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5 Surprising, Science-Backed Ways To Get Smarter Today

Your intelligence isn't fixed; it's fluid. Here's a handful of ways to improve your brain flow.

So it turns out that, contrary to what your SAT scores told you, we can actually get smarter day by day—depending on what we do with our days. As Annie Murphy Paul reports, intelligence isn't set in stone—it's fluid.

This fluidity comes from all sorts of things: the way we think about ourselves, the expertise we develop, the people we surround ourselves with. In short, the way we live our lives shapes our minds, in some seriously mysterious ways.

1) Your mind-set makes you smarter.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist, has identified two mind-sets that shape, well, our minds. There's the fixed mind-set, in which you think your thinking abilities can't change. Then there's the growth mind-set, in which your thinking abilities can be developed.

"These beliefs matter," Paul observes, "because they influence how we think about our own abilities, how we perceive the world around us, and how we act when faced with a challenge or with adversity."

The question, then, is how to own our development—which is a matter of deliberate practice.

2) Your concentration makes you smarter.

If we consider intelligence to be our ability to solve complex tasks, then we need to appreciate how to deal with complexity—namely, with sustained focus, since that's the only way we can load difficult problems into our heads.

This requires being able to stay with a task. You can do that externally, for example, by finally shutting off your distracting phone, or internally, for example by training your attention. If you don't attend to your attention—for instance if you're multitasking all the time—then your brain will lose its ability to focus.

Then you won't be able to solve complex problems. Or, put dumbly, you'll get dumber.

3) Your food makes you smarter.

Eating the right breakfast (hint: it's protein rich) correlates with higher cognitive functioning.

4) Your rest makes you smarter.

Getting enough sleep lets you make more memories—which you can recombine into new ideas.

5) Your relationships make you smarter.

Having a partner makes you smarter. As Paul puts it:

You’ve experienced (the way relying on others makes you smarter) if you have a spouse or significant other: it’s likely that one of you is "in charge" of remembering when the car needs to go in for inspection, while the other is "in charge" of remembering relatives’ birthdays. This is called transactive memory, and it’s just one of the ways that relationships with others can make us smarter than we would be on our own.

Having lots of friends makes you smarter, too. People with diverse connections have better ideas than people with homogenous connections.

Why? Because, as any network science nerd will tell you, they're able to share their ideas with a broader range of people who have a broader range of perspectives and give a broader range of feedback, helping the idea take a more considered final form. The proof in the conversational pudding: Darwin talked about evolution for 20 years before setting his ideas down in the Origin of Species.

How do you make yourself smarter? Please share with us—and other readers—in the comments below.

Hat tip: The Brilliant Report

[Image: Flickr user Justin De La Ornellas]

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  • Susanna Halonen

    I think "smart" is a word that's subjective in itself - who's to say that you're smarter just because of higher SATs (which are only in US anyways) or IQ scores? IQ is just one type of intelligence which is only really accurate with people who perform well in test situations. On top of this there's linguistic intelligence, motor intelligence, emotional intelligence, etc.

    What's so important about Dweck's mindset theory is that she's discovered that by adopting a growth mindset you improve your performance in whatever you've adopted a growth mindset towards - not purely "intelligence". This could be anything from a particular sports to fitness to workplace performance etc. That's why it's so important to understand that when you hear the fixed mindset chit chatter in side your head, you have to combat it with growth mindset thinking to overcome it and find growth and fulfilment. I summarised practical ways of putting your growth mindset into action here, maybe you'll enjoy it :)

  • Lloyd Lemons

    I think short spurts of R&R are important, as well as meditation and just getting out of the office for a time be it a few hours or a day or more. I think of my brain as a "muscle"; for growth it requires working hard then a period of recovery for maximum results.

