Consummate dilettantism!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 1 of MIG

(Scroll down for a grueling, free, self-devised, completely safe, scientifically valid training regimen called MIG [Multiphasic Intelligence Growth] that will probably increase your intelligence*. No, I'm not kidding. I put a lot of time into writing this post and doing the necessary research and fact-checking, and I do hope you at least read it.)

My interest in increasing intelligence was sparked by a recent, groundbreaking study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that purports to show that increasing fluid intelligence (Gf) is possible. (Fluid intelligence, or Gf, is a component of general intelligence (g) that is related to problem-solving ability and working memory.) The study is the first to show that training can actually improve fluid intelligence (Gf) as measured by a standard test entirely unrelated to the training test. (Individuals' scores on IQ tests have been raised with practice, but only by practicing IQ tests. This study suggests that fluid intelligence itself can actually be raised with a few, albeit extremely cognitively demanding, hours of training.) It suggests, remarkably, that unlike other intensive tasks the Dual N-Back game actually, well, makes you smarter -- this has never been conclusively demonstrated before. Of course, certain caveats apply, but in the words of Yale's Robert Sternberg, "[n]one of these criticisms detracts from the central importance of the results of Jaeggi et al.'s study. On the contrary, they suggest that their study should and probably will be the first in a long series instigated by this pioneering research." Indeed, his most incisive suggestions are addressed by several studies that demonstrate that working memory can be improved dramatically with training, and that this improvement is largely attributable to long-lasting brain changes. These other studies did not measure Gf; perhaps if they had, they would have found similar results.

I began canvassing the literature and seeking other well-established methods that also claim to raise intelligence. I have come to the conclusion that there are two others that when used in concern with the N-Back game will likely do so:

1. Aerobic exercise. One study shows that aerobic exercise improves the cognitive abilities of the elderly, while another suggests that it improves creative potential. A very nice summary of the research to date provides additional evidence that aerobic exercise is indeed causally linked to increases in intelligence. And a dissertation titled "The effect of aerobic exercise on fluid intelligence" may show the same; unfortunately, it is not accessible on the internet. Mens sana in corpore sano!

2. Diet. A veritable battery of studies proves that what you eat and drink can improve cognition. In the article linked to above, evidence is presented that certain foods can increase certain types of intelligence. Moderate consumption of alcohol and possibly marijuana may increase neurogenesis, or the generation of neurons, while fat and sugar intake is detrimental thereto. Chocolate, or more precisely epicatechin, has been "shown to improve spatial memory in mice, especially among those that exercised." A study published in Nature outlines the role of food in brain function. A summary in The Economist will tell you what you need to know: Antioxidants (found in berries), omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish), folic acid (found in high concentrations in spinach, orange juice, and marmite!) and vitamin E (found in green, leafy vegetables) all improve cognitive abilities to some extent. But there is little evidence that taking supplements of these as a healthy adult will increase intelligence; be sure, however, that you do not lack any in your diet.

Meditation initially looked promising, but many of the studies that find benefits, however, are somewhat esoteric. Additionally, almost all of the studies that do report positive results tend to do so over months and years. The most promising of all is one study, published in the journal Intelligence, that finds that "[transcendental meditation] practice produced significant effects on all variables [including IQ] compared to no-treatment controls." "Transcendental meditation," however, is a proprietary technique that costs about $2,500. It is somewhat controversial, and there may be serious problems with the research, which is usually conducted (as here) by members of TM-affiliated organizations and universities. It is also somewhat time consuming; to realize the apparent effect you must meditate anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes per day for up to a year.

This is the routine that I have developed and will follow for a month, after which time I will report on my subjective mental state:

1. I will complete 25 minutes' worth of n-back sessions per day for 4 or 5 days per week with a free, open-source n-back program that closely imitates the conditions of the original study.
2. I will perform a vigorous aerobic activity (jogging) for 30 minutes per day, as recommended by the United States federal government.
3. I will endeavor to reduce my consumption of saturated fats and sugars and to increase my consumption of vegetables and complex starches. This is facilitated by the abundance of such foods, which would ordinarily be more expensive to consume, in the dining halls of my university.

I will not be taking any intelligence tests either before or after, but will instead choose to "report on my subjective mental state." Obviously there is some danger of succumbing to placebo, but I have become quite adept at avoiding this trap.

Doubt I can follow it? Return to this blog in a month for my full report. I do not lie and I do not cheat, and when I pledge to the world my allegiance to MIG, I mean it.

*If followed properly, of course. Whether the increase will be permanent is another matter, but the evidences presented here suggest that it will be long-lasting.

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