“One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” – Albert Einstein
While Einstein was not a neuroscientist, he sure knew what he was talking about in regards to the human capacity to achieve. He knew intuitively what we can now show with data – what it takes to function at your cognitive best. In essence: What doesn’t kill you makes you smarter.
Not so many years ago, I was told by a professor of mine that you didn’t have much control over your intelligence. It was genetic – determined at birth. He explained that efforts made to raise the intelligence of children (through programs like Head Start, for example) had limited success while they were in practice, and furthermore, once the “training” stopped, they went right back to their previously low cognitive levels. Indeed, the data did show that [pdf], and he (along with many other intelligence researchers) concluded that intelligence could not be improved – at least not to create a lasting change.
Well, I disagreed.
You see, before that point in my studies, I had begun working as a Behavior Therapist, training young children on the autism spectrum. These kids had a range of cognitive disabilities – my job was to train them in any and all areas that were deficient, to get them as close to functioning at the same level of their peers as possible. Therapy utilized a variety of methods, or Multimodal Teaching (using as many modes of input as possible), in order to make this happen.
One of my first clients was a little boy w/ PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Delays-Not Otherwise Specified), a mild form of autism. When we began therapy, his IQ was tested and scored in the low 80s – which is considered borderline mental retardation. After I worked with him for about three years – one on one, teaching
in areas such as communication, reading, math, social functioning, play skills, leisure activities – using multimodal techniques [pdf] – he was retested. His IQ score was well over 100 (with 100 considered “average”, as compared to the general population). That’s a 20 point increase, more than one standard deviation improvement, by a child with an autism spectrum disorder!
He wasn’t the only child I saw make vast improvements in the years I’ve been a therapist, either. I’ve been fortunate enough to see many children grow by leaps and bounds – not by magic, and not even by taking medication, and there’s data to show proof of their gains. I thought – if these kids with severe learning impediments could make such amazing progress, with that progress carrying over into every aspect of their cognitive functioning – why can’t an average person make those kinds of gains as well? Or even more gains, considering they don’t have the additional challenge of an autism spectrum disorder?
Although the data from those early studies showed dismal results, I wasn’t discouraged. I still believed it was possible to significantly increase your cognitive functioning, given the proper training – since I had seen it with my own eyes through my work as a therapist.
Then in 2008, a very exciting study was published, Improving Fluid Intelligence with Training on Working Memory, by Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, and Perrig. This study was pretty much a game-changer for those doing research on this topic. They showed for the first time, that it might actually be possible to increase your intelligence to a significant degree through training.