#50. A Summary of ‘Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power’ by Dan Hurley


‘Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power’ by Dan Hurley (Hudson Street Press; December 26, 2013)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


Section 1. An Introduction to Intelligence

1. Just What Is Intelligence, Anyway?

  • a. Crystallized Intelligence and Fluid Intelligence
  • b. What Is Intelligence Designed for?

2. On the Improvability (and Unimprovability) of Intelligence

Section 2. Attacking the Unimprovable Intelligence Paradigm: From Neural Plasticity to Improving Intelligence through Working-Memory Exercises

3. Michael Merzenich and Neural Plasticity

4. Improving Attention Span and Fluid Intelligence in Subjects with ADHD: Torkel Klingberg’s Landmark Experiment

  • a. An Introduction to Klinberg’s Experiment
  • b. Working Memory
  • c. Klingberg’s Experiment


5. The Brain-Training Industry

  • a. Cogmed
  • b. LearningRx
  • c. Posit Science
  • d. Brain Age and Lumosity


6. The Dual N-Back Experiment: Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl

  • a. An Introduction to Jaeggi and Buschkuehl’s Dual N-Back Experiment
  • b. The N-Back Task, and the Dual N-Back Task
  • c. The Results of Jaeggi and Buschkuehl’s Experiment

7. The Response to Jaeggi and Buschkuehl’s Experiment

8. The Science behind Commercially-Available Brain-Training Programs

  • a. Cogmed
  • b. LearningRx
  • c. Posit Science
  • d. Brain Age and Lumosity


Section 3. Mental Exercise: Learning a Musical Instrument or a Second Language, and Meditating

9. Music

  • a. Baby Mozart
  • b. Learning a Musical Instrument

10. Learning a Second Language

11. Meditation

Section 4. Physical Exercise

12. Exercise

  • a. Aerobic Activity
  • b. Resistance Training

Section 5. The Easy Routes to Building Brain Power: Diet, Pharmaceuticals, and Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation (tDCS)

13. Diet

14. Pills

15. tDCS


16. Hurley’s Brain-Training Program

17. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

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.

What follows is a full executive summary of Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power by Dan Hurley.


Section 1. An Introduction to Intelligence

1. Just What Is Intelligence, Anyway?

a. Crystallized Intelligence and Fluid Intelligence

Before we launch into an investigation of the new science of building brain power, we must first come to an understanding of just what brain power, or intelligence, truly is.

Let us begin with the IQ test, as this is the most famous indicator of intelligence. What is important to note is that the IQ test actually measures two general varieties of intelligence: crystallized intelligence and fluid, or general, intelligence.

Crystallized intelligence includes your general store of knowledge, which (hopefully) increases over time. As Hurley explains, “standard IQ tests include measurements of crystallized intelligence, your treasure trove of stored-up information and how-to knowledge, which just keeps growing as you age—the sort of thing tested on Jeopardy! or put to use when you ride a bicycle” (loc. 216).

Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, is less about what you know and more about how you think. It includes abilities like problem solving, recognizing patterns and manipulating information in your mind. As the author explains, “fluid intelligence… is the underlying ability to learn, the capacity to solve novel problems, see underlying patterns, and figure out things that were never explicitly taught” (loc. 216).

When it comes to measuring crystallized intelligence in isolation, this is relatively straightforward, as this simply requires testing general knowledge. Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, would seem to be quite a bit more complicated to measure, as it involves several seemingly disparate skills. Still, scientists have managed to design a number of tests that are quite good at measuring fluid intelligence, with one test in particular standing above the rest: the Raven’s test (loc. 358).

Each question in the Raven’s test follows the same general pattern: you are presented with a 3 x 3 matrix with each square occupied by a symbol (except 1 of the squares). Your task is to read the pattern that emerges from the 8 symbols, and use it to infer what symbol belongs in the empty square (out of 6 multiple-choice options). In addition, the patterns become more and more difficult to decipher as the test proceeds.  As Hurley explains, “anyone who has taken an intelligence test has seen matrices like those used in the Raven’s. Picture three rows, with three graphic items on each row, made up of squares, circles, dots and other symbols. Do the squares get larger as they move from left to right? Do the circles inside the squares become filled in, from white to gray to black, as they go downward? One of the nine items is missing from the matrix, and your task is to discern the underlying patterns—up, down, across—in order to select the correct item from one of six possible choices. While at first the solutions are obvious to most people, they get progressively harder, reaching the point where, by the end of the test, they baffle all but the brainiest” (loc. 358). (You can check out sample questions, and even take the Raven’s test here:  http://www.intershop.it/testqi/testqi1/iqtest2.htm.)

Just why the Raven’s test is such an accurate measure of fluid intelligence may not be clear at first. But the fact is that the questions require pattern-recognition, logic, and problem-solving—all of which are very much at the heart of what fluid intelligence is. Hurley puts it this way: “why matrices should be considered the gold standard of fluid-intelligence tests may not be obvious. But consider how central pattern recognition is to success in life. If you’re going to find buried treasure in baseball statistics, permitting your team to win games by hiring players unappreciated by other teams, you’d better be good at matrices. If you want to find cycles in the stock market to exploit for profit; if you want to find the underlying judicial reasoning behind ten cases you’re studying for law school—for that matter, if you need to suss out a woolly mammoth’s nature in order to trap, kill, and eat it—you’re essentially using the same cognitive skills tested by matrices” (loc. 365).

b. What Is Intelligence Designed for?

Importantly, this quote sheds light not only on what fluid intelligence is, but what it was designed for (by evolution), and also what it is useful for—which is to help the individual survive, thrive and reproduce. And this goes not only for fluid intelligence, but crystallized intelligence as well.

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

3 thoughts on “#50. A Summary of ‘Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power’ by Dan Hurley

  1. Hi Aaron, great job as usual at a very agreeable price- glad to see you recouping some investment. If I may, could I suggest a “print” button so I can easily off-line the content and take it on the plane with me? Couple of new WP plugins available (cleanprint, wp-print, print-friendly) that seem to have good reviews though I have not tried them myself. Keep up the good work. You’ve got a gift.

    • Thanks Bradley. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the articles and agree with the price. As to your suggestion regarding the ‘print’ button, I’ve been considering this for a while, and your input has helped push me over the edge. There is now a ‘pdf’ button, and a ‘print’ button on every article (just below the title to the right). Also, if you’d like to adjust the font for printing you can always left click your mouse within any article; then press ctrl+A to select all; then press ctrl+C to copy the article; and then paste it in a word document form where you can adjust the font and margins. Thanks again for your feedback.


  2. I was very impressed with Dan Hurley’s book , but what I was puzzled about was the following: If his intelligence was raised according to one I. Q. test ,why was it not raised on the second (follow up ) Mensa IQ test?

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