It had long been taken for granted that intelligence cannot be trained. Then, in 2008, two researchers from the University of Bern stunned the world by showing how a few sessions of a strenuous working memory exercise called “dual n-back” sufficed to significantly raise one’s IQ. More than a decade’s worth of peer-reviewed research followed, largely corroborating the gist of the initial findings. Beyond academia, however, dual n-back has struggled in its competition against more entertainment-oriented “brain games,” and it remains barely known outside the field of cognitive psychology. It’s time for dual n-back to take over the world!
Think of Your Brain as a Muscle
Intelligence had long been assumed to be impervious to cognitive training. According to the conventional wisdom from a few years ago, training to become smarter was akin to training to become taller! This skepticism dates back to the late 19th century, when Francis Galton argued that intelligence was strictly hereditary, reflecting a determinism that pervaded cognitive psychology throughout much of the 20th century.
It thus came as somewhat of a surprise, to put it mildly, when, in May 2008, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, two doctoral candidates at the University of Bern, published a ground-breaking study which suggested that intelligence can be raised via dual n-back, an arduous exercise designed to maximize the cognitive load on working memory. In the words of a New York Times article, this was “cognitive psychology’s equivalent of discovering particles traveling faster than light.”
Later studies showed that the positive effect is remarkably persistent, lasting (at least) for several months. Perhaps most impressively, the total amount of time it takes to complete a typical dual n-back program is less than 7 hours — not much more than the length of a single school day!
Jaeggi and Buschkuehl’s initial study was later criticized, correctly, for having several methodological limitations. But a subsequent decade’s worth of research, published in top peer-reviewed journals like Nature, has largely corroborated the gist of their initial findings.
Dual N-Back Remains a Hidden Gem
Why, then, has almost no one ever heard of dual n-back? In 2008, it seemed as if dual n-back was poised to take the world by storm. After all, intelligence is the ultimate cognitive ability: You need it to learn, reason, solve novel problems, and see connections. Higher IQs have been linked to improved academic achievement, professional success, and even health outcomes.
What’s more, cognitive training holds the promise of staving off cognitive aging, arguably one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. This is not only because cognitive impairment can greatly affect older adults’ quality of life, but also because, as a result of rising life expectancy, older adults represent a growing proportion of the population. In the United States alone, the number of older adults with Alzheimer’s disease is predicted to more than double from around 6 million in 2020 to almost 13 million by 2050. And lest you think that cognitive aging is a topic of concern only for your parents or grandparents, consider that, according to recent studies, your IQ starts declining in your twenties and thirties already!
In addition to the objective evidence of cognitive benefits, students of dual n-back often report subjective benefits as well. Though a rise in intelligence itself is actually quite difficult to perceive, learners frequently notice a wide range of cognitive improvements, from enhanced mental arithmetic to higher reading speeds, shorter reaction times, an enhanced ability to focus during class and while studying, an improved ability to multi-task, and, importantly, an increased readiness to engage in mental effort in the first place.
All of this notwithstanding, dual n-back remains barely known outside the field of cognitive psychology. How is this possible? If you’ve already tried completing a few sessions of dual n-back yourself, you may suspect the likely reason: Dual n-back is no fun! Indeed, it’s not merely monotonous, but positively exhausting, even painful.
This puts it in sharp contrast with many other commercial “brain games,” which purport to help raise your IQ, but actually seem to prioritize entertainment over scientific rigor. Indeed, concerned over unfounded claims of cognitive benefits in popular brain games, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on some providers, resulting in multi-million dollar settlements.
The rub is that, for a user of any given brain game, it’s hard to discern whether the game is actually effective. All she can tell, typically, is that she is getting better at the game itself. This feels nice, but it’s meaningless: What matters is if the improvements transfer to unrelated tasks. Decades of failed attempts by scientists, prior to 2008, at raising intelligence through cognitive interventions suggest that such “far transfer” effects are unlikely. Yet, excitement about task-specific improvement, along with an entertaining, perhaps outright “addictive,” game design manage to keep the users of many commercial brain games engaged, and happy to share it with their friends.
