Initially, there was widespread beliefs, backed with scientific evidence that, cognitive training would result in only a temporary increment in cognitive function; that once such training stopped, our ability would revert back to normal. However, subsequent studies have found out that it is quite possible.

According to the Association for Psychological Science, intelligence is classified into two categories: fluid intelligence and crystallised intelligence.

Fluid intelligence, or Gf is the ability to reason in an abstract way, solve problems, the ability to reason, and to solve new problems independently of previously acquired knowledge. Gf is critical for many cognitive tasks, and it is considered one of the most important factors in learning. Gf is also closely related to professional and educational success, especially in complex and demanding environments.

Crystallised intelligence is more related to the acquisition of intellectual skills, or the ability to read and comprehend. It is generally thought that our crystallised intelligence generally increases with age as we learn new skill; while fluid intelligence is meant to be stagnant, until now.

Autism case studies shine light on cognitive training

The usage of multi-modal training – by way of communication, reading, math, social functioning, play skills and leisure activities – for children with autism has returned unexpected and fascinating results.

One notable case was that of a little boy with Pervasive Developmental Delays-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) type mild autism. Before therapy, his IQ was in the low 80s (considered to be borderline for mental retardation). After about three years of one on one tutorial using multimodal techniques, he was retested. His IQ score was well over 100 (considered average, as compared to the general population).

This was discovered by Andrea Kuszewski, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET). She explained that during her time as a behaviour therapist for autistic children she was able to observe first-hand drastic increases in IQ test scores, following such treatments.

That boy seemed to be an isolated case; until studies published by Susanne M. Jaeggi and her team in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), showed otherwise. Her analyses of the training functions discovered that all training groups improved in their performance on the working memory task comparably. The groundbreaking discovery is the dramatic improvement on the test of Gf in the trained groups.

Although the gain in the control groups was also significant, presumably because of retest effects, the improvement in the groups that received the apparent benefit of training was substantially higher. A subsequent analysis of the gain scores (post-testing minus pre-testing) as a function of training time, showed that transfer to Gf varied as a function of training time; so as training time increased, transfer to Gf increased too.

Smart drugs

Then there is the field of so-called “smart drugs”, the most famous of which is modafinil. Originally used to treat patients with narcolepsy, this prescription-only drug has been re-tooled for usage by well-rested people. Research published in European Neuropsychopharmacology found that modafinil was able to help users perform complex forms of thinking, boosting our cognition, especially our executive function, and consolidating memory.

It is a notable point that more benefits are being associated with modafinil use rather than less, which suggests that modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical ‘nootropic’ agent. The drug also had few negative side effects, with some users reporting insomnia, headaches and nausea.
Still, while modafinil and other nootropics may enhance certain functions for a short period of time, they cannot have a lasting impact on increasing our actual overall intelligence.

Ethics: the golden question

However, this raises the question of ethics. Is it ethical to utilise external performance enhancers to boost our cognitive abilities, albeit temporarily? Will it be fair, for example, for a student to consume nootropics before an exam to boost his performance? Currently such behaviour would certainly not be permissible, although there are definitely under-the-counter uses of the drug amongst those who are notoriously high-achieving and driven.

Although modafinil is not - yet - certified to be used in such instances, there is enough scientific literature to prove that its efficacy is proven. Does doing so amount to the equivalent of athletes using performance enhancers during competition? All these questions require more research, and debate into the ethicality.  MIMS


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