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Brain training games improve memory and multitasking but DON’T boost intelligence

By Victoria Woollaston
PUBLISHED: 09:22 EST, 9 October 2013 | UPDATED: 09:22 EST, 9 October 2013

• Brain training games found to improve someone’s ability to recall facts
• Yet study finds they have no positive effect on problem solving or reason

Despite claims made by the manufacturers, brain training computer games don’t actually make you smarter, according to a new study.

Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology found playing the games can help improve someone’s ability to multitask by increasing their ‘working memory capacity’ (WMC).

However, they have no positive effect on boosting the kind of intelligence needed to reason and solve problems.

Professor Engle studied 55 Georgia students during a 20-day brain boot camp. He used certain cognitive tasks to see if the games had any effect on improving either WMC or ‘general fluid intelligence’.

WMC helps people hold more information and access it selectively at any one time, while fluid intelligence is used to gauge relationships, carry out complex reasoning, and solve unfamiliar problems.

Some believe that similarities between the two mean improving one will improve the other. However, Professor Engel explained: ‘This assumes that the two constructs are the same thing, or that WMC is the basis for fluid intelligence.’

Just because working memory and intelligence are both used to complete tasks, Engle added it doesn’t mean that they are directly linked.

‘Height and weight in human beings are also strongly correlated, but few reasonable people would assume that height and weight are the same variable.

HOW WERE THE PARTICIPANTS TESTED?
Professor Engle put the participants through a number of brain training tasks known as simple and complex ‘span’ tasks.
For the simple tasks they were shown items and asked to recall them in the order they saw them.
For complex tasks they were asked to remember the items while carrying out another task in between rounds.
A control group trained on a visual search task.
Each day the tasks got harder, so to keep the participants engaged with the ‘training’ they were paid extra for any gains in performance.
Only the group who trained with the complex games were better at other working memory tasks, while none of the groups showed any benefit at all for their fluid intelligence.

‘If they were, gaining weight would make you taller and losing weight would make you shorter – those of us who gain and lose weight periodically can attest to the fact that that is not true.’

Georgia Tech scholar Tyler Harrison, who led the study, continued: ‘For over 100 years, psychologists have argued that general memory ability cannot be improved, that there is little or no generalization of ‘trained’ tasks to ‘untrained’ tasks.

‘So we were surprised to see evidence that new and untrained measures of working memory capacity may be improved with training on complex span tasks.’