STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Turns out there are some workouts that can improve your memory. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on two approaches to brain training.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Brain training programs often target something called working memory.
KARA BLACKER: Working memory is our mental workspace.
HAMILTON: Kara Blacker is a scientist at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. She says you need working memory to get through the day.
BLACKER: So if somebody gives you directions, you have to keep that information in mind long enough to actually execute going to that location. If somebody tells you a phone number, you have to be able to remember it.
HAMILTON: Scientists have tried two methods to improve working memory. And Blacker wanted to know whether one of them was more effective. So she and a team at Johns Hopkins University had more than 130 people spend a month training their brains. One group trained with something called the dual n-back test. Blacker says it involves monitoring two streams of information and trying to recall what you saw or heard in each stream.
BLACKER: It sounds very difficult, but people get surprisingly good at it.
HAMILTON: Another group trained with something called a complex span test. They tried to remember the order and location of squares on a grid. And there was a clear winner. The team reports in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement that people who used the dual n-back test improved their working memory by about 30 percent. Blacker says that was nearly twice as much as people who used the complex span test.
BLACKER: And then the really exciting part was that we found that the dual n-back group showed significant changes in their brain activity.
HAMILTON: Especially in an area associated with higher-level thinking. So did training make these people smarter?
BLACKER: No, that is not what we found.
HAMILTON: Their IQ didn't change. And Bradley Voytek of the University of California, San Diego says that's been the case with most brain training studies.
BRADLEY VOYTEK: We want to just be able to, like, pull up our iPhone while we're sitting on the train or at a bus stop or something, play a game for a couple of minutes and get smarter.
HAMILTON: But we can't. Voytek says brain training programs seem to improve only a very narrow set of skills, not overall intelligence. And that's not surprising. After all, Voytek says, you wouldn't expect people who train their bodies for cycling to also be great swimmers or runners.
VOYTEK: They're not going to be able to compete against Usain Bolt. Just like if you put Usain Bolt on a bike, they're not going to be able to compete with a world-class cyclist.
HAMILTON: The skills just don't transfer. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEM IVERSOM'S "BLUE")
INSKEEP: If you want to see what a brain workout looks like, get it on your brain. It's on our health blog Shots at npr.org.
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