Simple ways to get smarter
Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, has been quoted to the effect that intelligence and creativity are mostly innate and cannot be taught. Microsoft believes that their people’s brains are its competitive advantage. So, Gates looks for the “brightest and the most creative people who can quickly grasp new knowledge, are intellectually aggressive and challenging, pragmatic, verbally facile, respond when challenged, and are obsessive problem-solvers.”
Does this mean that when it comes to intelligence, it’s either you have it or you don’t? Can your brain enhance its cognitive prowess? Can you get smarter by altering or exercising your brain?
As we age, our brain deteriorates. Studies show that starting at roughly age 55, the brain’s hippocampus (that region associated with memory) shrinks one to two percent every year. Today, ten percent of adults aged 65 or more have Alzheimer’s disease. This figure could radically get higher as the Baby Boomers get much older.
No wonder that we are suckers to drugs and supplements that promise to boost our mental functioning or arrest aging. The very thought of enhancing one’s brainpower seduces not just the aging population. Young students take memory enhancers during exam week. Medical practitioners know that the brain has remarkable neuroplasticity. It has the capacity to change, remodel or cure itself to arrest effects of injuries. But can our brain be trained to enhance our cognitive prowess?
Dr. Richard Alan Friedman, professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, reported that a few years ago a joint study by BBC and Cambridge University neuroscientists put brain training to the test. Friedman said, “Their question was this: Do brain gymnastics actually make you smarter, or do they just make you better at doing a specific task? For example, playing the math puzzle KenKen will obviously make you better at KenKen. But does the effect transfer to another task you haven’t practiced, like a crossword puzzle?”
Friedman reports, “The BBC recruited 11,430 viewers on its popular online science program “Bang Goes the Theory” for six weeks of brain training, with 10-minute sessions three times each week. Subjects were placed at random in three groups: one experimental group playing games of reasoning and testing problem-solving skills; a second experimental group that emphasized tests of attention, short-term memory and math skills that were typical of commercially available brain-training games; and a control group that performed the equivalent of Google searches by answering obscure test questions.”
All 11,430 subjects took a benchmark cognitive pre- and post-test, a modified IQ test. Improvements were observed in every cognitive task that was practiced. However, there was no evidence that brain training made people generally smarter. Scores on the benchmark test, for which subjects did not train, did not significantly increase at the end of the study.
The upside was that the subjects aged 60 and above, unlike the younger participants, showed a significant improvement in verbal reasoning, one of the components of the benchmark test, after just six weeks of brain training. These older subjects continued in a follow-up study for 12 more months.
Friedman concludes, “Results of this follow-up study, soon to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, generally show that continued brain training helps older subjects maintain the improvement in verbal reasoning seen in the earlier study. This is good news because it suggests that brain exercise might delay some of the effects of aging on the brain.”
In a related study, Dr. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at the Stanford University and foremost researcher on motivation, found an “intriguing evidence that the attitude that young people have about their own intelligence – and what their teachers believe – can have a big impact on how well they learn. Kids who think that their intelligence is malleable perform better and are more motivated to learn than those who believe that their intelligence is fixed and unchangeable.”
Dr. Dweck gave a group of low-achieving seventh graders a “seminar on how the brain works and put the students at random into two groups. The experimental group was told that learning changes the brain and that students are in charge of this process. The control group received a lesson on memory, but was not instructed to think of intelligence as malleable. After eight weeks, students who had been encouraged to view their intelligence as changeable scored significantly better (85 percent) than controls (54 percent) on a test of the material they learned in the seminar.”
These findings have profound implications for education and training in general. A relatively simple intervention can enhance learning and motivation – teachers encouraging their students to think of the students’ cognitive capacity as something that they can improve.
Studies have established that people can hit a higher intellectual potential with the use of certain interventions. Perhaps, we cannot increase our innate intelligence, but we can enhance our learning and intellectual potential. Here are a few tips:
- Perform physical exercise. Even if mental gymnastics will not make you more intelligent, physical exercise can improve your cognitive abilities. Physical exercises can promote the creation and growth of neurons in your hippocampus. In an exercise group among women, it was observed that older women who did weight training twice a week had lesser brain shrinkage than those who had training only once a week. In another group, verbal memory improved among those women engaged in aerobic exercises. Mice that were made to run on a wheel for 45 days ended up with more neurons than sedentary mice.
- Engage in brain games. You can increase your memory, attention and reasoning just by playing mental games. Use your brain to unravel puzzles, brain twisters, and other mental exercises. Use your brain in the right way, avoid keeping it idle, and you’ll get smarter.
- Avoid depressing experiences. Depression can decrease the level of protein called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in your blood and brain. The BDNF promotes growth and formation of new neurons that helps increase the size of your hippocampus and improve your memory. Some antidepressants contain ingredients that can arrest the drop of BDNF & are therefore neuro-protective.
- Expand your social network. Dr. Lisa Berkman, social epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health concludes, “People with richer social networks and engagement have a reduced rate of cognitive decline as they age.” She studied 17,000 people aged 50 and older from 1998 to 2004. The results showed that “people with the highest level of social integration had less than half the decline in their cognitive function of the least socially active subjects.”
These tips might NOT make you smarter or arrest your aging process. My high school classmates – Cynthia del Villar-Brawner, Ludy Baldoza-Cabañas, Ruben Rivero, Hubert Dy-An, Tony Darilay, Di Midel-Cahapay, and several others are following this routine. Guess what? I think they’re smarter today than when we were in high school.
Because of my advocacies, I had to be smart. I exercise often, play poker more often, almost completely disregard a few people who hate my guts, help improve the government career executives, help run anti-poverty NGOs, cooperatives & SMEs, get more active in business & professional associations, teach at UP & LPU graduate school, watch National Geographic, Bloomberg, and Penn & Teller do magic.
Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) said, “Every poker player is smarter than me.”
(Ernie is the 2013 Executive Director and 1999 President of the People Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP); Chair of the AMCHAM Human Capital Committee; and Co-Chair of ECOP’s TWG on Labor and Social Policy Issues. He also chairs the Accreditation Council for the PMAP Society of Fellows in People Management. He is President and CEO of EC Business Solutions and Career Center. Contact him at [email protected])
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