  • Norberts Erts

    Tips from Jack Dorsey (Twitter):

    According to Techcrunch, the list included the following Dos:

    Stay present

    Be vulnerable

    Drink only lemon water and red wine

    Six sets of 20 squats and push-ups every day

    Run for 3 miles

    Meditate on this list

    Stand up straight

    Spend 10 minutes with a heavy bag

    Say hello to everyone

    Get 7 hours of sleep

    Those were followed by a shorter set of Don’ts:

    Don’t avoid eye contact

    Don’t be late

    Don’t set expectations that you can’t meet

    Don’t eat sugar

    Don’t drink hard liquor or beer during the weekday

  • Say Keng Lee

    Say to say, this is actually a quick and condensed rehash from an earlier article, 'Eight Ways Of Looking At Intelligence', in The Brilliant Report, dated 10 June 2013, by Annie Murphy Paul. The author should not hoodwink readers by doing such things, just to secure exposure.

  • Rahmani Mohamed Elhadi

    Thank you very much Drake, it's so interesting

    reading books you are too smart, books contain information (linguistic and other information depand theme of the book)

  • Munson Walker

    Listening. Just by listening to others, because people love to talk about themselves or what "they Know so much about."

  • Anna

    All great suggestions, but you really need to add aerobic exercise to your list. Supplying the brain with plenty of oxygen has been proven to enhance cognition and protect against cognitive deterioration as we age. Want to stay smart? Get out there and MOVE!

  • Don Joseph Goewey

    Actually, going for a 30 minute walk in a green area gets more oxygen and glucose to the brain more than aerobics. It's because the large muscles used up most of the fuel in aerobics. Although aerobics does help the brain, but so much to fuel it as to clear out stress hormones. The amount of oxygen and glucose that reach the brain on a walk is far greater, which is why your mind feels so fresh afterwards.

  • Don Joseph Goewey

    First, Carol Dweck didn't find that mindset made you smarter; she found that the "growth mindset" made you more successful, and happier in the process of stretching your ability as you pursue your aims. The mindset that taps all the power in the smartest part of your brain is the mindset that transcends stress. That's because stress hormones are toxic to higher brain networks (it literally shrinks them). Second, the research of Mark Beeman at Northwestern found that intense focus comes at the expense of creative insight. Another study at the University of Pennsylvania found that even with smart drugs that keep the brain focused on a problem for eight hours straight, at the end of the day it isn’t likely to deliver any
    real insights for solving the problem. That's because intense focus shuts out
    the right brain, where creative insight is generated (there's no competitive
    edge without innovation). And third, the Harvard Nurses' Study found that the
    most important thing about good relationships is that they significantly
    increase the odds of living a longer and healthier life. Of course, the synergy
    of collaboration will raise the IQ in a room as long the people are in the
    room. Leigh Thompson, director of the Kellogg Team at Northwestern, shows that finding the next great idea is enhanced if a group uses the 6-3-5 brainstorming

  • cindy frei

    Over the years I've always had a strong yearning to learn to meditate. Then, a couple of years ago, I had a client (Tara Brach), who teaches meditation. It requires focus and deep concentration. The ability to be able to be stop, be present and just focus on one's breathing, listening to the birds, the wind, anything but your thoughts. I find it definitely calms me, focuses my thinking and sharpens my mind.

  • Nancy Kay

    Great article. Couldn't agree with this more. Like everything, attitude and outlook are critical.

  • Paul

    I think a lot of people's perceived problems (and that's exactly what they are) come from the fact they they have the fixed mindset - they think that their abilities are set in stone, and when a relevant problem comes up they simply say/think "well I'm no good at that" while failing to consider that the more they did that activity, the better understanding they would have over what it takes to be good at that activity, and overall the better they would get at it. Put simply, how can people get better at something if they don't even try? The second thing I think people are lacking is perserverance and resilience. Take this article for example - notice how it says "Get smarter today" in the title. That's to catch people's eye because a lot of them want everything they do to happen overnight, when frankly it doesn't work like that. There is no "magic article" online that makes people smarter overnight - however, if people can read this article and come away from it with a different perspective, a different attitude, and make active steps to incorporate that way of thinking into their daily lives, they will definitely become a smarter person. The key thing to remember is that intelligence is like anything in life - the more you do it and the more you push yourself and explore different avenues, perspectives and ways of learning, the better you will become.