*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Dan Hurley's 'Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power'
The main argument: The idea that we can boost our brain power through interventions of various kinds has been around a long time. Over the years, numerous drugs, diets and other practices (including everything from physical exercise to learning a new language or musical instrument to meditation to even zapping the brain with electrodes) have been purported to pump up our mental strength. And lately, a new practice has been added to this list: brain-training games and exercises. Indeed, in the past decade a whole new industry has emerged around brain-training programs. Built on the premise that specific types of mental activities can strengthen our cognitive skills and add to general intelligence, companies such as Lumosity and LearningRx have convinced millions of paying customers that their product will give them an edge in the brains department.
The more skeptical among us, however, may find ourselves wondering just what is the scientific basis behind all these brain games and other interventions. It was just this thought that occurred to science writer Dan Hurley; and so, following his skeptical sense, Hurley decided to investigate the matter for himself. What Hurley found was a scientific field that, though young, is bustling with activity (and controversy).
The new science of building brain power may be said to have truly kicked off in 2002. In that year, Swedish psychologist Torkel Klingberg performed a study wherein he found that subjects diagnosed with ADHD improved in both attention span and general intelligence after undergoing a brain-training program that involved working-memory exercises (it was this very study that kick-started the brain training industry).
The finding flew in the face of the long-accepted belief that intelligence simply could not be enhanced through training; and therefore, it sparked a great deal of interest in the scientific community. Eager to test the new finding, scientists from all over the world launched their own studies. While not all of the studies replicated the results that Klingberg found, many did; and enough promising results were found to draw even more interest into the field (while those who found negative results began setting up a staunch opposition to the research).
Despite the minority opposition, the long-held belief in immovable intelligence was rocked, and scientists began testing other kinds of interventions as well (including all of those mentioned above). While many of the interventions tested were found to have no effect on cognitive functioning, some did, and thus the new field gained even more momentum.
Wanting very much to get to the bottom of the matter (and the controversy) Hurley decided to check out the studies himself, and also to interview the major researchers in the field (on both sides of the debate). Based on this investigation (which is explored at length in the book), Hurley launched his own brain-training experiment-on himself. Specifically, Hurley took all of those interventions which he felt had the best evidence behind them and incorporated them into a grand brain-training program to see whether he could improve his intelligence.
The routine included the following: A boot camp program (that incorporated both aerobic exercise and resistance training); Lumosity; learning a new musical instrument (the lute); mindfulness meditation; a nicotine patch; coffee; and transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). The results of the experiment? They were mixed.
Hurley's exploration of the new field of building brain power (as well as his own experiment on himself) is fascinating (and often hilarious). One of the strong points of the book is how much detail Hurley gives regarding the experiments that he investigates. However, there is one detail that Hurley often leaves out that would be nice to have: rather than specifying exactly how much a given intervention improved intelligence in terms of percentages, Hurley often confines himself to mentioning whether the improvement was statistically significant or not (which leaves us without a good indication of exactly how well a given intervention worked). Still, Hurley's book is very well researched, and both highly interesting and entertaining. A great resource for those who are interested in getting past the hype of brain boosting, and investigating the actual science. A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Dan Hurley's 'Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power'