N-Backing to Train Your Brain


You’ve probably heard of the “dual n-back game” or “n-back.” It has become a topic of much discussion in bodybuilding forums and on nootropic related message boards. Some are even questioning whether it can take the place of supplementation entirely.

Wikipedia defines n-back as a “continuous performance task that is commonly used as an assessment in cognitive neuroscience to measure part of working memory and working memory capacity.”

First developed by Wayne Kirchner in 1958, n-backing consists of a person being presented with a sequence of external stimuli. This can consist of pictures, words or verbal cues. The n-back test consists of the participant or test subject noting each time the current stimulus is a match to that of the “n” step that occurs at the initial stage of the sequencing.

Maybe you remember playing a “Concentration” as a kid. Your friend or family member would name something then you would have to name that thing and add another thing to the list. Your friend would then have to name both of those things and add a third on for you to remember and so on and so forth until, eventually, one of you would forget one of the items you had both listed.

The idea behind n-back is similar in many ways to that game. The central idea is essentially the same. So why has something so seemingly elementary caught on with the public as well as the scientific community?


One way that n-backing has become popular over the years is by virtue of the diverse methods by which one can n-back.


One n-back test that is very ubiquitous is the three-back test, an auditory experiment in which the subject reading the following letters in sequential order:


The experimenter must then point out when each letter is read in bold as those letters match up with letters read at the first of the three steps.

These are simple cognitive tests which can boost memory naturally and build muscle memory formulation. Which brings us to one of the most common varieties:


Dual-n-back or dual-task n-back is a version that was posited by Susanne Jaeggi in 2003 and picked up a lot of steam shortly thereafter. Basically, dual-n-back is a test where two separate sequences are presented at the same time, using disparate modalities of stimuli such as visual and verbal.


N-backing is said to produce fluid intelligence and significantly sharpen one’s mental faculties. There are a host of online resources for playing these “games” which can also include Corsi, a block-tapping exercise, and CWM (Complex Working Memory), a span task that is based on the model suggested by the research from “Expanding the mind’s Workspace” by Jason Chein and Alexandra B. Morrison.

One website where users can start training in these areas is BrainScale.net, a site whose motto is, “Brain Scale makes you smarter.” Here users can track game stats and access their member forum.

Another site for n-back exercises is Brainworkshop.sourceforge.net. This is an admittedly amateurish-looking web page, but don’t let the design fool you. This is a freeware source for Arithmetic N-Back and others.

Brain Workshop provides a tutorial along with their download as well as links to relevant studies.


N-backing’s reputation on the Web is one that’s overwhelmingly positive. Some noted experts, such as the Association for Psychological Science, have attempted to debunk theories that n-backing can boost intelligence, others have espoused these techniques. Kelly Shen of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America noted “stable long-range interhemispheric coordination is supported by direct anatomical projections.”

Others at Proc Natl Acad Sciences have also suggested that natural stem cells have be improved in those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

Some folks who are fed up with ineffective nootropic supplements are even questioning whether n-backing is a better alternative to supplementation with one user posting about its benefits on Longecity. There is a multitude of r/reddits dedicated to this subject with at least one that says dual-n-back is for everyone who wants to improve their minds.”

“DNB training has undoubtedly shown effects on capacity of focus and other executive functions,” said one Redditor, adding that it is beneficial to those with poor attention, poor mental energy and poor self-discipline. “Being able to focus for extended periods of time is pretty much integral to improvement in any discipline.”

This was in response to a wary poster who said, “Personally, after just 2 days of 20 sessions of Dual 2-back, I have noticed an improvement in my attention. But has anyone noticed improvements in their fluid intelligence?…It feels like pseudo-science, although experiments have shown that [fluid intelligence] to be possible.”

Regardless of whether or not n-backing can make you more technically intelligent, it is irrefutably advantageous to those who want to vastly boost their short-term memory and achieve superior attentiveness. In summation, n-backing may be a viable alternative for those who want the intense focus and recall of study drugs without the negative side effects.

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