After completing a few sessions of dual n-back in your quest to raise your IQ, you might, quite naturally, start looking for signs that the training is actually working. How can you tell? Will your head circumference expand to make room for a massively ballooning brain? While you can probably leave your measuring tape in the drawer, students of dual n-back frequently do report noticeable changes that can plausibly be linked to the scientifically established cognitive benefits of n-back training.
According to a decade’s worth of peer-reviewed scientific studies, you can expect to enjoy a statistically significant improvement in your intelligence after less than two dozen sessions of dual n-back — at least if you approach the training in the right way. (In short: Focus on maximizing your mental effort during each round, not on trying to set new n-back level records. Avoid guessing. Don’t give up mid-round. Resist tweaking any advanced settings. And use an n-back app whose design closely matches the actual format of the scientific studies, like the N-Back Challenge.) But how do you know if the training is actually working for you?
If you’ve been to the gym for some time, you can expect to see your muscles swell. The cognitive benefits from dual n-back training, by contrast, are more subtle. But if you are attuned to them, there’s a good chance that you will be able to notice some signs of progress. Let’s go over some of the noticeable changes that students of dual n-back have reported upon completion of the program. Note that these are subjective reports and may contain placebo effects. They are plausibly linked to, but not to be confused with, the scientifically established impact of dual n-back training on working memory, cognitive control, and intelligence.
Perceptions of Improved Intelligence
Arguably the chief attraction of dual n-back is its statistically significant effect on intelligence. But how do you know that you are actually getting smarter, without taking an IQ test before and after the program? (In fact, even taking an IQ test before and after the program wouldn’t be enough for you to draw a definite conclusion: The likely rise in your IQ score may simply be due to the development of task-specific strategies. That is, you may do better on your second IQ test merely thanks to your experience of having already completed a similar test before and now being more practiced in solving the types of problems frequently encountered in such tests.)
Some students indeed report “feeling” more intelligent upon completion of the program. (“I feel sharper” is one common way students describe this change.) That being said, changes in intelligence are difficult to notice, and it’s quite likely that you will find yourself struggling to point to specific evidence of improvement. Indeed, as neurologists can attest, the same is true for cognitive performance in the reverse situation: Patients who suffer from cognitive decline may initially be unaware of this deterioration, even though it clearly manifests itself already in objective diagnostic tests.
If you don’t perceive a rise in intelligence despite completing all 20 rounds of dual n-back, take heart: Science is on your side. Even if you don’t feel the enhancement, it’s likely that you did get smarter regardless. What’s more, even though plenty of students fail to notice their enhanced IQ directly, they do frequently experience other — more readily discernible — cognitive improvements, most notably related to memory and overall daily functioning.
Dual n-back is a working memory exercise, and it has been shown to enhance working memory in a statistically significant way, so it’s not surprising that many students notice improvements in areas that are related to working memory. For example, when you receive a six-digit PIN code via SMS upon signing into a website, you may now find it easier to hold it in your head for a while. In the past, you may have gone back and forth between your SMS and the website, digit by digit, double-checking frequently if your input is correct. After 20 sessions of dual n-back, it might be enough for you to take a quick glance at the entire code, hold it in your memory, type it into the website, and be done with it.
Or maybe you work as a waiter at a restaurant and take a small order at one of your tables. Whereas in the past, you may have needed to write everything down so as not to forget any details, you might now feel confident of being able to remember everything without having to pull out your pen.
Another way to spot improvements is to pay attention to mental arithmetic. Running calculations in your head requires the temporary storing and manipulating of information — a typical working memory task. Having completed 20 sessions of dual n-back, do you feel that mental arithmetic comes more easily to you now?
Interestingly, some students report subjective advances not only in working memory, but also in episodic memory. That is, students feel they can more readily remember events — even those that had taken place long before the start of their dual n-back training.
Improved Daily Functioning
Finally, students of dual n-back often notice cognitive improvements in all kinds of other areas that positively affect their daily functioning. For example, some students notice that they read faster or that their reaction time has become shorter. And in a nod to the scientifically established impact of dual n-back on cognitive control, many students report finding it easier to focus during class and while studying. In a similar vein, many others report an improved ability to multi-task. (As for the latter, we counsel you to deploy your newly acquired powers sparingly, as multitasking has generally been shown to be detrimental to task performance.)
One of the most interesting subjective changes that seems to be taking place is an increased willingness by students to engage in mental effort in the first place, both small and large. By way of analogy, imagine going through a grueling 20-day fitness regimen. Upon completion, won’t you naturally feel a higher readiness to leap up a flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator, and to generally make use of your newfound strength and vitality? The same is likely true for cognitive efforts: A 20-day regimen of dual n-back is grueling in its own way. Having gone through it, your mind has grown accustomed to effort, and you are bound to more readily apply it in everyday situations.
Note how such behavior may feed off itself in a virtuous cycle: An increased willingness to sprint up the stairs will tend to further increase your fitness level, which will make you even more eager to eschew the elevator next time, etcetera. The same is likely true for mental effort. In that sense, an increased readiness to exert your mind may be the most important change for you to watch out for as you complete your dual n-back program!