If you’ve embarked on a dual n-back training program like the N-Back Challenge, then it’s probably because you are keen to experience the statistically significant cognitive benefits demonstrated in the scientific studies. This begs the question: Do you merely need to worry about completing 20 sessions? Or is there more to it? Could you be unwittingly compromising your cognitive gains by exercising your brain in the wrong way? In short: How do you get the most out of your training?
No Pain, No Gain
The scientific studies behind dual n-back link the completion of training sessions to significant improvements in intelligence. This seems to suggest that all you need to worry about is finishing your 20 sessions. But that’s not quite the case. How you go about your training matters, too. In their meta-analysis on dual n-back, for example, Jacky Au and colleagues found evidence that motivation makes a big difference: When participants were paid to enroll in a study, the cognitive benefits tended to be lower than in studies that were composed of volunteers. In other words, higher intrinsic motivation seems to be correlated with stronger cognitive growth.
Happily, you are unlikely to have been strong-armed or bribed into starting a dual n-back training program, so chances are that you are indeed intrinsically motivated. But where should your motivation be directed? The most common pitfall for dual n-back students is to become overly competitive about their n-back level. Granted, a little bit of competitiveness is likely a good thing, as it will motivate you to keep practicing. But if it gets to the point of searching for tricks or techniques to raise your n-back level, you’ve gone too far: Not only would you be setting yourself up for disappointment (high n-back levels are rare and may prove elusive), but you would also be undermining the cognitive impact from the program.
The best way to understand why this is the case is to draw an analogy to physical exercise. If you cycle up a steep hill, it may take you a long time to get to the top, and maybe you won’t even get there at all. Let’s say that, next time, you decide to go up that same hill with an electric bike instead. Now it’s a breeze, and you don’t even break a sweat. Which of your two training days, do you think, will produce more health effects? Naturally, it’s the first day: Your health benefitted from the very stress you placed on your muscles and cardio-respiratory system. On the second day, you made it to the top much faster, but you didn’t challenge your body. So you may have felt like a champion, but you didn’t actually grow.
The same is true for dual n-back: The cognitive benefits arise from the very stress you place on your working memory. Indeed, when Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl chose the dual n-back task for their ground-breaking 2008 study on cognitive interventions to improve intelligence, they did so precisely because it’s the cognitively most stressful task they could think of. If you managed to come up with some clever mnemonic trick to raise your n-back performance, you would distort the executive processing triggered by the exercise and reduce the amount of mental effort, thus shooting yourself in the foot. Yes, you might feel like a champion, but you would be hampering your cognitive development during the program.
A Legit Tip to Improve Your Performance
It’s simple, then: To get the most out of your dual n-back training, embrace the struggle, and don’t worry about your n-back level. That being said, if you can’t help but feel competitive, we’ll leave you with one tip for how to improve your n-back performance that is likely to actually benefit your cognitive growth, rather than undermining it: Tap only whenever you are sure!
What many students of n-back never realize is that, if you don’t tap any button at all during an entire round, your visual and auditory scores will still be 70%! This is true, at least, for a dual n-back app like the N-Back Challenge, whose scoring mechanism was designed in accordance with the scientific studies. There are 20 potential visual matches and 20 potential auditory matches in each round of dual n-back. At the same time, each round always features four visual matches, four auditory matches, and two simultaneous visual and auditory matches. This leaves you with a 70% chance of choosing correctly whenever you refrain from tapping.
In other words, restraint in tapping buttons pays off — don’t guess! Not only would guessing impair your n-back performance, but it would also promote lazy cognitive processing, which counteracts the effectiveness of your dual n-back training. Restraint is particularly important after a momentary slip of attention. Many students mentally give up as soon as they’ve started losing track in mid-round, and then quickly find themselves randomly tapping buttons in hope of a few lucky final hits. By implication, for the lack of serious mental effort, the rest of the round will contribute little to nothing to such students’ cognitive growth. Instead, respond to a lapse in concentration by remembering that guesses only hurt your performance and by treating the next pair of stimuli like the start of a new round. In other words, refocus and start with a mental clean slate. Since, as mentioned above, not doing anything is the correct response in 70% of cases anyway, you might even manage to escape from the momentary lapse without any minus points at all!
Resist Tweaking the Advanced Settings
The Settings view of the N-Back Challenge provides various ways to customize your game experience. For reading out the letters during game play, for example, you can select between many different voices across multiple languages. You can turn on notifications to remind you of pending sessions. You can customize the timing and style of your reminders, including a “drill sergeant” mode and a “sycophant” mode. And you can decide whether you wish to see a grid and hear button sounds during each round. Experimenting with these settings is “harmless,” so to speak, in that, no matter how you configure them, your cognitive development is unlikely to be affected.
At the same time, the Settings view also provides a button for entering the so-called “advanced settings,” which allow you to turn on instant button feedback, control your n-back level manually, and even change the game speed. If you adjust any of these advanced settings, you will be departing from the scientific defaults — i.e., from the parameters that were used in the scientific research. As a result, you might end up failing to obtain the cognitive benefits established in the studies. Yes, it’s true that, at least in theory, your tweaks to the advanced settings could also intensify your cognitive load during game play and thus enhance your cognitive benefits. They might also allow you to have more fun and motivate you to complete more sessions. On balance, however, we recommend that you first complete one entire 20-Day Challenge without modifying the scientific defaults, and leave experimenting with them until later, when you have more experience under your belt.
That being said, there are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, if you often find yourself surprised at your score upon the end of a round, and are unsure if you’ve truly understood the game mechanics, turn on instant button feedback for a few rounds. This will allow you to validate — and potentially correct — your understanding of the game mechanics through trial and error.
In addition, dual n-back may be a powerful weapon for fighting age-related cognitive decline. You may thus wish to share the N-Back Challenge, say, with your parents or grandparents. As you might soon discover, however, for older adults, the standard game speed often proves too fast. In this case, visit the advanced settings and temporarily reduce the game speed to 0.5x. After your older relatives have completed a few sessions, they might feel comfortable to return to the standard game speed of 1x, and finish the 20-Day Challenge with all advanced settings reset to their scientific defaults!