ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This might be happening to you as you get older. You forget the name of your colleague, or you forget why you ran down to the basement. Your brain is aging. It's shrinking. Connections are weakening. Faced with her own forgetfulness, author Barbara Bradley Hagerty tried to give her brain a tune-up. She writes about her efforts in a new book about midlife called "Life Reimagined." And to her surprise, Barbara discovered that an older dog can learn new tricks.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: A confession - I loathe standardized tests. And one of the perks of reaching midlife is that I thought I'd never have to take another.
ALLY STEGMAN: You're going to be going - undergoing a battery of cognitive tasks.
HAGERTY: Welcome to my nightmare.
STEGMAN: And then you'll be coming back here, hopefully, again and testing again to see if you've made any improvement.
HAGERTY: Should I be nervous?
STEGMAN: No, not at all (laughter).
HAGERTY: Ally Stegman, who manages a memory laboratory at the University of Maryland, slides a sheet of paper in front of me. It has a series of boxes containing different patterns and one blank space. My job is to figure out the missing pattern. The test measure a sort of raw intelligence, the ability to figure out novel problems.
STEGMAN: Any questions before you begin?
STEGMAN: All right. Good luck.
HAGERTY: Thank you.
Time races by. It takes me two minutes to crack the first question. I am stumped by the second and the third, and finally, I begin to guess.
Gee, this is hard. Put me out of my misery now.
The reason I am here voluntarily reliving my nightmare is simple. I want to tune-up my 50-something brain. So over the next month, I will do brain training exercises and see if I can make myself smarter. Now, researchers typically talk about two aspect of intelligence. One is crystallized intelligence - our accumulated skills, experience and knowledge that we pick up in life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This is "Jeopardy!"
HAGERTY: Think about those contestants who rattle off obscure facts.
ALEX TREBEK: The language group named for these nomadic tribesmen of North Africa is also called Tamazight. Roger (ph)...
ROGER: What is Berber?
TREBEK: Berber is right.
HAGERTY: I knew that. This crystallized intelligence can keep rising through your 60s and 70s. And then there is fluid intelligence - our ability to solve novel problems without using our experience or knowledge. Think Sherlock Holmes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERLOCK")
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) There's a knife on the breadboard with butter on the right side of the blade because he used it with his left. It's highly unlikely that a left-handed man would shoot himself in the right side of his head. Conclusion - someone broke in here and murdered him.
HAGERTY: Fluid intelligence is thought to be limited by your genes and generally begin to decrease after your 20s. Susanne Jaeggi, a cognitive neuroscientist and my guide through the brain training experiment, says scientists have long thought that you cannot increase fluid intelligence. But Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, her colleague and husband, wondered about that. They decided to focus on working memory. That is your ability to hold information in your head as you manipulate, juggle and update it.
SUSANNE JAEGGI: If we can strengthen working memory skills, we might see benefits on all other tasks that rely on the functioning of the working memory system, such as fluid intelligence or reading comprehension or others.
HAGERTY: It worked. They found that when people practiced on a computerized game that built up working memory, they improved their scores on fluid intelligence test. When they published their findings in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, they set off a firestorm.
ZACH HAMBRICK: Who cares if you get better at a videogame task?
HAGERTY: Zach Hambrick, a cognitive psychologist at Michigan State University, says scientists are divided as to whether brain training works. He's tried to replicate their findings and failed. And even if Jaeggi's and Buschkuehl's participants did perform better on tests, he says...
HAMBRICK: What we want to see is that people are improving in the workplace, in the classroom, and this is the evidence that's really lacking.
HAGERTY: I've heard this reservation many times. Still, I'm curious and slightly desperate to sharpen my brain. So...
OK, here we go - brain training session number one.
The day after I meet Jaeggi and Buschkuehl, I sit in my living room and start their brain training game called the n-back. Light-blue boxes fill my computer screen. When one square lights up, I decide whether it's in the same location as the square that lit up last time. Sounds easy, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)
HAGERTY: It gets trickier when you have to decide if that square lit up two times ago or three or four.
Oh, 77 percent correct - gee whiz.
Theoretically, after 20 days of practicing, I will become more mentally agile. I'll be able to hold memories in my head and manipulate them. I've got my doubts. But even if it doesn't work, brain researchers have great news for people 30 and up who feel their brains are slowing down. We can get smarter. Remember; intelligence can be divided into two parts, fluid intelligence - the kind of IQ you're born with - and crystallized intelligence - skill, knowledge, expertise.
HAMBRICK: There's no controversy about whether we can increase crystallized intelligence.
HAGERTY: Take up a hobby. Learn the guitar or Spanish, Zach Hambrick says. You've made yourself smarter. And you can keep improving your brain right into your 70s.
Intelligence experts say that not all learning is equal. To sharpen your brain, you should practice something new and hard. If you're already good at crosswords, doing more won't help much.
On the 20th day of brain training, the game has switched from squares to objects. I have to remember beach balls, English castles, action heroes. I briefly ascend to the lofty heights of level four, and then...
Oh, this is really hard one. It's O'Keeffe paintings of flowers, and they are almost indistinguishable. It's really hard. Basically, I guess a lot.
Despite my angst, there is hope.
LAURA CARSTENSEN: Oh, the middle-aged brain is fantastic (laughter).
HAGERTY: Laura Carstensen directs the Stanford Center on Longevity. She says in your 50s, your cognitive abilities have not declined that much, while your knowledge and expertise are quite advanced.
CARSTENSEN: Now, add into that emotion regulation - the ability to solve hotly charged emotional conflicts - and you've got a real powerhouse.
HAGERTY: Whenever judgment or wisdom is required, we tend to opt for the 50- or 60- or 70-year old. Just look at the U.S. Supreme Court. I put the question to Zach Hambrick. Would he rather have a 30-year-old surgeon or a 50-year-old?
HAMBRICK: I'm going to take the 50-year-old.
HAGERTY: That doctor has 20 more years in the operating room.
HAMBRICK: And they'd performed hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of surgeries. So what's going to rule the day is your crystallized intelligence.
HAGERTY: And if something goes awry in the OR, the veteran surgeon is more likely to have seen it before, and at a glance, he knows what to do. After a month of brain training to increase my fluid intelligence, I returned with some dread to the University of Maryland. This time, when Ally Stegman shuts me into the room to take the tests, it feels as if time slows down. I have more time to figure out each answer.
I'm either really messing up, or these are a lot easier this time.
HAGERTY: Two hours later, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl walk into the room. They have my results.
MARTIN BUSCHKUEHL: Well, let's bring out the drum roll.
HAGERTY: I improved on average 18 percent across all the tests. Some of that, they said, could be because I'd taken these tests a month earlier. It's called the retest effect. But on the test that's considered a gold standard measure of fluid intelligence, I improved by 75 percent, raising the $64,000 question...
So, Susan, am I smarter?
JAEGGI: Sure you are. Look at that.
HAGERTY: Jaeggi quickly notes that I'm a study of one. I may be a fluke. And I do still forget where I put my key. I still stare at my phone wondering whom I was about to call. And yet, after all this, I believe there is hope for my middle-aged brain and yours. Who are you, again? For NPR News, I'm Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.