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Games improve memory – and other revelations from the biggest experiment on …

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Games improve memory - and other revelations from the biggest experiment on ...

Who best solves the problems? Are there differences between men and women? Are new technologies affecting our intelligence? And what can you do to improve it?

When it comes to measuring intelligence, there are many skills that come into play, from problem solving and skills related to spatial relationships to emotional awareness and memory.

But one thing is clear: intelligence is important. People who do well on intelligence tests tend, on average, to live longer, age better and are more likely to achieve academic and professional success.

The good news is that more and more research indicates that intelligence is not fixed. Until a few years ago, it was believed that we were born with all the brain cells that we would have in life and that they would decline in the fifth decade of life. Now, we know that this is not true.

Technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) allow us to see the inside of living brains and see how they work in ways that were not possible a decade ago.

This shed light on what scientists call "neuroplasticity": the idea that our brains change with the formation of new cells and connections throughout our lives.

In addition, we now know much more about the extent to which these changes are influenced by the world around us and even by the decisions we make in our daily lives.

This presents us with the tempting possibility of having more control over our brain and cognitive abilities than we thought.

That is why it is so important to understand how our intelligence works, what factors affect it and how it can be improved.

With that in mind, in January 2020, the BBC invited the public to participate in an intelligence test developed by scientist Adam Hampshire of Imperial College London.

More than 250,000 people have already answered questions about themselves and then been tested, with activities that sometimes look like games.

"This is a phenomenal number," says Hampshire. "It is the equivalent of about 125,000 hours of testing, or more than 14 years."

These numbers provide information on how different types of human intelligence are related to variables such as lifestyle, personality and the use of technology.

The more than 250,000 responses that have arrived – which make this test the largest of its kind – and those that will continue to arrive will contribute to important scientific research, which will help scientists at Imperial College London to understand how our behavior has affected our intelligence.

With the data collected so far, the test has already revealed some unexpected findings. But before telling what they are, it is important to highlight a few points: this is not an IQ test, because scientists are measuring performance on different aspects of intelligence related to specific brain systems; the participants are mostly British.

Who is better at solving problems?

When it comes to problem solving skills, we found that those who said they enjoyed eating fruits and vegetables performed better.

Obviously, it is not yet known whether fruits and vegetables make us smarter or whether smarter people simply choose to eat healthy meals.

But the most important factor in problem-solving skills was age. People in their 20s performed better, which worsened dramatically among older participants.

In addition, we found that working memory, spatial intelligence and attention peak at around age 20 and decline thereafter.

It is because, over the years, our brains literally begin to work at an ever slower pace.

Did you know that…

– When it comes to intelligence, brain size doesn't seem to be a definite factor

– Individuals with more gray matter appear to have slightly higher cognitive ability.

– But research shows that white matter is crucial to accelerate thinking. It houses all connections between areas of the brain.

– These connections are called neural pathways, and each of us has hundreds of millions of them in the brain. If you only put your own, they would travel the world four times.

– They are isolated by a fatty substance called myelin.

All of this was explained to us by Simon Cox, one of the experts at the University of Edinburgh who discovered that one of the characteristics of the brains of intelligent people is the best connections. The processing speed depends on how well isolated these connections are.

As we age, the myelin layer decreases and communication between neurons falls, because signals are not transmitted as smoothly or quickly and there may be interference from neighboring connections, explains Alan Gow, from Heriot-Watt University.

"Another process that we notice is called atrophy, the general shrinking of brain volume as we age."

Can we avoid brain atrophy?

It is likely that it will. See how the brain mass is different between the two people that appear in the image below. Both are the same age.

"It doesn't seem to be inevitable: the level of atrophy and damage to white matter varies from person to person. What we want to understand is that factors in lifestyle or behavior make a difference," says Gow.

A clue may be hidden precisely in IQ tests. Although they are often criticized, one of their advantages is that they have been carried out for a long time, revealing changes, such as such a significant increase in the IQ of British children since 1938 that it was necessary to recalibrate the tests.

The reason? There is a lot of debate about this, because a lot has changed: today, we have better food and education.

But there is an intriguing detail. Over the course of the 20th century, there was basically an increase in IQ, but at the turn of the 21st century, in many places, the curve has frozen and, in some, started to decline.

A specific study with citizens of Norway shows that they lost 7 IQ points per generation among those born after 1975.

No one yet knows why. What we do know is that there has been a major change in our lifestyle in the past few decades.

What is technology doing to us?

Imperial College scientists are particularly interested in the impact that our growing use of technology has on memory, space skills and other areas of cognition.

People were asked to say what devices they use, what they do with them and how often they do it. Aspects such as internet research, use of social networks and games and online shopping were also analyzed.

To our surprise, there is no clear link between intellectual capacity and the type of technology used or the amount of time spent on it. Except in one area …

The more time people spend playing computer games, the better their scores on spatial working memory tests (their ability to remember where things are, like car keys), attention and verbal reasoning.

In this case, the effective age was not taken into account. Therefore, it is not about young people versus the elderly, but about a very clear link with the game.

One of our most surprising discoveries was that games can actually improve one of the main components of intelligence: working memory, our ability to temporarily keep information active for use in different cognitive activities, such as understanding or thinking.

"Anyone who has gone somewhere to do something and has forgotten what it was like on arrival knows what we are talking about," says Louise Nicholls of Strathclyde University.

People who play computer games get better results on these tests than those who train mentally, indicating that these games can be a more valuable hobby for those who want to improve their cognitive skills.

It should be noted that controlled studies on the positive relationship between the amount of gambling and this aspect of intelligence have produced results consistent with those of the BBC, says Nicholls. But does it matter what the game is?

"The most reliable results speak especially of action video games, those that involve navigating different environments, finding visual targets and making quick decisions. But even space puzzle games, like Tetris, are beneficial," says specialist.

"However, we need to do more research to find out, for example, what is the ideal number of hours of play, because sometimes the hobby affects hours of sleep and exercise and is no longer a benefit."

Mental networks

There is another strong (and disturbing) link between those who use the internet excessively and obsessively and those who feel anxious and stressed. This was particularly noticeable among younger people.

So far, it is one of the clearest evidences that the excessive use of technology can have a negative impact on mental health.

Although this link has never been identified on such a large scale, "there is much research indicating that excessive use of the internet is associated with mental health problems, especially in adolescents and young people," says Lee Smith, of Anglia Ruskin University.

"This is partly because social networks sometimes encourage comparisons with impossible goals. In addition, they allow us to quantify our social success. These two things may be increasing stress levels."

Therefore, spending less time on social media is better for mental health.

Bad news for the lazy

There is intriguing evidence of …

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