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Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 4)

Posted Mar 25 2010 12:00am

I blogged earlier how I suddenly got better at an arithmetic task. The apparent causes of the improvement were butter and standing. I’m not sure this is right; I will do more tests.

While I was trying to figure out the cause something even more extreme happened:

2010-03-22 even more anomalous results Notice the last two points. The previous anomaly was slightly below 600 msec. The new one is close to 550 msec. After observing it, I repeated the test 20 minutes later and got essentially the same result.

I’m blown away. I’ve been doing tests like this simple measures of mental function for about two years. Nothing like this happened during those two years.

My scores on this particular test averaged about 640 msec. Sometimes they’d be lower (as low as 610) but I had no idea why. The average stayed around 640. Now, within days, the average goes down to about 600 (presumably because I was eating butter regularly) and then down to almost 550. In other words, that 640 could be improved almost 20%! The improvement has nothing to do with practice; I was extremely well-practiced on this task. (And practice doesn’t produce such a sudden improvement.)

This is something we care deeply about how well our brains work. Unless I’m a lot worse at arithmetic than everyone else, this suggests that for many people great improvement is possible. In an astonishingly small way. (I didn’t make any big changes during this time.) In a week.

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