Some thoughts on N-Back and a free Sketch File: Din for iOS

Aaron Ng
Aaron Ng
Jan 18, 2017 · 3 min read

Din is a quick and easy N-Back app for iOS. I’ve messed around with N-Back and various other drills on janky research websites on-and-off for many years now and wanted a nice app on iOS for myself.

As I started building it out and reading more of the literature, I decided to scrap it. Since I’m no longer building it, I thought I’d release the Sketch file for anyone curious about how I organize my files for my smaller personal projects. Feel free to pick it apart– just don’t release it as is, and credit me if you use some part of it.

If you’d just like the file, you can grab it here. If you’d like to know why I scrapped it, you can read more below.

N-Back is a well known working memory test.

Imagine a situation where you’re presented with a sequence of cards. You need to determine if the current card is the same card as N cards back. So, 2 back means you need to remember if the current card is the same as 2 cards back. 3 back means the 3rd card back.

Dual N-Back is the same, but with two components. You need to remember if the current card is the same, and if a sound is the same as N cards back.

Play N-Back Here

Play Dual N-Back Here

An example of 2-Back

This paper by Jaeggi et al (2008) very controversially claimed that in addition to being a drill for working memory, it could also increase fluid intelligence. Many people were unable to reproduce these results. Others were convinced. There were responses. And more responses.

After digging through dozens of papers and reaching out to a few people (like Gwern, who’s done an excellent meta-analysis on N-Back here) the results around fluid intelligence feel unconvincing and not worth the time.

Though keep in mind, much of the controversy isn’t around the fact that it might increase your working memory– even detractors of the Jaeggi paper say that N-Back probably has short term, transient benefits to working memory (Melby-Lervåg and Hulme 2016).

Much more interestingly, there seems to be a much larger number of papers around drilling visuospatial tasks to improve fluid intelligence and cognitive ability with much more significant effects than claimed by N-Back with far less controversy. Here are a few interesting ones:

  1. Stieff, M., & Uttal, D. (2015). How Much Can Spatial Training Improve STEM Achievement? Educational Psychology Review, 27(4), 607–615. doi:10.1007/s10648–015–9304–8
  2. Wright, R., Thompson, W. L., Ganis, G., Newcombe, N. S., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2008). Training generalized spatial skills. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15(4), 763–771. doi:10.3758/pbr.15.4.763
  3. Cheng, Y., & Mix, K. S. (2013). Spatial Training Improves Children’s Mathematics Ability. Journal of Cognition and Development, 15(1), 2–11. doi:10.1080/15248372.2012.725186

Amusingly, here’s one where Portal 2 players significantly outperformed Lumosity players by a significant margin on tests after 8 hours of drilling. (If you don’t know, Lumosity has a mix of drills which include N-Back. Portal 2 is a video game with spatial puzzles).

Visuospatial training might be a more interesting avenue of investigation for anyone interested in playing or building apps around cognitive enhancement.

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