Who doesn’t want to be smarter?

I’ve never met anyone (even future Nobel laureates) who didn’t wish they were smarter.  So cognitive training should do the trick.  Right?  Not so fast.  In a very well written (and even funny in parts) article in PNAS vol 115 pp. 9897 – 9904 ’18 titled “How to play 20 questions with nature and lose: Reflections on 100 years of brain training research” all the pitfalls of setting up a study to prove or disprove the benefits of cognitive training are laid out.  The paper is worth reading for anyone considered any sort of manipulation to change human behavior it (including medication which is why drug chemists should be interested in it).  You can read it for free at

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/09/26/161702114.full

This didn’t work for someone —

Try this one — http://www.pnas.org/content/115/40/9897

An enormous number of pitfalls of the work already done on the efficacy of cognitive training are laid out, far too numerous to summarize here.

I’ve written about one such pitfall (expectancy effects) earlier — here it is

Science proves cognitive training will raise your IQ 5 – 10 points

Who among you doesn’t want to be smarter? A placebo controlled study with 25 people in each group showed that cognitive training raised IQ 5 – 10 points [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 113 pp. 7470 – 7474 ’16 ].

You know that there has to be a catch and there is. The catch points to a problem with every placebo controlled trial ever done, particularly those with drugs, so drug chemists pay attention.

What was the placebo? It was the way subjects are recruited for these studies. Of 19 previous studies in the literature, 17 recruited patients using terms like ‘cognition’ or ‘brain training’, so the authors put out two ads for subjects.

Here are the two ads they used

Ad #1

Brain Training and Cognitive Enhancement
Numerous studies of ahown that working memory training can increase fluid intelligences (several references cited)
Participate in a study today !
EMail for more information GMUBrainTraining@Gmail.com

Ad #2

EMail Today and Participate in a study
Need SONA credits? (I have no idea what they are)
Sign up for a study today and earn up to 5 credits
Participate in a study today !
cforough@masonlive.gmu.edu

I might mention that the two ads were identical in total size, font sizes, coloration used etc. etc.

” Two individual difference metrics regarding beliefs about cognition and intelligence were also collected as potential moderators. The researchers who interacted with participants were blind to the goal of the experiment and to the experimental condition”  Not bad. Not bad at all.

The results: those recruited with ad #1 showed the increase in IQ, those recruited with ad #2 showed no improvement.

It was an expectancy effect. Those who thought intelligence could be raised by training, showed the greatest IQ improvement.   Every sick patient wants to get better, and any drug trial simply must mention what it is for, the risks and rewards, so this effect is impossible to avoid. It probably explains the high placebo response rate for migraine and depression (over 30% usually).

What is really impressive (to me at least) is that the improvement was not in a subjective rating scale (such as is used for depression), but in something as objective as it gets. IQ questions have a right and wrong answers. You can argue about whether they ‘really’ measure intelligence, but they measure what they measure and fluid intelligence is one of them.

Medicine is full of fads and fashions, sugar is poison, fat is bad (no it’s good) etc. etc. and this is true in spades for treatments, particularly those touted in the press. Next time you’re in a supermarket, look at the various nostrums mentioned in the magazines at the checkout stand.

When I first started out in practice, one particular headache remedy was getting great results. The rationale behind it seemed bizarre, so I asked a very smart  old GP about it — his advice — “use it while it works”. Rest in peace, Herb

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Comments

  • Peter Shenkin  On October 10, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    That link to the full article does not work (for me). “Page not found”.

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