Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Smarter, Faster - research breakthroughs

We really do live in exciting times. What with global geopolitical and economic power shifts and increasingly evident environmental concerns it's easy to feel uneasy. Yet there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about our ability to learn new ways to manage and cope through what will inevitably be a long rollercoaster ride over the next few decades. The pace of innovation in many fields is accelerating as the collaborative power of the internet widens its influence across the world. One of these is the world of neuroscience which focuses on the human organ at the root of it all - the brain.

What we are finding out about how our brain interacts with the outside environment, processes and stores information is poised to have a truly fundamental impact. The current institutional inertia within education and training is beginning to look like the proverbial leaky dam. -It's going to take more than a few fingers in holes to stop the whole thing tumbling down in the face of a flood of evidence, yes real evidence, that reveals how we really learn - not only that, how we can optimise that process.

Here's one study that particularly caught my eye:

Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory

As reported by Wired:

Brain researchers for the first time claim to have found a method for improving the general problem-solving ability scientists call fluid intelligence, otherwise known as "smarts."

Fluid intelligence was previously thought to be genetically hard-wired, but the finding suggests that with about 25 minutes of rigorous mental training a day, healthy adults could improve their mental capacities.

Fluid intelligence measures how people adapt to new situations and solve problems they've never seen before. Fluid intelligence differs from crystallized intelligence, which takes into account skills and knowledge that have been acquired -- like vocabulary, grammar and math.

Subjects trained on a complex version of the so-called "n-back task" -- a difficult visual/auditory memory test -- improved their scores on a set of IQ questions drawn from a German intelligence measure called the Bochumer Matrizen-Test. (The Bochumer Matrizen-Test is a harder version of the well-known Ravens Progressive Matrices).

Initially, the test subjects scored an average of 10 questions correctly on the IQ test. But after the group trained on the n-back task for 25 minutes a day for 19 days, they averaged 14.7 correct answers, an increase of more than 40 percent. (A control group that was not trained showed only a very slight performance increase.)

Transfer of learning - or as I have discussed before the lack of transfer - is the elephant in the room. Most learning activities fail due to an inability to equip people with the "smarts" to apply what they know in one context into a new, even slightly different one. Given that the world we are entering is one of constant and increasing change, this is more than a worry. So, while it is still early days, reports that we are finding ways to develop models and tools that tackle this central pillar of intelligence is fantastic news.

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