Consider these situations:
- 14-year-old Luis wants to finish his math assignment, but spends all morning in class staring out the window.
- 13-year-old Kayla loses her homework almost every day. It’s usually at the bottom of her backpack.
- Madeline wants to start a business, and she has a simple, solid idea. She needs to bring in some income, but when she sits down to work on it, she spaces out.
- Brandon’s has a commission-based job with a high potential for earning a lot. He is easily distracted, though, and he’s not working up to his potential. At this rate, he’ll be working well into his 70s.
These people were my clients. When we started, they were far from performing their best. By the time we finished, Luis had an B+ in math, Kayla was turning in her homework consistently, Madeline had several clients, and Brandon was one of the most productive people on his office team.
A fitness program for the brain
If an athlete wants to do well in a big race, she might sign up for a physical fitness program, so she’ll be able to perform her best.
Mental fitness and cognitive training are not quite the same, but they have some things in common. Like physical fitness, it involves strength, flexibility, and endurance. From a brain perspective, flexibility is the ability to think about something from multiple perspectives, and to adjust your thinking when plans don’t work as expected.
Endurance is the ability to keep working on a problem in spite of challenges or stressful circumstances. Strength can be thought of as what we commonly call “intelligence”, or “being smart”.
Neurofeedback, a kind of biofeedback that helps regulate brain function, can improve all three. Let’s look more closely at intelligence.
Intelligence is changeable
A common (but by no means universally accepted) way of evaluating intelligence is through IQ tests. Some people argue that IQ is something you’re born with, but there is increasing evidence that it can in fact be trained.
In a recent cognitive training study reported in Nature, for example, teens were given IQ tests 4 years apart. Over the 4 years, a few of them showed a significant increase in their IQ score – up to 21 points, which is an extraordinary jump.
The most interesting part of the study was that pre/post MRI scans found an increase in gray matter (part of the brain that is thought to transport sensory information) that was associated with the IQ gains. The IQ changes corresponded with these clear, identifiable physiological changes in the brain.
Other studies have found IQ gains of from 9 to 23 points resulting from neurofeedback – not something that could consistently happen by chance.
The explanation comes from understanding that the IQ, or “intelligence” the test is supposed to measure isn’t just one thing.
Taking apart IQ
To take a test – any test – you have to be able to focus (attention). You need to remember what you know, which means retrieving information from long term memory.
You need to understand the problem you’re working on (comprehension), and manipulate ideas in your head (working memory). Planning, problem-solving, and other test-taking skills help enormously.
And since many parts of an IQ tests are timed, the faster you can work (processing speed), the better your score.
If even one of these things is holding you back, you’re not likely to score as well.
Neurofeedback has been shown, in controlled studies, to improve attention, working and long term memory, problem-solving, comprehension, and processing speed. It’s no wonder the scores are changing.
With my clients, the most consistent improvements have been in the areas of attention and memory. These are the changes that helped Madeline launch her business and Brandon become such a high performer at work. They’re the same kinds of changes that help kids keep track of things and pay attention in class.
It appears that neurofeedback can help keep the brain in shape, as exercise and coaching helps keep athletes in shape. For example, Dr. Paul Swingle in Vancouver reports that at his internationally known clinic, IQ scores often increase by about 10 points for clients seeking help with cognitive issues.
How to use neurofeedback style cognitive training to “get smarter”
If you’re an athlete preparing for a race, you have to work on two levels. First you have to take care of the basics – getting enough sleep, regular maintenance exercise, a healthy diet. In the same way, optimal performance for your brain requires the same attention to sleep, exercise, and diet.
If you want to perform your best, physically or mentally, you need to go beyond the basics. You need to build your brain’s strength, flexibility, and endurance: your cognitive ability. There are a variety of tools and techniques that can help, and one of the most effective is neurofeedback.
What Luis, Kayla, Madeline, and Brandon did is possible for anyone who can respond to feedback. Our brains learn. It’s what they were designed to do. Our brains can learn not only facts, but also how to focus, and how to process information more efficiently and easily. That is what makes you smart.
Research on Neurofeedback and IQ
To learn more about how neurofeedback can affect each component of the standard Weschler IQ test, see: http://brainyummies.blogspot.com/2011/08/neurofeedback-increases-iq-scores-on.html
For studies showing an improvement in IQ through Neurofeedback, see: https://academiccoachingwithpat.com/resources/neurofeedback-research/