Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power
by Dan Hurley
Penguin Group/Hudson Street Press, 2013

Psychologists have long believed that fluid intelligence, or the ability to learn and solve problems, is essentially immutable. That is why in 2008, when Swiss psychologists Susanne M. Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl suggested that they could improve this form of intelligence with a simple working memory task, their findings sent ripples of disbelief among cognitive scientists.

As journalist Hurley explains in Smarter, the work of Jaeggi, Buschkuehl and others has sparked a revolution in how we think about intelligence. In recent years evidence has mounted that certain interventions could benefit people of average or high ability or prevent cognitive decline associated with aging and disease. [For more on this work, see “Scientists Design Exercises That Make You Smarter,” by John Jonides, Susanne M. Jaeggi, Martin Buschkuehl and Priti Shah; Scientific American Mind, September/October 2012.]

Hurley investigates the validity of these claims, exploring empirical evidence and implementing some of the better-supported approaches in a weekly routine. For three months he takes countless tests, plays numerous games, learns a new musical instrument, engages in intense physical exercise, receives transcranial direct-current stimulation and wears a nicotine patch—all in pursuit of a nimbler noggin.

Although the precise mechanisms underlying many of these techniques remain unknown, Hurley suggests that electrical brain stimulation may increase intelligence by promoting new neural connections. Other interventions appear to have fewer direct effects. Nicotine, for example, encourages the flow of dopamine, which might in turn modulate attention and movement (hence use of the patch). And cardiovascular exercise increases the flow of oxygen to the brain, which could aid cognition.

Hurley measures his intelligence before and after this experiment through a number of IQ tests. Although the results show little or no improvement on many measures, his score on the Raven's matrices, a test of general intelligence, climbs about 16 percent. Notably, Hurley reports feeling more focused, alert and invigorated throughout his training—yet for all we know he may be experiencing a placebo effect.

Despite the limited scientific value of one man's self-experimentation, Hurley's research suggests that his combined approach may be best for achieving real change. At this early stage, though, the field of cognitive enhancement offers more questions than answers. For example, it is unclear whether training in one memory task truly alters general intelligence as opposed to merely improving skills related to the specific activity. Yet some scientists are optimistic, likening the results to strength training that may target one set of muscles but still improves overall balance and stability.

Smarter presents a clear-eyed but encouraging view of cognitive enhancement, making the science come to life through engaging anecdotes. Although efforts to boost our brainpower are still in their infancy, Hurley convincingly argues that we have the ability to keep our mind razor-sharp by continuously challenging the brain and body.