Do people with better memories store more information in their brains? Maybe not. Last month a cognitive neuroscientist (Edward Vogel at the University of Oregon) published a paper in Nature showing that certain types of memory capacity may have less to do with how much raw data you can store than with how selective you are at letting in relevant information. (Here's a press release describing the experiment.)
Notably, Vogel describes the brain filter that keeps the bad stuff out as a nightclub bouncer. Regrettably, I think my brain hires bouncers from a temp service. Sometimes I get the "come one, come all" circus caller who will let in hobos, Hiltons, and stray cats ("Hey look at that piece of lint! Oh, wow, tin foil!") and sometimes I get the off-duty SWAT team member ("I'm sorry, did you just say something?").
Can we use these findings to make ourselves smarter? I don't think the attentional differences shown here can be overcome with brute conscious will, but perhaps we can train our brains to do better. Michael Posner, also at Oregon, has shown that repetitive computer training, at least in children, can increase scores on attention and even IQ tests. He trains 4- and 6-year-olds on simple video games based on methods used to train monkeys for space travel. You can check out a video of the process here.
(I asked Posner if the changes in the kids were any less ephemeral than the overhyped Mozart effect. He told me: "We have no evidence on permanence. However, we expect that there could be a bootstrapping effect where an improvement prior to school would aid in school and produce further improvement.")
So letting your tikes play video games could make them better students. What about the rest of us? In 2003, two scientists at Rochester showed that playing certain games (they tested Medal of Honor, Grand Theft Auto 3, and Half-Life) can increase visual attention skills in adults. (Full PDF here.) And of course the writer Steven "Everything Bad Is Good For You" Johnson thinks these games improve all kinds of high-level cognitive abilities.
But not everyone wants laser focus. In that bouncer press release above, Vogel notes, "There may be advantages to having a lot of seemingly irrelevant information coming to mind. Being a bit scattered tends to be a trait of highly imaginative people." Which jives nicely with another study published last month, titled "Schizotypy, creativity and mating success in humans," in which British psychologists Nettle and Keenoo show that artists get laid a lot. (Nature News titled their take on the study "Write poems, get lucky," clearly echoing my earlier pronouncement: "I write for the females.") Unfortunately, by screwing an artist, you may also be perpetuating schizophrenia in the species. Whether that's a fair tradeoff for mindblowing sex is up to you.
So, to summarize: If you want an honor-roll sticker on your Windstar, buy your kid an Xbox. If you want lots of grandkids, swap the joystick for a paintbrush and feed your offspring LSD. And finally, for a good time call 1-800-LOON-BIN.