Time for Dual N-Back to Take Over the World
The persistent obscurity of dual n-back is a real tragedy. After all, it’s hard to think of an educational investment you can make with a time budget of 7 hours that will have as large of an impact on your life as completing 20 (or more) sessions of dual n-back. Indeed, dual n-back deserves to become not only a sine qua non for self-improvement aficionados, but also a formal curricular mainstay at schools, universities, and corporate training programs. Enlightened parents should add it to their educational toolkits. And progressive retirement homes should weave it into their recreational programs.
Are you a knowledge worker? Or still at school? Either way, start practicing dual n-back to sharpen your all-important reasoning and problem-solving skills! Yes, dual n-back training requires a bit of self-discipline. But it’s worth it!
Are you a parent? Would you like to support your kids in realizing their full academic potential? Give them an edge at school or at university by nudging them to complete a dual n-back program! Indeed, why not tackle it together as a family?
Do you have older relatives? Or maybe you even work at a retirement home? Help older adults fight age-related cognitive decline by introducing them to dual n-back! At the same time, be ready to provide support in case they initially struggle with the game mechanics.
Are you a manager? Dual n-back may well be the single most cost-effective way of making your workforce more productive. Rally your HR department behind dual n-back as an especially powerful, yet virtually free, form of corporate training. At a minimum, introduce dual n-back to your own team!
Are you a teacher? To prepare your students for a world of rapid technological change, you’ve doubtless been working hard to teach them how to think critically, see connections, and solve novel problems. Why not turbo-charge your efforts by introducing dual n-back to your classroom?
Ready to Accept the N-Back Challenge?
If you are interested in giving it a try, check out the N-Back Challenge, available both on iOS and on Android. It’s a dual n-back app that is thoroughly grounded in science and that is specifically designed to nudge learners toward actually finishing all 20 sessions.
Scientific rigor. Not only has the dual n-back paradigm been validated in top peer-reviewed journals, but our two founders – both PhDs, one with a focus on neuroscience, the other with a focus on higher education – have taken particular care to align the N-Back Challenge with the prevailing scientific research. This maximizes the probability that, upon completion of the program, you will actually experience the cognitive benefits demonstrated in the studies.
Gamification. The main issue with dual n-back is that, by design, it’s very exhausting. As a result, many learners give up before having completed 20 sessions. This is why the N-Back Challenge is centered on your commitment to approach the entire program as a 20-day “challenge,” with various reward mechanisms aimed at keeping you engaged. You can build up “streaks,” for example, trace how your performance has evolved over time, explore how your all-time stats stack up against those of everyone else, and compete against friends (and foes) via leaderboards.
Customization. There are many ways to customize your experience of the N-Back Challenge. For example, you can choose between numerous different voices across multiple languages. You can turn on notifications to remind you of pending sessions, and you can customize their timing and style. (Do you respond well to flattery? Try the “sycophant” mode. Need a strict taskmaster to get things done? Go for the “drill sergeant” mode instead!) Finally, there are advanced settings for turning on instant button feedback, controlling your n-back level, and tweaking the game speed.
The N-Back Challenge is free as long as you stick to the program. When you delay a session, we ask you to support us with a “coffee,” which you can buy in-app or earn — for example, by using the Share link in the Settings to invite friends. (Each of you will receive a free coffee.) If you are too busy to complete one session every day, you may switch to the Weekly Habit, which gives you an entire week to complete each session. You can also unlock unlimited free breaks by buying us a “pizza.” Indeed, this may turn out to be the most cost-effective way to train your brain in the long run, since, upon completing the 20-Day Challenge, you will likely want to keep practicing in order to maintain, or even extend, the cognitive gains you have reaped!