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What’s the Deal with Fluid Intelligence?

What is Fluid Intelligence?

Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to reason and to solve new problems independently of previously acquired knowledge. To put it simply:

“your capacity to learn new information, retain it, then use that new knowledge as a foundation to solve the next problem, or learn the next new skill, and so on.”

Scientific American

Why is fluid intelligence important?

I cannot think of a better way to put it than to quote Andrea Kuszewski’s words:

Intelligence isn’t just about how many levels of math courses you’ve taken, how fast you can solve an algorithm, or how many vocabulary words you know that are over 6 characters. It’s about being able to approach a new problem, recognize its important components, and solve it—then take that knowledge gained and put it towards solving the next, more complex problem. It’s about innovation and imagination, and about being able to put that to use to make the world a better place. This is the kind of intelligence that is valuable, and this is the type of intelligence we should be striving for and encouraging.

Improving working memory does not correlate with an improvement in fluid intelligence

In 2008, there was a study by Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl that demonstrated you could improve your fluid intellingence by training your working memory using a training program called the Dual-N-Back. That study has been cited and referenced repeatedly ever since as the standard for increasing fluid intelligence. Unfortunately, while that information is still in circulation, The Association for Psychological Science has since published new findings that report other wise.

The findings from the 2008 study were based on a flawed premise – that improving working memory correlates to an improvement in fluid intelligence. Just because the two are closely related does not infer that the improvement of working memory enhances your fluid intelligence.

“The results were clear: Only students who trained on complex span tasks showed transfer to other [working memory capacity] tasks. None of the groups showed any training benefit on measures of fluid intelligence.”


That’s not to say a benefit in working memory is meaningless. On the contrary, a good working memory is still desirable if you are after overall cognitive improvement. What this new research indicates is that if your purpose for improving working memory is so that you can increase your fluid intelligence, then it appears you are barking up the wrong tree.

How can you improve your fluid intelligence?

So we’re back to square one – how do you improve fluid intelligence? Is it even possible? Well, there is some early research suggesting that physical activity may be the way to improve fluid intelligence.

“Hormones called “growth factors” are released when we exercise and have been directly linked to improved brain health. The hippocampus, a region of the brain crucial for learning and memory, is thought to benefit directly from these hormones.”

In fact, exercise has been linked to:

  • improved hippocampal function
  • growth of new neurons
  • better recognition memory

While is it not a conclusive link to increased fluid intelligence, it appears to be the best lead we have so far.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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