Friday, May 11, 2012

IQ Points for Sale: Baby Einstein Redux?

Can we make kids smarter?

If we could only remember the answer. 

Did we learn nothing from Baby Einstein?  Some of you will remember the study that launched the lucrative mom-preneur empire. The study that was never replicated. The Mozart Effect was a fluke. Just to reiterate, listening to a few minutes of classical music does not raise intelligence although in one isolated study it did improve college students' performance on a single obscure cognitive task.

Think about it. Does it sound feasible to believe hearing a bit of music makes you better at solving problems? Smarter?       

Today we tend to believe and act as though intelligence can be improved with a quick fix like updating an old bathroom with polished nickel faucets and a pedestal sink. Brain-boosting flashcards, video games, breastfeeding, boxed sets of basement-produced videos featuring creepy sock puppets. All aimed to some degree at raising kiddie IQs. Oh, I'm guilty too.

Why are parents so ready to believe in the power of brain training? In a recent New York Times article, David Z. Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, traces the origins of the current focus on easily renovating intelligence to a single study:
Why the craze? Until recently, the overwhelming consensus in psychology was that intelligence was essentially a fixed trait. But in 2008, an article by a group of researchers led by Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl challenged this view and renewed many psychologists’ enthusiasm about the possibility that intelligence was trainable — with precisely the kind of tasks that are now popular as games.  IQ Points for Sale, Cheap, May 5, 2012

So those psychologists did a study supposedly showing they had improved intelligence, particularly fluid intelligence.  After an 8-hour training session participants performed better on a confusing memory task. Basically improving their short-term memory made the cognitive task easier. Yet just like in the case of the Mozart Effect, other researchers have tried to demonstrate similar results and failed.

Dan Hurley took on the Jaeggi claim in a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article - Can You Make Yourself Smarter? - and offers both praise and skepticism. 

Professor Hambrick was not easily swayed by the findings:

The results were startling. The authors reported that the trained participants showed a larger gain in the reasoning test than the control group did, and despite the relatively brief period of training, this gain was large enough that it would be expected to substantially improve performance in everyday life.
Does this sound like an extraordinary claim? It should. There have been many attempts to demonstrate large, lasting gains in intelligence through educational interventions, with few successes. When gains in intelligence have been achieved, they have been modest and the result of many years of effort.
Many years of effort.
Often many years of efforts geared towards kids who didn't go to the best or even average schools. 

BTW, the Jaeggi study is the top study research enhtusiasts would like to see replicated according to the Web site, a repository for failed replications.

Now go train your brain.  How? Exercise. Yes forget the Brain Academy and Soduko, just go running instead.  That's the latest brain boost according to some experts

1 comment:

Zach Hambrick said...

Polly, really great comments on my Op-Ed. I really like what you're doing. Ever thought about doing something on the learning style craze? Email me at if interested. Happy to send you stuff on this. Best, Zach Hambrick