help in the training of athletes and suggest that the same method could be applied to other parts of the brain (such as the frontal or parietal cortex) to improve educational learning simply by positioning the electrodes in different locations so the current is focused on the correct area.
“The relative simplicity, low price (around £2,000 per unit), and portability of the technology may mean that, following further research, a device could be designed to be automated for use at home.”
Dave Asprey at Bulletproof Executive invited me to blog on this topic in which I have expertise. One of my research areas is IQ and methods for increasing it. In this article I have reviewed three technologies that have been shown to have a substantial IQ increasing effect by the exacting standards of peer-reviewed scientific research. The most effective technologies directly target working memory – the general purpose RAM power of our brain. They combine very effectively with other ‘cross-training’ methods for maximum neuroplasticity change.