How much smarter can you get with ‘brain exercises’? It’s not clear, a new book says.

Brain Training
Are we stuck with the IQ we’re born with, or can we become smarter?
‘Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power’ by Dan Hurley

The question journalist Dan Hurley posed as he began work on this book is “Are we not smart enough to figure out how to make ourselves smarter?” To answer it, he became his own lab rat: He took tests rating various measures of his brain’s abilities, including the IQ test for getting into Mensa. He also had a brain scan.

Over the course of a few months, he then put himself through various kinds of touted — and debated — brain exercises. For computer-based training, he used the widely advertised Lumosity system for half an hour a day and a version of a working-memory exercise called the N-back for 40 minutes. On the premise that physical exercise improves brain power, he went to “boot camp” three days a week: running, stair-climbing, weightlifting and more. Because both music and meditation have been shown to affect cognitive intelligence, he tried mindfulness meditation (he couldn’t keep it up) and learned to play the lute (and loved it). He used a nicotine patch because — disassociated from tobacco — numerous studies have shown nicotine to be a cognitive enhancer. He had his brain zapped with transcranial direct-current stimulation.

Then he had himself tested again.

What were the results? Spoiler alert: Decidedly mixed.

His Mensa-tested IQ of 136 rose “one stinking point,” he writes. Tests of fluid intelligence — the underlying ability to learn, see patterns, solve problems — showed him “3 percent smarter or 6 percent smarter or 16 percent smarter.” On some tests his scores were flat, or even declined.

But, he writes, “so what? Those are just numbers on a test. In the end, for all of us, the test of cognitive abilities is one for which there is no answer key. It’s called life.” After his brain training, he writes, “I got along better with my wife and daughter. I no longer found myself getting into my car and realizing that I’d forgotten my briefcase. . . . It sounds pat and cliched, but what can I tell you? I feel smarter.”

Chatty and personal, “Smarter” is an easy read — even for those of us with untrained brains.

Science Event
Seeing is believing
‘God’s Eye View: Overhead Spying for Environmentalism’

Satellite imagery began as a Cold War tool, with U.S. and Soviet “eyes in the sky” keeping watch on missile installations and troop movements. Later, satellites tracked storms and weather patterns, creating images that have become familiar online and on television news.

But these days, people such as John Amos and Paul Woods, partners in the nonprofit SkyTruth, are using satellite images to illuminate environmental problems. With the motto “If you can see it, you can change it,” the organization creates images that “expose the landscape disruption and habitat degradation caused by mining, oil and gas drilling, deforestation and other human activities.”

On Tuesday, Amos and Woods will be at the Busboys and Poets location at 5th and K streets at 6:30 p.m. to lead a DC Science Cafe event on “leveraging what once were government-exclusive intelligence-gathering assets for the cause of environmental conservation.” For more information, e-mail DCScienceCafe@dcswa.org.

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