We all like to think we’re smart. But are you as smart as you could be? There’s a debate among some experts about how much general intelligence can be improved, but a growing body of research is finding that some things do help us increase how smart we are.
And that matters, says science writer Dan Hurley, author of Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power. Hurley road-tested a number of “get-smart” theories himself to see if they made a difference.
“Life is too complicated for any one factor to be the be-all-and-end-all, but yeah, the smarter you are, the better your odds of achieving what you’re setting out to achieve, and doing well in life, generally. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
So what are some things that can help you boost your brain power?
It stands to reason that actively seeking out challenging, thought-provoking information will make you smarter. A widely reported 2012 study done by researchers at the University of California, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, found that students who spent 100 hours or more studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) actually had changes in their brains. The findings indicated that such intensive study showed changes in the parts of the brain associated with reasoning and thinking.
Nutrition and exercise have an impact on intelligence. A 2013 study by researchers at Boston University found that exercise is beneficial for brain health and cognition. Two years earlier, researchers at the University of Bristol found that children raised on diets high in fat, sugar and processed food may have lower IQs, while children who eat healthy diets may benefit in the smarts department. Hurley says this is among the least disputed areas of intelligence research.
“Whether you’re talking kids, adults, elderly people–every group of people has shown that [after] physical exercise, strength training and aerobics training, people will perform better on intelligence tests than they did before,” he says.
Take in what’s around you, and listen to what people have to say. That’s going to give you both the information and insight necessary to put it in context, says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist. Part of being intelligent is being able to understand the factors and influences that have an impact on the information. For example, understanding how a person’s tone of voice influences the meaning of what’s being said, or how various pieces of information fit together to give insight into a situation. People who spend more time talking than listening don’t get the full benefit of that information to inform their outlook.
“Noisy brooks are shallow. People that feel the need to let you know how smart they are, generally aren’t the smartest. Intelligent people listen more than they speak,” he says.
Brain training has come under some scrutiny, but there is evidence that it can make a difference. A report published in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 hours of brain training in elderly adults still had benefits on their ability to perform activities 10 years later, with training in reasoning and speed of processing having the most staying power after a decade. Hurley says the research has implications for a wide range of cognitive improvement, including people with brain injuries.
“If you look at someone like Gabby Giffords, or any of these folks who are coming back from war and such, who have really lost significant capacities, this is not just something for rich kids to ace the SAT or high-level-striving executives to get a leg up,” he says.
Curiosity is an important part of intelligence, Michaelis says. Being curious leads us to explore and find answers, which can make us smarter. Read newspapers and take in other media and information sources. (He likes the summary news service TheSkimm.com for a brief overview of each day’s news.) Seek out and stay open to ideas that are different than your own, even when it’s hard, he says. Understanding opposing viewpoints can help you add context and be able to analyze situations, which is an important part of intelligence, he says.
In addition, be willing to ask questions. The person who’s willing to ask questions is often the smartest person in the room, because he or she has the confidence to admit not having all the answers, and also has the motivation to find them, even if it means being a bit vulnerable.
“Vulnerability is critical for both intellectual and emotional intelligence. When people are not willing to be vulnerable, they don’t get what they need, both intellectually and emotionally,” he says.