August 2015

Can We Really Boost Our Intelligence?

written by
Loïc De Waele
Chief Science Officer @ DXTR Labs

Yes, but not everything works!

Avoiding oversimplification of cerebral exercise

Hi everyone, my name is Loïc and I am the Chief Research Officer here at DXTR Tactile working on playDXTR. An important part of my job is to make sure everything we do has positive effects for our players. This task is an impossible task. Here is why I think it is “impossible” to make sure you think for yourself before you believe any software or game that guarantees to “boost your intelligence/memory/etc”. Never take for granted what people and companies say, not even us. Think for yourself, and if you feel that something we do is “not good”, I will gladly discuss it personally with you if possible. You can reach me directly here.

Why is it impossible to make sure everything we do has only positive effects?

As the eminent researcher and world famous scientist Barry White stated at the start of one of his songs “too much of anything is not good for you”. This is true. So even when we advise you to train this or that, remember that it has to be done with moderation. Spending ten hours a day studying math will certainly enhance your mathematics skills, but all the rest (literature, history, physical activity, socialising, …) will suffer from it. It’s the same for educational games such as many out there and playDXTR. It will always be the parents’ responsibility to assess what is best for their children and in what proportions, not a company’s. Usually, nothing is black or white, nothing is 100% beneficial or 100% negative. We want to allow YOU to make the most informed decisions as possible.

Everything has side effects

Learning a language over the tablet could be positive for language skills, but bad for social skills since it removed the social component of language. What I mean is that almost everything we do often has a positive and a negative effect at the same time. Falling on the ground is bad for physical health, but it could be good to learn that, sometimes in life, you fall and just need to get back up and go on. We will always find some kind of negative effect, even in playDXTR games.

My job is to make sure it is as positive as possible, find out how it could be negative and make sure the game notifies you about it. The most obvious example is time spent on games, even educational ones. When using playDXTR for many hours in a row, the system will notify you that your child has been at it for some time and remind him and you that playing outside is also paramount for developing your intelligence!

It is often the media that transform what science finds as a possibility into a sensational certainty.

Scientists don’t always agree on what is good or bad

Sometimes, some studies find positive effects for a treatment and other studies find negative effects for that same treatment. It is very hard for researchers to control every parameter in their studies. To do so they can do studies in laboratories to control the environment, but it could show results that will never be found again outside laboratories exactly because of the environment. Do real-life studies then! It’s even harder, you can never be a 100% sure your results are due to your experimentation or due to something else. I am exaggerating a bit but the essence is true, scientific studies have their own limits and researchers are aware of it. They even finish each scientific publication by pointing out the limits of their own studies and how others could do better. It is often the media that transform what science finds as a possibility into a certainty.

The beginning of experimental psychology. Wilhelm Wundt (seated) with colleagues in his psychological laboratory, the first of its kind Image

Does it mean we shouldn’t believe scientific studies?

No, it means we shouldn’t blindly believe all of it. They still are more worth believing in than a random person’s spontaneous opinion that wasn’t put to the test by the whole scientific community.

What is intelligence?

What does “boost your intelligence” even mean? Good questions.

To know how to boost intelligence you first have to know what it is. Psychologists have raised the question about the definition of intelligence for a long time and never agreed on a final definition that suited everyone. That is because intelligence is complex and abstract. Some believe that there are several types of intelligence and that we can be good at some types while bad at others. Others believe intelligence is some sort of general ability, underlying and transversal to all areas (language, mathematics, memory, …) that are sometimes called the general factor (or G-factor). Remember when I said nothing is black or white? Well, it’s probably the case here too, both theories probably grasp part of what intelligence is.

But then, how do I boost my intelligence?

Well, the best we can do is boost our performances at metrics that are broadly accepted as measures of “intelligence”. This raises another hard question? Will my progress at that specific metric actually impact my abilities in another context? That is something that could be called “generalizability” and will probably be the topic of a future blog post, as it can’t be discussed in just a few sentences.

Many brain-train games out there will claim you can boost your memory by repeatedly playing their games. This is probably mostly false. What you hope for is “I will be better at remembering things at school, where I put my keys, etc.”, What it does is making your performance at their tests/games better, without making you better at remembering the things you want to have a better memory for. It is probably better doing their games and being mentally active rather than doing nothing lying on the couch, but not especially better than any other mental activity or sport. To become smarter you need to be mentally active, and doing a same repetitive task over and over won’t achieve that. You’ll become very good at it because it becomes automatic, but you won’t benefit from it as much as having to face a new challenge.

How can playDXTR be a toy and game that can bring new challenges all the time?

It can’t. At least not without your help. We believe the only way to achieve that - is having a community of engaged parents and professional members motivated to build content with us through an open source platform. This is something that has risen in some video games not so long ago, by the name of modifications, or mods, and strengthened those games by a lot. While certainly a great upgrade for the gaming experience, it sounds wrong to have this wonderful potential only benefitting video games. We need this wisdom of the crowd in healthcare and education. Just look at the amazing example of FoldIt.

So can we really boost our intelligence?

To answer the question; of course, we can. We all become smarter each day through our natural development and our experiences combined. The key is to find a right framework to analyse what is beneficial for whatever we call intelligence and to transfer that into exercises and games. This is not easy but it is what we aim for here at DXTR Tactile.

We know that plain repetitive tasks will not really be beneficial as opposed to new challenges and experiences. The playDXTR cubes have the power to become anything if used intelligently, with YOUR intelligence. In our era, information is gold, it’s the key to scientific advancement. By having a tool that can measure everything we do in play, we can collect the same data as many other tools combined. By having a platform that allows us to recreate other games and tools as well as to create new ones, we can do anything.

The combination of huge possibilities for development and huge possibilities of gathering useful information on how learning and playing works make it worth it  - involving everyone; parent, teacher, educator, therapist, doctor, person. That’s why we hope, with your help as an engaged community, to elaborate little by little a huge variety of games and tools that will constantly challenge our brains.

I hope this post has helped you understand the challenges of creating an educational toy that boosts intelligence, why we can’t guarantee everything we do will always be a 100% beneficial and why we need your involvement.

Learn to play with us.

Thank you for reading, Loïc.

Loïc De Waele

Loïc is the neuroscience guy. His huge interest in brains originates from him missing one. Having studied neuropsychology, he is always making sure everything we do is good for your brain.

Spending his time pondering the big questions of how to combine cutting-edge neuroscience with play, in a way that yields unprecedented insights.

Secret power: Dares to have an unfunny joke in his short description.


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