Can You Use Dual N-Back to Improve Your Fluid Intelligence?

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Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve new types of problems. It is responsible for skills like comprehension, learning and of course problem-solving. Normally, it peaks in our 20’s, and gradually declines after that1)Fluid and crystallized intelligence. But what if you can use Dual N-Back training to improve your fluid intelligence?

Do We Have More Types of Intelligence?

According to psychologist Raymond Cattell, our intelligence is made of two distinct types, working together:

1. Fluid intelligence is “the ability to perceive relationships independent of previous specific practice or instruction concerning those relationships”. It is responsible for problem-solving and abstract thinking and is considered independent of learning, education, and experience. You rely on it when you encounter a new kind of problem, one you can’t solve using your existing knowledge and experience.

2. Crystallized intelligence is based on previous learning and experience. Is comes into play when you take exams or when you encounter a type of problem you already solved in the past.

You use your fluid intelligence to understand and process new types of information so it can enrich your crystallized one.

Fluid intelligence is measured through tests like classification and progressive matrix problems (like Raven’s Progressive Matrices), whereas crystallized intelligence is measured through tests of vocabulary and general knowledge.

Raven Test

Raven’s Progressive Matrix Example

The Evolution of Intelligence Throughout Our Lives

Both fluid and crystallized intelligence change as we age. They both increase during the early stages of life, and the difference is made in the second part of our lives.

Crystallized intelligence is considered to peak when we are 60 or even 70 years old. Since this is based on accumulated knowledge, you need to keep on learning and reading if you want to progress.

Fluid intelligence is considered to peak at about 20 years, so when we are in college, and gradually decline after that. Until recently it was considered to be inherited and fixed. More recent studies indicate this can also be trained. A study involving 2,832 persons showed no only that one can improve the working memory and fluid intelligence2)Increasing fluid intelligence is possible after all – Robert J. Sternberg, but that the effects can last up to ten years after training3)Cognitive-Training Can Result in Long-Term Improvement!

There were many studies conducted in the past regarding increasing IQ through training, but many were focused on training using exercises similar to the tests used for IQ measurement. Professor Susanne Jaeggi from the University of California and her colleagues concluded that fluid intelligence can be increased through training, “without practicing the testing tasks themselves”. The level of improvement is directly proportional to the amount of training 4)Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory – Susanne M. Jaeggi, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Walter J. Perrig.

How to Improve Your Fluid Intelligence

A group of researches from the University of California, including the earlier-mentioned Susanne Jaeggi, conducted a study on 20 papers regarding working memory and fluid intelligence improvements through the n-back training program. They “found a small but significant positive effect of n-back training on improving” fluid intelligence 5)Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory: a meta-analysis – Jacky Au, Ellen Sheehan, Nancy Tsai, Greg J. Duncan, Martin Buschkuehl & Susanne M. Jaeggi .

Since fluid intelligence tends to naturally decline with age (after peaking, of course), it is not surprising to find that practice shows better results for older people6)N‐back training and transfer effects revealed by behavioral responses and EEG – Valentina Pergher, Benjamin Wittevrongel, Jos Tournoy, Birgitte Schoenmakers, Marc M. Van Hulle .

What is Dual n-Back?

The n-back task was introduced by Wayne Kirchner in 1958, as a test to asses the working memory capacity. The test consists of a series of visual or auditive stimuli. The tested person needs to indicate when the current stimuli match the one presented n-steps before. When n is equal or bigger than 2, the tested person needs to create a buffer in the working memory in order to store and manipulate the data.

The dual n-back version was introduced by Susanne Jaeggi and her colleagues, and it adds a second stream of stimuli to the exercise.  It usually consists of one visual and one auditory set.

The visual part consists of a 3×3 board where one square is lit at a time, while the auditory stream is a sequence of letters. You need to indicate when the position of the lit square or/and the letter sound match the ones n-moves before. You start with n=1 and keep increasing n as your working memory improves. For n=1 things are very easy, you simply need to indicate when the position and/or sound match the previous iteration. When n=2 the exercise becomes a bit more difficult, and from 3 upwards things become really interesting.

 

Dual n-back

Dual n-back board

There are multiple mobile apps, online sites and even computer programs available for dual n-back training. The Brain Workshop free open-source version of the dual n-back brain training exercise works great on Windows PCs. It keeps track of your progress and displays it in a nice graph. It also comes with a great tutorial to get you started.

How Much Should I Practice?

You can start with 3-5 games per day. If you allocate too much time right from the get-go, chances are you will quit soon. This is why I usually start any new practice with a small amount of time and effort. I noticed it is way more likely I stick to that new routine versus when I try to allocate 20-30 minutes directly.

Once you get used to practicing more often, try to exercise dual n-back for about 20 minutes per day, 4 – 5 days per week for the best results.

Conclusion

In time your performance will plateau, and the gains from practicing with dual n-back will diminish. That will be the moment you need to consider lowering the practice to a minimum (a few games every now and then), just to maintain the progress you have made. You should find a new activity to jump on.

It is crucial to seek new challenges and learn new things in order to keep your brain engaged, challenged and in good shape.

References   [ + ]

1. Fluid and crystallized intelligence
2. Increasing fluid intelligence is possible after all – Robert J. Sternberg
3. Cognitive-Training Can Result in Long-Term Improvement
4. Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory – Susanne M. Jaeggi, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Walter J. Perrig
5. Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory: a meta-analysis – Jacky Au, Ellen Sheehan, Nancy Tsai, Greg J. Duncan, Martin Buschkuehl & Susanne M. Jaeggi
6. N‐back training and transfer effects revealed by behavioral responses and EEG – Valentina Pergher, Benjamin Wittevrongel, Jos Tournoy, Birgitte Schoenmakers, Marc M. Van Hulle

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