Why do I have a bad feeling about the upcoming BBC series Get Smarter in a Week? It’s discussed in this article in The Guardian.
Is it because it claims that ‘brain exercises’ can make someone ‘40% cleverer’ in a week (whatever that’s supposed to mean), or perhaps because this claim is based on a trial of 15 volunteers with no control group?
Control groups are essential because people can improve due to non-specific effects (such as the placebo effect or the Pygmalion effect) where simply being involved with people trying to help you can have a beneficial effect – regardless of how effective the actual treatment is.
Looking at the advice recounted in The Guardian article, it mostly seems quite sensible if continued in the long term, i.e. practising mental skills, eating well and staying fit (although I’m not sure there’s much evidence that having a shower with your eyes closed in likely to improve the mind in any significant way).
I suspect, however, that most people will come away from the programme with the idea that doing these activities for only a week will cause a permanent improvement in their intelligence.
One of the best ways of making yourself ‘cleverer’ is to understand how to evaluate scientific claims, particularly when they’re used as ideas for TV programmes.
Of course, this may all be hype before ‘Get Smarter in a Week’ hits the airwaves, but I’d question the use of misleading scientific claims to promote a popular science programme.
Anyway, I look forward to being pleasantly surprised (or not).
In the meantime, the best bets for sharpening your mental abilities are: eat healthily, exercise regularly, stay mentally active.
Oh, and consider watching less TV (see also this pdf). Strangely, that’s one they forgot to mention.
Link to uncritical Guardian article on ‘Get Smarter in a Week’.