from the world's big
Virtues of Cognitive Workout: New Research Reveals Neurological Underpinnings of Intelligence
This was originally published on the Scientific American guest blog on February 5th
How much does environment influence intelligence? Several years ago University of Virginia Professor Eric Turkheimer demonstrated that growing up in an impoverished and chaotic household suppresses I.Q. – without nurture, innate advantages vanish. What about genes? They matter too. After decades of research most psychologists agree that somewhere between 50% and 80% of intelligence is genetic. After all, numerous studies demonstrate that identical twins raised apart have remarkably similar I.Q.’s.
A 2008 paper out of the University of Michigan turned all of this on its head. The researchers led by Susanne M. Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now at the University of Maryland, found that participants who engaged in short sessions of “cognitive training” that targeted working memory with a simple but difficult game known as the n-back task boosted a core feature of general intelligence called fluid intelligence. Crystalized intelligence improves with age and experience. Fluid intelligence, in contrast, is the capacity to make insights, solve new problems and perceive new patterns to new situations independent of previous knowledge. For decades researchers believed that fluid intelligence was immutable during adulthood because it was largely determined by genetics. The implication of the 2008 study suggested otherwise: with some cognitive training people could improve fluid intelligence and, therefore, become smarter.
This brings me to a brand new paper recently published in the journal Neuroscience by DRDC Toronto researcher and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, Oshin Vartanian. In the study, Vartanian and his team asked if working memory training improved performance on a test of divergent thinking known as the Alternate Uses Task. Psychological research demonstrates that divergent thinking “loads” on working memory, meaning that when people engage a divergent thinking task their working memory capacity is accessed accordingly. If cognitive training strengthens working memory then participants should improve their performance on divergent thinking tasks. The researchers also wondered how working memory training affected participants at the neurological level. That is, will participation in a short regiment of working memory training be correlated with greater “neural efficiency” during the Alternate Uses Task? Given that divergent thinking is linked to creativity, it also sheds light on the effect of working memory training for boosting creativity.
To answer these questions Vartanian and his team gathered 34 participants and assigned each of them to either an experimental or control group. In the first part of the study the researchers measured fluid intelligence using Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices (RAPM), a hallmark of standardized tests since the 1930s. They are visual analogy problems, consisting of two patterns with three shapes and a third pattern with two shapes. The task is to select the missing shape to complete the third triad from a set of alternatives in order match the overall pattern. Participants completed as many RAPM problems in ten minutes as possible, immediately prior to and following cognitive training so the researchers could calculate a possible gain in fluid intelligence.
For the cognitive training portion of the study participants took part in three training sessions on separate days. Participants in the experimental condition completed the n-back task. Here’s how it works. On a monitor a participant sees a series of letters flash in the same location every two and a half seconds. Their task is to indicate if the letter is repeated. The first level is easy because participants must press the space bar every time they see a letter repeated on two consecutive trials (e.g., K followed by K). The second level gets harder – participants must press the space bar every time they see a letter that matches a letter presented two trials earlier. This gets even harder at level three, where they have to make matching decisions compared to three trials earlier. Meanwhile, participants in the control condition completed a 4-choice reaction time task that controlled for task engagement.
Following the RAPM and cognitive training each participant laid in an fMRI scanner and completed the Alternate Uses Task where they generated novel uses for common objects. For example, imagine a researcher asks you to generate a list of uses for a brick. You could use a brick to build a house but a more creative solution might be to use a brick to prop open a door. The purpose of the Alternate Uses Task is to test divergent thinking, an important component of creativity. In Vartanian’s study the participants had 12 seconds to generate uses of a common object, and three seconds to enter their responses using an MRI-compatible keypad. They repeated this task for 20 trials.
Vartanian and his fellow researchers found that the results mostly confirmed the original hypotheses. First, the experimental group improved their RAPM scores compared to the control group, confirming previous research that cognitive training can boost fluid intelligence. However, they did not discover a difference between the two groups with respect to the number of uses generated in the Alternate Uses Task. In other words, participants who completed the n-back tasks did not score higher on divergent thinking, suggesting that training working memory does not boost divergent thinking.
