It had long been thought that intelligence was largely immutable. Then two researchers from the University of Bern came along and stunned the world by showing how around 20 sessions of a working memory exercise called “dual n-back” sufficed to significantly raise one’s IQ. More than a decade’s worth of subsequent research has largely corroborated the gist of their findings. But dual n-back is tough. By design, it demands maximum concentration at every moment. Is it worth the pain?
Dual N-Back Is No Fun, But It Works
When, in May 2008, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, two doctoral candidates at the University of Bern in Switzerland, published their original study on improving intelligence via a working memory exercise called dual n-back, it generated a tremendous amount of excitement. Newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times published articles on the revolutionary implications of being able to raise one’s IQ through cognitive training. Dual n-back seemed poised to take the world by storm and become a curricular mainstay at schools, universities, and corporate training programs.
Except that it never happened. To this day, dual n-back remains barely known outside the field of cognitive psychology. Meanwhile, brain training games of dubious scientific merit have amassed millions of users.
Why? In the trade-off between making brain training games effective and making them entertaining, purveyors of popular brain training games seem to be prioritizing the latter. That is, even though they claim that their games are scientifically sound and have proven cognitive benefits, they seem mostly designed to be fun (or, at least, not sheer drudgery). In a reflection of these misplaced priorities, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) eventually cracked down on some providers which, the FTC alleged, deceived consumers with unfounded claims of cognitive benefits, resulting in multi-million dollar settlements.
For a user of any given brain training game, it’s hard to discern whether the game is actually effective. Decades of failed attempts by researchers, prior to 2008, at raising intelligence through cognitive interventions suggest that the answer will typically be no. But all an individual user can tell is that she gets better at the game itself, which is meaningless, yet makes it tempting for her to conclude that the training must be working. At the same time, the game likely provides an amusing source of entertainment. So the user keeps playing the game and may even recommend it to her friends, thus raising the market share of such games.
Dual n-back is different. Its bold claim for a significant positive effect on intelligence has withstood more than a decade’s worth of scientific scrutiny, published in top peer-reviewed journals. That is, unlike most other brain training games, it has a solid scientific foundation. But also, unlike other brain training games, it’s no fun at all. Indeed, it’s not only less entertaining than other brain training games, but it’s positively exhausting, even painful.
This is by design: Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl chose the dual n-back task precisely because it maximizes the cognitive load on working memory at every moment. It’s why, for example, as soon as you’ve mastered a given n-back level, a new level is automatically chosen for your subsequent round.
It’s intuitively plausible how pain and impact may be correlated. When you go to the gym, for example, and take it easy, you’re bound to build less muscle than when you go and really push yourself. (See Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous exhortation for budding bodybuilders to “push through the pain barrier.”)
The Benefits of Completing the Program
Is it worth the pain to push through 20 sessions of dual n-back? In short: yes. Let’s walk you through some of the reasons why we’d encourage you to go for it — and then stick to it!
You’ll get smarter. Dual n-back has been shown, in numerous studies, to have a positive effect on intelligence. Why is this such a big deal? Here’s one way to look at it: To enhance your performance in any given domain, from law to business to parenting, you could hit the library and build domain-specific knowledge. And domain knowledge is certainly valuable and important. But by improving your intelligence, you will raise your ability to solve novel problems in literally any domain!
You’ll be more successful. Intelligence is predictive of a lot of good things – including academic achievement and professional success. According to a study by Linda Gottfredson, “the more complex a task, the greater the advantages that a higher IQ confers in performing it well.” This positions you well for thriving in today’s knowledge society, whose complexity seems to be increasing exponentially by the day.
It takes less than 7 hours. One of the reasons the original study by Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl caused such a stir is that it took so little training for individuals to improve their IQ. 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! Yes, dual n-back does require a lot of mental effort. But it does not require a large investment of time. Indeed, there is arguably nothing you can do with a time budget of around 7 hours that will have as large of an impact on your life as completing 20 sessions of dual n-back.
You’ll combat cognitive decline. Intelligence declines as you age. What’s surprising to many is how early this decline sets in. Indeed, whereas your knowledge from prior learning and past experiences keeps increasing for quite some time still, expect your IQ to start dropping in your twenties and thirties already. Happily, studies have shown that cognitive training can counteract this decline and improve older adults’ everyday functioning.
You’ll strengthen your willpower. The very painfulness of completing 20 sessions of dual n-back may be a benefit in disguise. As psychologist Roy Baumeister discovered in his extensive research on the subject, willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened with use. By committing to the challenge, and seeing it through, you may emerge not only with an improved IQ, but also with enhanced self-discipline and a readiness to take on any new challenge life may throw at you, no matter how daunting.
Ready to Give it a Shot?
Speaking of challenges: If we’ve managed to convince you to give it a try, check out our 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 help you actually complete 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 various benefits laid out above.
Gamification. 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 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. (“Drill sergeant” mode, anyone?) There are advanced settings for turning on instant button feedback, controlling your n-back level, and tweaking the game speed. And 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.
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.) 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.