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“The Mozart Effect” made millions of dollars in the nineties by targeting parents. Aging people spend money on cognitive enhancing supplements to restore the processing speed they once had, while others play Sudoku hoping to improve their IQ. Why?

A Quick Survey

Give yourself 1 point for every question answered yes/true, and 0 points for every question answered no/false.

  • Do you believe that listening to classical music improves IQ?
  • Do you agree that hypnosis can help people accurately remember the details of a crime?
  • People use 10% of their brains – true or false?
  • Can you sense when someone is looking at the back of your head?
  • Does subliminal advertising work?

If you scored a zero, hit your back button. If you scored 5, smack yourself in the head and keep reading.

The Untapped Reservoir to Unlocking your Brain’s Potential

Scientific studies provide what seems like legitimate evidence of IQ boosting products and activities, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. The survey above included a few rephrased questions from a comprehensive questionnaire conducted by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons – the authors of The Invisible Gorrila. Here are the results from their respondents:

  • 40% believed listening to Mozart improves IQ
  • 61% agreed that hypnosis helps witnesses accurately remember crime details
  • 72% thought people use about 10 percent of their brain
  • 65% believed it’s normal to “sense” someone looking at the back of your head
  • 76% believed that subliminal advertising is effective in shaping behavior

These ideas perpetuate because people falsely believe that an untapped reservoir of superhuman power exists within the mind. However, the statistics above highlight beliefs that are popular in esoteric, spiritual and new-age demographics. Let’s examine a study disproving a different kind of belief – the belief that playing challenging puzzles will improve your general cognitive abilities.

Skills Don’t Transfer Across Different Areas

If you practice anything consistently, you’ll get better at it, but only at that specific task. Brain training companies rely on people unaware of that fact. The largest “brain training” experiment – known as the ACTIVE trial – illustrated this. The researchers randomly divided about 3,000 seniors into four groups – training for verbal memory, problem solving, processing speed, or a group that performed no training (the control group) at all.

Over the course of six weeks, each group diligently practiced one of the three specific tasks for ten one-hour sessions. After the training period was over, the seniors were tested on a set of laboratory-based and real-world tasks. The researchers found that the seniors definitely improved their cognitive abilities, but only on the task they practiced. Subjects who practiced verbal memory tasks improved only in verbal memory tasks, not processing speed, and vice versa. This lack of transfer was apparent in all groups.

Follow up surveys of the ACTIVE participants in the training groups reported having fewer problems with daily tasks than the control group participants. This doesn’t mean their skill improvements transferred to other tasks, but that they knew they were expected to improve and therefore reported improvements.

I was conned signed up for a popular brain training website and tried it for a bit. The combination of rewards and continuous improvement was fun. But I didn’t notice improved memory, spatial orientation or processing speed. All I did was get better at the games themselves.

The Best Game on Lumosity

Check out the example quote “I want to be able to find my way around a new city when I’m on vacation.” If that’s what you want to do, your best bet is to travel to new cities and find your destination points without constantly referring to a map, not play Penguin Pursuit.

The Takeaway

There is no untapped reservoir of potential in your brain, and skills don’t transfer across different areas. Practicing an activity will only improve performance in that activity, or in activities that are extremely similar. You cannot improve your general abilities through such practice. Additionally, the broader the transfer is (I’ll become more eloquent by playing Words with Friends), the less likely it is to occur.


One Response to Unlocking your Brain’s Potential

  1. Ampd says:

    I used Lumosity – it can work but you have to dedicate plenty of time to playing it…

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