Can doing mental puzzles, riddles problems actually make us smarter or does it just make us more nimble with whatever smarts we already have?
October 29, 2011 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Can doing mental puzzles, riddles problems actually make us smarter or does it just make us more nimble with whatever smarts we already have?

I love spending time working out mental problems, puzzles things like that.
I am wondering if intellect is like a muscle if you work it enough, or do we just have what we have and the exercises just shake the rust off for a bit and make us use it a bit better.
posted by Senor Cardgage to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What do you mean by 'smarter'?
posted by box at 11:15 AM on October 29, 2011

Response by poster: Good point. I guess Im thinking of some notion of "capacity"?
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:17 AM on October 29, 2011

It can stave off Alzheimer's and apparently strengthens the theory that using your brain regularly really does sharpen and protect it (last quote of the article).
posted by jabes at 11:29 AM on October 29, 2011

Here's another article you might find interesting:
About 3,000 volunteers were given 10 to 18 hours of instruction in different kinds of thinking skills: memorizing lists, looking for patterns in strings of numbers or letters and visual concentration. Five years later, they were better at those learned thinking skills, although only one group was better in a statistically significant way.

"What we clearly show is that these short mental workouts improve performance, and that improvement is detectable as much as five years later," says Michael Marsiske, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida and a principal investigator in the ACTIVE study.
posted by jabes at 11:31 AM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recall reading an article by a doctor once that said that such "brain training" exercises were useful, but only for improving performance of those specific exercises. Doing sudoku makes you good at sudoku, but it doesn't really seem to help you do a cryptic crossword.
posted by Solomon at 12:00 PM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what the difference between "smarter" and "more nimble with the smarts we already have" is supposed to be. FWIW, my understanding is that there's no such thing as "general intelligence" in a vacuum.

By using your mind you get better at doing things. I don't think the either/or construct you're setting up really fits.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:58 PM on October 29, 2011

As above responders have noted, the phrasing in the question is a bit difficult to support. There does appear to be evidence that practice with specific mental skills does improve future performance in those skills. What is unclear is whether this is generalizable and if there are practice exercises that improve performance in different, yet related mental skills.

Despite the lack of evidence, my suspicion is that this is in fact possible within parameters set by genetics, health and other factors. It is quite difficult to distinguish where the dividing lines are between similar and dissimilar skills and what is correlation or causation in these sorts of investigations.
posted by meinvt at 3:12 PM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The best evidence for an exercise that may transfer somewhat broadly beyond the particular exercise seems to be Jaeggi's stuff on the dual n-back task and links to "fluid intelligence", but it's still fairly fresh research without a lot of corroboration I know of. There are a lot of companies injecting a lot of hype into the sales of cognitive gaming experience, including those with sciencey pedigrees. (That bugs me.)
posted by spbmp at 7:43 PM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: variety. variety. variety of experience. picking up a big stack of 'search-a-word' puzzles is only going to make your brain better at 'search-a-word' puzzles. paint a picture. play a video game. open the dictionary at random and write a 10-page research paper about the first noun you see. go to the beach and see how many different organisms you can find...try to figure out their life cycles and what sort of accent they would speak with if they were able. take a sword-fighting class. read an entire book while doing sit-ups. write a sonnet about cheese. and sure, throw in some puzzles. (though i would never admit it, i have sudoku on my phone)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:45 PM on October 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When you exercise your brain, new neural pathways are created. Some brains may have more capacity, in the same sense that some computers have a better central processing unit, and more RAM, but if they run Windows 98, they can't use that capacity. However, we don't have the means to assess capacity well, so I don't think there's a useful distinction. Exercise your brain, and you will be functionally smarter.

The people I know who appear/are really smart tend to have a really good memory, the ability to make leaps in problem resolution, the ability to assess information for validity and importance, the ability to articulate problems and resolutions, and certainly a lot more. You can do exercises that improve those and other abilities. Music seems to make people smarter - playing, singing, listening, and writing, as well as intellectual games, and memory skills.
posted by theora55 at 7:18 AM on October 30, 2011

There are 2 books you should look at (I have only read the first). The Brain That Changes Itself, which is about neuroplasticity in general, and The Playful Brain, which is about how puzzles are good for the brain.
posted by O9scar at 4:04 PM on October 30, 2011

I seem to recall reading an article about that claimed that 3 activities could actually change brain "structure": learning foreign languages, learning a musical instrument, and learning to juggle.

I've also read somewhere that N-back(?) type exercises can increase memory "capacity". I tried some of these and I can only say that my brain hurts afterwards.
posted by screamingnotlaughing at 8:51 AM on November 1, 2011

« Older Lead dust elimination basics   |   Help me find a Daily Show clip Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.