Can You Make Yourself Smarter?
Early on a drab afternoon in January, a dozen third graders from the working-class suburb of Chicago Heights, Ill., burst into the Mac Lab on the ground floor of Washington-McKinley School in a blur of blue pants, blue vests and white shirts. Minutes later, they were hunkered down in front of the Apple computers lining the room’s perimeter, hoping to do what was, until recently, considered impossible: increase their intelligence through training.
Games based on N-back tests require players to remember the location of a symbol or the sound of a particular letter presented just before (1-back), the time before last (2-back), the time before that (3-back) and so on. Some researchers say that playing games like this may actually make us smarter.
“Can somebody raise their hand,” asked Kate Wulfson, the instructor, “and explain to me how you get points?”
On each of the children’s monitors, there was a cartoon image of a haunted house, with bats and a crescent moon in a midnight blue sky. Every few seconds, a black cat appeared in one of the house’s five windows, then vanished. The exercise was divided into levels. On Level 1, the children earned a point by remembering which window the cat was just in. Easy. But the game is progressive: the cats keep coming, and the kids have to keep watching and remembering.
“And here’s where it gets confusing,” Wulfson continued. “If you get to Level 2, you have to remember where the cat was two windows ago. The time before last. For Level 3, you have to remember where it was three times ago. Level 4 is four times ago. That’s hard. You have to keep track. O.K., ready? Once we start, anyone who talks loses a star.”
So began 10 minutes of a remarkably demanding concentration game. At Level 2, even adults find the task somewhat taxing. Almost no one gets past Level 3 without training. But most people who stick with the game do get better with practice. This isn’t surprising: practice improves performance on almost every task humans engage in, whether it’s learning to read or playing horseshoes.