There are all types of smarts. There are street smarts, book smarts, and people smarts… work smarts, play smarts, and even fantasy football smarts. Given there are so many situations in life just begging for a display of the old gray matter, the simple question most of us want answered is, How do I become smarter… like, now? No problem! Let’s just take it step by step and begin with defining intelligence.
In the 1960s, Psychologist Raymond Cattell theorized two distinct types of intelligence, fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is the general ability to think abstractly, reason, identify patterns, solve problems, and discern relationships. By comparison, crystallized intelligence is the ability to use all the learned knowledge and experience stored in our heads. If we accept Cattell’s theory of intelligence, then there are two separate paths you must trod if you wish to build, Lego-like, your intelligence.
To enhance your crystallized intelligence, there’s no getting around the old fashioned advice: hit the books. Take a class, re-read your old notebooks, borrow some new text books, and simply fill the mental crawlspace with as much raw data as you can grab with your two hands. If, on the other hand, you have a yen to expand your fluid intelligence, I would suggest you turn to this Scientific American article in which Andrea Kuszewski outlines a sound plan based on her professional review of the current literature. As a Behavior Therapist and Consultant for children on the autism spectrum, she has thought a lot about shaping minds and might know a thing or two about how exactly you might mold your own mental clay.
Kuszewski suggests the following five fixes:
Noting how geniuses are always learning new domains, Kuszewski explains how with each new activity, you create new synaptic connections. As these connections build on each other, your general neural activity increases, thus creating more connections on which to build new connections. This neural plasticity — the number of connections made between neurons — is a factor in individual differences in intelligence and refers to how much new information you are able to take in. Plasticity affects all subsequent connections, and how long-lasting they are and whether you are capable of making lasting changes to your brain.
By constantly exposing yourself to new things, then, you are priming your brain for learning. What is new and unseen triggers dopamine, which stimulates the creation of new neurons, and this also smooths the journey to learning. “Always look to new activities to engage your mind—expand your cognitive horizons,” says Kuszewski. “Be a knowledge junkie.”
While your average gym rat will unthinkingly quote for you “no pain, no gain,” this key lesson for building muscle appears to be lost on your average brainiac. Yet, the same rule applies to developing mental muscle. Unless you experience the pain of constant challenge, you will not experience any gains.
To make this point, Kuszewski sites a 2007 study in which researchers began by peeking at each participant’s brain by way of a scan. Then, the participants trained for several weeks on an unfamiliar video game after which the researchers scanned their brains once again. This time, the researchers saw an increase in both cortical thickness and activity, as evidenced by the amount of glucose being used; in gym terms, the brain was bulking up during the training period. Next, the participants went back to playing the now-familiar game and after some time, the researchers looked once again inside participants’ heads. This time, they observed a decline in cortical thickness and cortical activity. Though participants’ skills had not dropped, their brains had become more efficient and the cognitive energy had moved elsewhere.
“In order to keep your brain making new connections and keeping them active, you need to keep moving on to another challenging activity as soon as you reach the point of mastery in the one you are engaging in,” says Kuszewski. “You want to be in a constant state of slight discomfort, struggling to barely achieve whatever it is you are trying to do.”
To help your brain achieve maximum neural growth, you must think creatively, which means involving all of your brain and not just relying on one aspect of mind — using your analytical skills, for example, or conversely, relying only on your imagination. Thinking creatively, then, does not mean suddenly becoming a sculptor. Creative thinking is a stretch in a direction other than you. Creative cognition involves making remote associations between a wide range of ideas, switching back and forth between conventional and unconventional thinking, and generating original ideas that are suited to the activity at hand.
Creative thinking, then, to someone who paints and writes poetry would mean delving into calculus and science. An anthropologist once explained what it means to understand different cultures, by suggesting you can only know what red is when you’ve seen blue. If your world is only red, you’ll never truly understand what that means until you've taken a long hard look at blue. Use your imagination while crunching the numbers. Analyze and dream at once.
Do Things the Hard Way
Kuszewski goes all radical here by suggesting you dump a few, if not all, of your modern technological conveniences, such as GPS and translation software. Essentially, she is evoking the time-honored principal of “use it or lose it.” Just as driving a car all the time instead of walking might cause you to lose a bit of muscle, your brain will only remain in top shape if you exercise it by walking instead of putting your foot on the gas. Put down the spell-check and autocorrect. And for those who are older as opposed to younger, stop googling words or people or that band you only half remember before you’ve given your brain a chance to resurrect the memory on its own. “There are times when using technology is warranted and necessary,” says Kuszewski. “But there are times when it’s better to say no to shortcuts and use your brain.” Take the stairs, not the elevator.
Last but never least we come to Kuszewski's final tip for maximizing brain potential: socializing, networking, mixing and mingling. Being with other people, you expose yourself to new ideas, environments, and opportunities. Being with other people, forces you to remember names and birthdays, what they said last week about their brother, and why they don’t eat chocolate anymore. When you mingle with people different from yourself, you may see your life from a new perspective, all while gaining insight into others. Both of those checklist items mean learning and new neural connections.
Simply put: At their best and at their worst, other people are a challenge. But that’s a good thing and it's time you embraced it. “If you are looking for ways to seek out novel situations, ideas, environments, and perspectives, then networking is the answer,” says Kuszewski.
As you consider these five tips for boosting brain power, keep in mind that Catell's theory of intelligence may not be a simple matter of coloring inside the lines. Generally, we use fluid intelligence whenever we encounter a new situation, and then we switch to crystallized intelligence, relying on the foundation we’ve built, to progress from there. Even if it is both fluid and crystallized, intelligence may be a little less orderly than the theory implies. Consider for a moment another psychologist’s ideas. Nearly 20 years after Cattell set forth his postulate, Howard Gardner hypothesized that intelligence flows in seven distinct streams. Cognitive ability is not a single strength, Gardner believed, instead intelligence comprises separate mental abilities or ways of knowing and experiencing the world. Later, he expanded his list to nine streams of intelligence and correlated each to a particular learning style:
- Linguistic Intelligence — the ability to use words
- Spatial Intelligence — the ability to imagine pictures in your mind
- Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence — the ability to use your body in various situations
- Musical Intelligence — the ability to use and understand music
- Logical-Mathematical Intelligence — the ability to apply logic to systems and numbers
- Intrapersonal Intelligence — the ability to understand your own inner thoughts
- Interpersonal Intelligence — the ability to understand other people, and relate well to them
- Naturalist Intelligence — the ability to connect with other living beings, including plants and animals
- Existential Intelligence — the ability to explore issues of existence such as the meaning of life
The real take-away here is the mind is truly a mysterious and unexplored aspect of self and all around us there is genius. Think of the athletes who can move with ease and power. Think of your friend who always, always, always says the right thing to make the ache disappear. Intelligence appears in unexpected (and unlabeled) forms every day. Maybe the first way to boost your brain power would be to simply try to appreciate the many gifts of those who are closest to you.