Your IQ Is A Record Of Your “Cognitive History”
Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive scientist at NYU and one of my favorite writers on intelligence and creativity, has a new column called “Beautiful Minds” on the Scientific American MIND blog network. I loved the column he posted today, in which he writes about a new study led by Silvia Bunge, a professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley. Bunge and her coauthors, Kaufman explains, set out to investigate whether intensive training in reasoning skills would result in improved communication among areas of the brain:
“To test the effect of training on changes in the brain, the researchers included a sample of 26 pre-law students participating in a 3-month course specifically designed to prepare lawyers for the LSAT exam. They chose this course because prior research shows that high levels of motivation and dopamine are associated with greater levels of neuroplasticity in adult animals, the students were clearly motivated to study for the LSAT, and there is obvious societal significance to this form of reasoning training. Every year, more than 100,000 adults take the LSAT, and the assumption by law school selection committees is that these tests measure cognitive potential.
The LSAT course involved 100 hours of instruction and practice distributed across three types of content: 35 hours were devoted to Logic Game questions that require test takers to ‘integrate a series of rules to sequence or group a set of items,’ 35 hours were devoted to Logical Reasoning items that require test takers to ‘determine the logical flaw in an argument, identify an assumption, or choose a statement that would strengthen or weaken an argument,’ and 30 hours were devoted to Reading Comprehension items, which require test takers to ‘interpret short passages of text.’ The types of items on these three sections are strongly correlated with each other and with IQ test performance. The researchers compared the effect of training on the prefrontal parietal brain network with the brain connectivity of 25 pre-law students who were not taking the course, but who had the same levels of IQ, stress levels, and amount of sleep. What did they find?
First, there was an effect of the course. Improvement in LSAT total scores corresponded roughly to an improvement from the 44th percentile to the 73rd percentile (these percentiles depend on the year in which the test was taken). This is a practically meaningful improvement in performance, and as the researchers note, such an improvement would ‘vastly widen the pool of law schools to which he or she had a realistic chance of acceptance.’
But more relevant to the aims of their study, after training they found increased connectivity between the frontal and parietal regions at rest, primarily within the left hemisphere and between hemispheres. Consistent with their prediction, training particularly enhanced communication between the left frontopolar cortex and the posterior and medial parietal regions. They also found increased connectivity between the parietal cortex and the striatum, which is consistent with the role of the striatum in reasoning and skill learning across both cognitive and motor domains.”
Kaufman warns that “since this was a single study with a small sample size, more research is needed.” Nevertheless, he continues,
” . . . these findings do serve as proof of concept that reasoning training– even as brief as 3 months– can significantly alter connectivity in a brain network critical for high-level reasoning. These findings should not be understated, as they challenge traditional notions that intelligence is fixed, and that patterns of connectivity in large-scale brain networks at rest are stable across time. Engagement strengthens connections between disparate specialized brain regions. As Silvia Bunge told me in a personal correspondence, ‘These data underscore the point that our mental agility at a given time reflects the prior history of activation of specific brain networks.’
Instead of interpreting a person’s reasoning test performance at any one moment in time as reflecting that person’s hardwired cognitive potential, these results suggest that it’s more sensible to interpret that score as reflecting the individual’s cognitive history–his or her prior levels of engagement of specific neural networks. Indeed, some psychologists– such as Robert Sternberg and David Lohman–conceptualize IQ test scores at any single point in time as a measure of developing expertise or ability.” (Read more here.)
This last paragraph just blows me away. Just think how differently we would conceptualize our ability and our potential if we thought of an IQ test score, not as something fixed and immutable, but as a record of our “cognitive history,” as a “measure of developing expertise or ability.” Now that is brilliant.