This week Damien Williams — aka Wolven — joined me to talk about pop culture portrayals of human enhancement and artificial intelligence and why we need to craft more nuanced narratives to explore these topics. Damien has been exploring the subject extensively at A Future Worth Thinking About.
Tune in next week to hear Damien talk about how AI and transhumanism intersects with magic and the occult.
Cancer survivors sometimes suffer from a condition known as “chemo fog”—a cognitive impairment caused by repeated chemotherapy. A study hints at a controversial idea: that brain-training software might help lift this cognitive cloud.
Various studies have concluded that cognitive training can improve brain function in both healthy people and those with medical conditions, but the broader applicability of these results remains controversial in the field.
In a study published in the journal Clinical Breast Cancer, investigators report that those who used a brain-training program for 12 weeks were more cognitively flexible, more verbally fluent, and faster-thinking than survivors who did not train. […]
“This is a well-done study—they had not just one transfer test but several,” says Hambrick, who notes that many studies of cognitive training depend on a single test to measure results. “But an issue is the lack of activity within the control group.” Better would be to have the control group do another demanding cognitive task in lieu of Lumosity training—something analogous to a placebo, he says: “The issue is that maybe the improvement in the group that did the cognitive training doesn’t reflect enhancement of basic cognitive processes per se, but could be a motivational phenomenon.”
The Dual N-Back FAQ is a great resource compiling tons of research and advice on using the dual n-back test for improving working memory and/or general intelligence.
SHOULD I DO MULTIPLE DAILY SESSIONS, OR JUST ONE?
Most users seem to go for one long N-back session, pointing out that exercises one’s focus. Others do one session in the morning and one in the evening so they can focus better on each one. There is some scientific support for the idea that evening sessions are better than morning sessions, though; see Kuriyama 2008 on how practice before bedtime was more effective than after waking up.
If you break up sessions into more than 2, you’re probably wasting time due to overhead, and may not be getting enough exercise in each session to really strain yourself like you need to.
And as for frequency/spacing:
This study compared a high intensity working memory training (45 minutes, 4 times per week for 4 weeks) with a distributed training (45 minutes, 2 times per week for 8 weeks) in middle-aged, healthy adults…Our results indicate that the distributed training led to increased performance in all cognitive domains when compared to the high intensity training and the control group without training. The most significant differences revealed by interaction contrasts were found for verbal and visual working memory, verbal short-term memory and mental speed.
It also includes a meta-analysis of studies critical of n-back and found evidence for only one flaw: use of passive control groups, which accounts for about half of the improvement in IQ in some studies.
I found it via Brain Workshop, an opens source n-back application for Windows, OSX and Linux.
A high intake of fructose impairs the cognitive abilities of rats by interfering with insulin signaling, but omega-3 fatty acids (n-3) reduces those negative effects effects according to a study from the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology UCLA published in Journal of Physiology.
Although headlines today, including my own, emphasize the study’s findings regarding the impairing effects of high levels of fructose, the study also highlights the importance of n-3 acids, specifically DHA, to cognitive function. The authors of the study conclude: “In terms of public health, these results support the encouraging possibility that healthy diets can attenuate the action of unhealthy diets such that the right combination of foods is crucial for a healthy brain.”
The study, conducted by Rahul Agrawal1 and Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, consisted of four groups of six rats:
one group ate an n-3 deficient diet with a fructose solution
one group ate an n-3 deficient diet without a fructose solution
one group ate an n-3 sufficient diet with a fructose solution
one group ate an n-3 sufficient diet without a fructose solution
Each group was tested on a Barnes maze, a standard measure of spatial learning and memory in rodents. Prior to beginning their special diets all of the rats had been trained in the maze for a five days were found to be of equal cognitive condition.
The study found that an n-3 deficient diet hampered the rats’ performance on the maze, and that adding high fructose intake to an n-3 deficient diet made things substantially worse. The rats with an n-3 sufficient diet but a high level of fructose did significantly better than those with a n-3 deficient diet and a high level of fructose, but still did worse than those with a deficient n-3 level but no fructose. Here’s an illustration of the latency in completing the maze (lower is better):
The study notes: “Although there was a preference towards fructose drinking in comparison to the food intake, no differences were observed in body weight and total caloric intake, thus suggesting that obesity is not a major contributor to altered memory functions in this model.”
This is a new study and has yet to be replicated, and so far its implications for human diets is unclear. “We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,” Gomez-Pinilla said in a pres release. “We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.”
Although studies have found positive benefits in taking DHA supplements (see Wikipedia for an overview), previous study by Nutritional Sciences Division at King’s College London on the DHA levels in vegans and vegetarians concluded that although those who don’t eat meat have significantly lower levels of DHA “There is no evidence of adverse effects on health or cognitive function with lower DHA intake in vegetarians.” However, there are now a number of algae based vegan DHA supplements.
From a press release regarding an as of yet unpublished study conducted over the past 36 years:
Undertaking regular jogging increases the life expectancy of men by 6.2 years and women by 5.6 years, reveals the latest data from the Copenhagen City Heart study presented at the EuroPRevent2012 meeting.
