Can intelligence be taught?

Klingberg, T., Forssberg, H., & Westerberg, H. (2002). Training of working memory in children with ADHD. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 24(6), 781-791.

It’s a good time for social scientists who like biology. From Shakespeare’s wordplay to accelerating human evolution, biology is being used to explain more and more of our world. This is also true of topics that some people react to very emotionally, such as the role of genetic and environmental causes of human diversity in general intelligence.

The New Yorker has a mostly good article criticizing the role of genetics. Aside from a personal attack near the beginning, the article mostly emphasizes that changing environment changes general intelligence. It got me thinking if general intelligence itself could be changed by instruction, especially considering the finding that working memory correlates almost perfectly with IQ.

Well, Torkel Klinberg and colleagues asked that same question in 2002 and the answer is yes.

The researchers looked not only at measures of working memory, such as visuospatial working memory, and measures of general intelligence, such as Raven’s progressive matrices, but also things you wouldn’t expect: like head bobbing.

The measurement of head movements has been described in previous publications (Teicher et al., 1996). An infrared motion analysis system (OPTAx Systems, Burlington, MA) recorded the movements of a small reflective marker attached to the back of the head of the child. A movement was designed to begin when the marker moved 1.0mm or more from its most recent resting location. The number of movements was recorded during a 15-min period when the child was performing a version of a continuous performance task. In this task subjects were asked to respond to a target and withhold response to nontargets, with no requirement of holding any information in WM. Stimuli were presented every 2.0 s, and 50% of stimuli were target

Why include head-bobbing, you ask? Well, head-bobbing among ADHD students is already subject to medication — so you can compare the benefits of training with the benefits of drugging:

The number of head movements was significantly reduced in the treatment group compared to the control group (Table 1, Fig. 1c). Again, this effect was evident in all subjects in the treatment group (Fig. 1c). The number of head movements during retest in the control group was about 6% higher than during the first testing. This is consistent with previous data on test-retest changes after administration of pharmacological placebo, where an increase of about 8% was found on the second testing (Teicher et al., 2000; Teicher, personal communication). The reduction of head movements in the treatment group was 74% (SEM 7). In comparison, a probe dose of methylphenidate (approximately 0.4 mg/kg) reduced the number of head movements by 62% (Teicher et al., 2000).

While the authors warn that more work is needed to see if this really leads to an increase in general intelligence, things look hopeful:

The present study showed that intensive and adaptive, computerized [working memory] WM training gradually increased the amount of information that the subjects could keep in WM (Tables 1 and 3, Figs. 1 and 2). The improved performance occurred over weeks of training, and is in this respect similar to the slow acquisition of a perceptual skill or a motor skill (Karni et al., 1995; Recanzone, Schreiner, & Merzenich, 1993; Tallal et al., 1996). Furthermore, the improvement from training was evident both for a group of children with ADHD (Experiment 1), as well as for adult subjects without ADHD (Experiment 2). This shows that an initial deficit inWMwas not necessary for improvement to occur.

All learners have two board sources of ability: knowledge of what they are doing, and the intelligence to apply it. Both of these can be improved with a positive environment, and both can be weakened by a bad environment.

To the extent that we wish to have a functioning systems administration at home and abroad, we must encourage those institutions that help develop skills and intelligence, and discourage those institutions that diminish them both.