Research shows studying for the LSAT can change brain

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Studying for the LSAT is often a notoriously long and nerve-wracking process — but it might also make you smarter.

Researchers at UC Berkeley have found that rigorous preparation for the LSAT can strengthen connections in the brain that are associated with improved reasoning skills, as reported in research published Wednesday in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy.

Led by Allyson Mackey, then a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, researchers ran MRI scans on the brains of law school hopefuls before and after they completed an intensive, three-month, 100-hour LSAT preparation course.

“We wanted to come up with sort of a naturalistic way of studying this rather than creating our own paradigm in the lab that people wouldn’t be that motivated by,” Mackey said.

The set of MRIs taken after participants completed the prep course showed a strengthening of connections in the brain associated with reasoning skills more than a control group of students who did not take a prep course.

What that means, according to Silvia Bunge, director of the Building Blocks of Cognition Laboratory and associate professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute — who authored the study along with Mackey and Kirstie Whitaker, also a UC Berkeley graduate student at the time of the study —  is that “the brain is more plastic even in adulthood than we typically realize.”

“I don’t think that the change that these students have shown is permanent,” Bunge said. ”Our brains are always changing … I don’t think we can ever rest on our laurels.”

The kind of reasoning skills that are tested by the LSAT are also tested by IQ tests.

An interesting next step in the research would be to study the differences between the ways different participants’ brains change and how changes in the brain relate to changes in behavior, Mackey said.

“If the brain is really plastic, then anything you gain in 90 days can be lost in 90 days,” she said.

Jodi Teti, one of the founders of Blueprint LSAT Prep, where the participants in the study took their course, said the LSAT differs from other standardized tests in some fundamental ways.

“You don’t memorize a lot facts,” she said. “What you do is you have to train your mind to approach things in a different way.”

The study is not the first done by UC Berkeley researchers examining the LSAT. In 2008, Sheldon Zedeck, campus professor  of psychology and former vice provost for academic affairs and faculty welfare and Marjorie Schultz, campus law professor emerita, published research that set out to test the effectiveness of the LSAT.

Despite all the benefits, for many, preparing for the LSAT remains a time-consuming and stressful process.

“Though the games are enticing and the reading comp topics just blow your mind, let’s face it,” said UC Berkeley senior Satia Famili, who is currently taking a course at BluePrint, in a text message. “Kiss your social life goodbye when deciding to take this test.”

Sarah Burns is the university news editor.