How a video game makes smarter kids in only 20 days!

Image courtesy of DAVIDE GUGLIELMO


It’s the blog heading every parent has been waiting for! A video game can improve kids’ intelligence!

If you’ve had it with Baby Mozart, gone broke on smart pills, run out of time for hothousing, been somehow baffled by subliminal education and never figured out how to choose a good hypnotherapist, well, boy, do we ever have an answer for you!!

Go on. Admit it.

You’d make your kid smarter if you could.

And secretly try it yourself too, at night, when the kids are in bed…

But if you’ve ever agonized over the time your kid spends on Playstation or X-Box and wondered if it really would lead to a real job that pays real dollars, then this might answer the questions.

What if – just imagine this for a moment – what if practising a simple task, for about 20 minutes each day, for less than a month, would significantly improve your kids’ test performance on a standard intelligence test? And what if that benefit would last for three months or more?

Would you sign up? Would you want some more evidence? Would you keep doing it? Tell your friends?

It’s called n-back

I know, I know, it’s a really catchy name but, marketing aside, it really seems to deliver. To get your head around the detail, I first need you to understand two key components of general intelligence. They’re these:

fluid intelligence


crystallized intelligence

Fluid intelligence

Fluid intelligence is the ability we have to think logically, reason and, importantly, to solve, new problems, independently of knowledge we already have.

It involves analyzing new problems, detecting patterns and relationships, and then bridging gaps to new solutions based on the reasoning we’ve already done. It’s powerful magic, and you’ll see it in action in solving puzzles and working out problem solving strategies.

It develops in your kids from an early age and peaks around late adolescence. Unfortunately, it tends to start a gradual decline from about 40 onwards.

Key point: It’s strongly linked to what’s known as working memory, which is our ability to keep information alive and accessible in our minds, even during distraction. It’s not just storing information for a short-term, but actively manipulating and processing it as well.

Crystallized intelligence

Crystallized intelligence is different. It’s the ability to actively use our experience and our skills.

It’s built through education, experience, culture, time, and interaction with fluid intelligence. You’ll see it in action when people reason with words or numbers, using general knowledge and vocabulary, such as in reading comprehension tests.

It develops alongside fluid intelligence but, unlike fluid intelligence, continues to develop and strengthen as we age, especially as we experience more.

Key point: It’s strongly linked to long-term memory which is about storing things, but especially for later retrieval.

So what does n-back mean?

It’s an entirely descriptive name where ‘n’, just means any number, and’ back’ refers to going back in a series or list by that same number. So a three-back test would involve us going three steps back in a list.


The test

Two weeks ago, at the Association for Psychological Science‘s annual meeting, psychologist John Jonides (University of Michigan) presented his evidence showing impressive improvements on fluid intelligence scores that lasted for up to three months, and which came in a video game version.

Jonides was showing evidence from a range of n-back mental exercises. Basically, they’re tasks that plug into our working memory function. It goes something like this…

We’re presented with a series of stimuli: auditory and/or visual. What we have to then do, is to identify whether a particular cue has already been presented say, one time back. In this case it would be easy enough, you’d hope, because one-time-back means that the letters would be repeated. A verbal, one-back test could look like this


Here, you’d have to respond wherever I’ve noted the letter in blue because, one time back, underlined, the letter had already occurred.

A verbal two-time back test could be…

R J F A F Q A O J O A I J F J A O Q S I S A F P 

and three-time back…

R J F A F Q A O J A I J F A O F Q S I Q A F P 

If you go well, then the test difficulty is increased. Looks easy enough, right?


Back in the day, the results had been interesting, when first published in 2003. Since then, ongoing work has refined the outcomes, extended results. made some tweaks, and produced a much more robust system.

For example, Jonides and collaborators Martin Buschkuehl, Susanne Jaeggi, and Walter Perrig demonstrated that dual n-back training improved performance particularly on fluid intelligence tests. But this is better still.

New studies, video games and kids

The more training, the better. Neural blood flow tests in adults show the benefits. Test scores show the improvements.

And all for twenty minutes a day.

Jonides calls it a dose-response effect, which simply means there is a relationship between the two, with the dose directly affecting the response. Jonides adds that their new studies also show that single n-back training, but this time using spatial stimuli, demonstrate the same benefits.

And, the new studies also used kids, and the video game version. Results? Same. Woo hoo.

So here’s at least one video game that will, actually, make your kid more intelligent.

Curiously, too, it made the kids much less likely to be deceived by information that was tempting, but wrong, making them what Jonides calls psychologically conservative. Side note: Interesting risk and decision-making implications here.

So here’s the take home bit

Increasing fluid intelligence is a good thing. Because it is, various people have thought that we should have the opportunity to try it for ourselves.

So here you go.

Here’s the free online version for free online types.

Here’s the open source version for open source types with Mac, Linux and Windows.

Here’s the Android version for Android types.

Here’s the iPhone version for iPhone types.

Let me know how you get on. I’ll expect comments in 20 days 🙂

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Fluid intelligence, Crystallized intelligence, working memory, n-back

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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