[Warning: If you are interested in a calm, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.]

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Can You Really Make Your Brain Smarter?

A revolution has been going on in the area of brain science. About 10-15 years ago the idea that intelligence was determined by your genes was challenged. It started with a single research study showing that with a type of brain training people could increase their IQ. And it has exploded to hundreds of studies and dozens of books. Dan Hurley (author of Smarter) waded into the controversies and breakthroughs with one big question driving him: Can I make myself smarter?

Taking us on the journey with him, he explored all the methods for improving your brain. For example:

  • The Mozart Effect (listen to classical music)--proved to be false. Music can put you in a better mood and can help you on a test.
  • Exercise--proved to have real impact. Whether cardio or strength, exercise makes your brain work better. It is a physical organ, remember.
  • Lumosity (brain training games via app/web)--initial studies look very promising. With dozens of games, this company allows you to see improvement in your performance by playing 2 min games day after day.
  • Learning a new language--no improvement in any other area of brain performance could be found. You do know a lot more words, but that seems to be about it.
  • Learning a new musical instrument--seems to impact other aspects of intelligence. Several studies showed that this new skill has some crossover benefits to other skills.

The author picked seven things to try--those the research says have the best shot at improving brain function--and tried them for several months. Some he stuck with (exercise) and some he didn't (meditation). He took a battery of standard intelligence tests before and after...but I'll let you read the ending to see if it worked for him.

For me, there was one HUGE learning from this book. Hurley addressed the criticism that many scientists have made, namely that each of these brain training programs only gets you better at that particular test--that you can't improve overall intelligence, only get better at particular skills. I'd heard that enough that I came to believe it--like the book I read on memory training where a guy learns to remember long lists of numbers, but couldn't even remember lists of letters, let alone have a better memory in real life. Hurley shows that while this does happen when you use special techniques (like the memory guy did), these other approaches do increase overall intelligence.

I'm convinced. We can get smarter.

However, he does a good job explaining that there are limits. Genetics is still the largest factor in intelligence--we don't all start identical. We do get to add to whatever we started with, though. And the studies show that those who started with lower intelligence scores benefit the most from training--they can catch up some on those who started smarter.

Well written and important, if you're curious about the latest thinking on brain science, this is a great read for you.