The most provocative findings were at the neurological level. Namely, activation in the ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain associated with divergent thinking, was much lower during the generation phase of the Alternative Uses Task in the experimental group. This means that even though working memory training and subsequent gains in fluid intelligence did not transfer to better performance on the Alternate Uses Task, participants who engaged in the cognitive training were neurally more efficient during divergent thinking. In other words, just like a long-distance runner uses his lungs and muscle’s more efficiently, participants who practiced the n-back task used less neural resources in the divergent thinking task compared to participants in a control condition.
Gains in fluid intelligence moreover predicted lower activation in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. However, Vartanian reminded me in a recent email that results are correlational. “Drawing a causal link between working memory training and neural efficiency requires more experimentation.”
It’s still unclear if gains from working memory training “transfer” to other tasks. Researchers know that training working memory improves working memory capacity. The question is if working memory training improves cognitive performance across the board just like working out improves your fitness in general. Vartanian says reliable evidence for this transfer effect is the “holy grail everyone is after” even though, he clarified, not every lab has found that the n-back task leads to an increase in fluid intelligence.
All of this brings up the question: What is intelligence anyway? I stated at the outset that intelligence has a genetic component but environment plays a vital role as well. It’s more complicated than that, of course. Consider the Flynn effect. It demonstrates that I.Q. scores have been rising in many parts of the world since 1930. Are people getting smarter or are they just getting better at taking I.Q. tests? The idea that I.Q. is the measurement for intelligence is waning. Yes, I.Q. correlates with success later on in life but it’s unclear what, exactly, it measures. Compounding these queries is the question of multiple intelligences. Researchers like Harvard’s Howard Gardner believe that intelligence isn’t a single thing like a black box in the mind but a series of distinct mental capacities. This makes sense to me – I can write articles on cognitive science but a calculus problem makes me shiver – but the evidence for this line of reasoning is spotty.
Another contentious area of study concerns the relationship between divergent thinking and creativity. Psychologists have historically equated divergent thinking with creativity because divergent thinking is about generating multiple solutions to a single problem, free-flow thinking, and originality. This is true, but like intelligence this paradigm doesn’t address what creativity is in the first place. Today more and more researchers believe that performance on divergent thinking tasks is merely one piece of the creativity pie. This is why a number of creativity researchers are advocating for a broader definition of creativity as well as a shift away from the idea that creative “types” exist, a false suggestion that people are either creative or not.
One of those researchers is Scott Barry Kaufman, NYU Adjunct Professor of Psychology and author of the up and coming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. “Pathbreaking creativity requires many years of acquiring a deep knowledge base from which you can draw to make novel connections,” Kaufman explained to me. “Since divergent thinking tests rely so heavily on working memory and fluid reasoning, they don’t allow people to bring their rich database of life experiences to the task. Psychologists are missing out on a large chunk of their creative potential because creativity can be manifested in many ways. By solely judging a person’s intelligence or creativity based on a single decontextualized testing session, you are ignoring that person’s unique mind, and the possibility for that mind to display incredible cognitive feats when allowed to express itself in its own way over an extended period of time.”
Intelligence and creativity are thorny components of our psychologies. Studying them is difficult, defining them even harder. But the overall trend in cognitive science is positive. Researchers like Vartanian and Kaufman are broadening our conception of intelligence and creativity with innovative research and fresh ideas. This is vital. The future of education will depend not just on policy but what we know about how the brain learns, makes insights and solves problems. “Ideally, in educational and other applied settings we would have the ability to train individuals on a few core abilities and then observe performance benefits in many target activities” said Vartanian. “For this to happen, we first need a good understanding of the core abilities that contribute to the desired outcomes, and then we need to differentiate between what can and cannot be trained.”
Image via Flickr
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>