Reviewing the evidence of whether jogging is healthy or hazardous, Peter Schnohr told delegates that the study’s most recent analysis (unpublished) shows that between one and two-and-a-half hours of jogging per week at a “slow or average” pace delivers optimum benefits for longevity. […]
The debate over jogging first kicked off in the 1970s when middle aged men took an interest in the past-time. “After a few men died while out on a run, various newspapers suggested that jogging might be too strenuous for ordinary middle aged people,” recalled Schnohr.
The press release doesn’t talk about how the study controlled for other health factors. Do joggers live longer than swimmers or cyclists? Did the joggers and non-joggers have otherwise similar health habits (diet, tobacco, etc.)?
Dan Hurley wrote a lengthy New York Times piece covering the origins of the n-back training exercise, which purportedly improves fluid intelligence in those who practice it daily:
The study, by a Swedish neuroscientist named Torkel Klingberg, involved just 14 children, all with A.D.H.D. Half participated in computerized tasks designed to strengthen their working memory, while the other half played less challenging computer games. After just five weeks, Klingberg found that those who played the working-memory games fidgeted less and moved about less. More remarkable, they also scored higher on one of the single best measures of fluid intelligence, the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Improvement in working memory, in other words, transferred to improvement on a task the children weren’t training for. […]
When Klingberg’s study came out, both Jaeggi and Buschkuehl were doctoral candidates in cognitive psychology at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Since his high-school days as a Swiss national-champion rower, Buschkuehl had been interested in the degree to which skills — physical and mental — could be trained. Intrigued by Klingberg’s suggestion that training working memory could improve fluid intelligence, he showed the paper to Jaeggi, who was studying working memory with a test known as the N-back. “At that time there was pretty much no evidence whatsoever that you can train on one particular task and get transfer to another task that was totally different,” Jaeggi says. That is, while most skills improve with practice, the improvement is generally domain-specific: you don’t get better at Sudoku by doing crosswords. And fluid intelligence was not just another skill; it was the ultimate cognitive ability underlying all mental skills, and supposedly immune from the usual benefits of practice. To find that training on a working-memory task could result in an increase in fluid intelligence would be cognitive psychology’s equivalent of discovering particles traveling faster than light.
Andrea Kuszewski writes about five ways to amplify your intelligence for Scientific American. I’ve added two additional techniques.
1. Seek Novelty – “People who rate high on Openness are constantly seeking new information, new activities to engage in, new things to learn—new experiences in general.”
2. Challenge Yourself – “Individual brain training games don’t make you smarter—they make you more proficient at the brain training games,” Kuszewski writes. “Once you master one of those cognitive activities in the brain-training game, you need to move on to the next challenging activity. Figure out how to play Sudoku? Great! Now move along to the next type of challenging game.” (Previous Technoccult coverage)
3. Think Creatively – “Contrary to popular belief, creative thinking does not equal ‘thinking with the right side of your brain.’ It involves recruitment from both halves of your brain, not just the right.” (Previous coverage)
4. Do Things the Hard Way “There are times when using technology is warranted and necessary. But there are times when it’s better to say no to shortcuts and use your brain, as long as you can afford the luxury of time and energy.”
5. Network “By networking with other people—either through social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or in face-to-face interactions—you are exposing yourself to the kinds of situations that are going to make objectives 1-4 much easier to achieve.” (Previous coverage)
The government’s official experts on illegal drugs have been asked to look at whether intelligence-enhancing drugs, such as those used by students to boost performance in exams, should be banned.
Medical experts believe that a range of psychoactive drugs that includes those used to tackle the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and attention-deficit disorder in children, could fuel an already over-competitive society when used by the healthy.
Amid fears that the increase in online pharmacies means that such drugs are much more readily available, the Home Office has asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to see how this “rapidly evolving field” should be regulated. Just before she stepped down from office, the previous home secretary, Jacqui Smith, asked the advisory council to assess the harm – including that of possible psychological dependence or addiction – caused by this group of drugs when used by healthy adults.
Parent alert: the Walt Disney Company is now offering refunds for all those “Baby Einstein” videos that did not make children into geniuses.
They may have been a great electronic baby sitter, but the unusual refunds appear to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect.
“We see it as an acknowledgment by the leading baby video company that baby videos are not educational, and we hope other baby media companies will follow suit by offering refunds,” said Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has been pushing the issue for years. […]
s, bright colors, and not many words — became a staple of baby life: According to a 2003 study, a third of all American babies from 6 months to 2 years old had at least one “Baby Einstein” video.
Despite their ubiquity, and the fact that many babies are transfixed by the videos, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under 2.
Follow-up related to the dual n-back test and its use in intelligence amplification:
Researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet have shown for the first time that the active training of the working memory brings about visible changes in the number of dopamine receptors in the human brain. The study, which is published in the journal Science, was conducted with the help of PET scanning and provides deeper insight into the complex interplay between cognition and the brain’s biological structure. […]
Professor Klingberg and his colleagues have previously shown that the working memory can be improved with a few weeks’ intensive training. Through a collaborative project conducted under the Stockholm Brain Institute, the researchers have now taken a step further and monitored the brain using Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans), and have confirmed that intensive brain training leads to a change in the number of dopamine D1 receptors in the cortex.