Daily Archives: June 1, 2008

Get Smarter – Part II

In my last post, I covered the recent Wired article that talked about how you might Get Smarter with 12 Hacks That Will Amp Up Your Brainpower. Today, I’m going to cover the companion article – 6 Intelligence Myths Exposed – which is even better. Not everything makes you smarter. And when you get right down to it, relatively speaking, very little does.

  • Playing Brain Age
    Even though regular players routinely see their “brain age” plummet from a sluggish 60 to a taut 30, there is no evidence that in-game gains translate to a real world intelligence gain. Besides, there’s a much more rational explanation of why brain age scores improve with time. Many users start with little gaming experience. Therefore, in a phenomenon known as the practice effect, it’s not surprising that their scores improve with more experience. After all, if preparation can help you do better on an IQ test, shouldn’t it also help you do better on a game? It doesn’t mean that the effort made you smarter, it just means you learned how to score higher on a test with a fixed, known, scoring system.
  • Doing Crosswords
    Now, mad-cow Denny Crane may have swore by them, as will those who do them daily, but there’s no evidence that they actually slow down cognitive decline, as the puzzlers claim. Remember The Brain’s lesson: correlation IS NOT causation. Chances are the people doing these puzzles are those into intellectual pursuits who increase their brain power, or at least decrease the rate of intellectual decline, through other methods.
  • Eating Fish
    Now it is true that oily fish are rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that accounts for 40% of the makeup of brain cell membranes, and true that more could improve neurotransmission, but despite the fact that a handful of studies have linked fish-heavy diets with reduced risk of mental decline in old age, laboratory tests on mice have found that omega-3 rich diets have no impact on cognitive function. Moreover, cold-water fish high in omega-3’s are also likely to have elevated levels of methylmercury and PCBs – neurotoxins! So, they might help, but chances are just as good that those neurotoxins will do more harm than good.
  • Chewing Gum
    The rationale behind this doozy is that chewing increases blood flow to the motor cortex and can trick the brain into expecting a meal. This triggers an increase in insulin production that could boost cerebral glucose levels – and maybe even smarts. Too bad that a 2004 study found gum chewers to be less attentive than a control group!
  • Listening to Music
    Music can certainly expand your mind, but can it really improve focus and memory? Although companies like iMusic and the Monroe Institute that produce binaural recordings (that they charge a significant sum for) claim that it can, a recent study at Oregon Health & Science University that subjected test subjects to a binaural pulse in the theta band (that is linked to working memory) showed no change in brain wave activity on the EEG. What’s more, they became depressed and forgetful! (And if that’s what you want, a $5 used Celine Dion CD will induce the same effect!)
  • Taking Supplements
    The supplements industry claims its products can boost your intelligence – but let’s hope those claims aren’t enough to convince you not to check out their foundations, because they don’t work. In summary:
    • B Vitamins might help stave off Alzheimer’s, or for those of us in the middle (prime) of life, amnestic MCI, but that’s it
    • Ginkgo Biloba might help reduce the effects of dementia in your sunset years, but no more
    • Gingseng might regulate glucose, which might improve mental condition, but that’s a whole lotta maybe
    • Gotu Kola reduces anxiety in rats, so, if you’re an anxious rat …
    • Huperzine A showed a small memory improvement in one isolated study … but it’s almost always possible to find one study (on two test subjects) that appears to support an outrageous claim