Imagine you could increase your intelligence, what could you achieve? Would it make little difference, or would the sky be the limit? When I think about getting smarter I have visions of transforming, magically into Bradley Cooper in Limitless.
But that’s not going to happen is it? (Especially the part about turning into Bradley Cooper. Don’t worry Brad, you’re safe for now.) But what about just plain getting smarter then? Is that even possible?
Traditionally science has said that intelligence was purely genetic, and that people didn’t have any control over it in the long-term. Sad face. But then in 2008, this study showed for the first time that we may be able to increase our intelligence significantly through training. Happy face!
In the study, participants used a working memory game (dual-n-back) which is designed to increase fluid intelligence (fluid intelligence is ‘the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge’, while crystallized intelligence is ‘the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience’).
The results? Not only were participants able to perform better on the task after training, but they also were also able to transfer the skill increase to a completely unrelated cognitive task: they got smarter.
So, spurred on by the exciting implications of this, with renewed visions of becoming our own version of Eddie Mora (the main character in Limitless), we decided to round up all the best ways we could find to increase our intelligence. If you’re interested, here they are for you too.
27 Tips to Make Yourself Smarter
Have a positive expectation.
In order for us to have flown to the moon, we first had to believe it was possible. Without that belief, we wouldn’t have even entered the Space Race. The same thing is true of getting smarter, you first need to expect that you can do it.
Metacognition, or thinking about your thinking is one of the best ways to increase your intelligence. Like Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living” and he wasn’t being a drama-queen: self-reflection is a critical skill – it allows us to challenge limiting beliefs, gain wisdom and improve our lives.
Many studies have shown a correlation between exercise and intelligence. This study, involving 1.2 million Swedish men doing military service, shows a clear link between physical fitness and IQ test results. Interestingly it’s only fitness which had a correlation to IQ – strength didn’t. Being fit means you have a good heart and lung capacity, which in turn means that your brain gets plenty of oxygen; and brains love oxygen. Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, John Ratey, says that exercise stimulates our grey matter to the extent that it’s like ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain. So make sure you keep fit, even if it means you have to hit that aerobics class.
Just another way of saying, eat a healthy diet; cut out the junk and make sure you get enough high-quality: protein, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and water!
Your brain is mostly fat (60%), so it makes sense that healthy fats are essential to brain health – omega-3 oils from fish, nuts, seeds and dark leafy greens; omega-6 oils from poultry, eggs, sea vegetables and borage oils.
Protein provides amino acids which are used to form neurotransmitters, support structures in neurons, receptors which aid communication and antioxidants which protect cells from damage.
Carbohydrates provide energy for brain function; sugar is the brain’s main source of fuel. Stick to complex carbohydrates (whole grains) and low-GI foods to keep blood sugar at a stable level.
Make sure you’re getting enough of the brain-boosting vitamins and minerals: B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium, calcium; as well as phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables. The best way to get your micronutrients? Plenty of fruit and vegetables every day!
Water is crucial for brain health, as well as general health, so make sure you hydrate.
Vitamin D is good for your brain – it activates and deactivates enzymes in the brain which are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and nerve growth. While there are legitimate concerns about prolonged sun exposure, humans require 5 – 15 minutes of unprotected daily summer sun to optimize vitamin D synthesis from the skin.
Studies (like these ones) have shown that sleep has a positive effect on memory. Further studies have also shown that sleep and dreaming can make you smarter, more creative and better able to plan for the future. Which is why we aim to get a good nights’ sleep, every night.
Nothing exposes you to new ideas as well as reading does. If you’re not a reader, become one. Pick the best books in a field and make sure you read those. Take an active approach to reading and ask questions, make summaries and rate what you’ve read – reflect on the material to squeeze all the juice out it. Learn speed reading and create your own book queue, so you’ve always got a book ready.
Hang around with geniuses.
Like Anthony Robbins says: “Proximity is power”. If you hang around with intelligent people you’re much more likely to pick up more intelligent strategies, perspectives and ways of thinking.
Try new things
Brains love novelty – the greatest geniuses were polymaths (skilled in multiple areas). By constantly exposing yourself to new things you prime your brain for learning. A study using people who never played Tetris before found an increase in cortical thickness and activity after a few weeks training; however, once their brain figured out how to play it there was less brain activity and a decline in cortical thickness. The take-away: expose yourself to novel experiences to keep your brain on its toes and stimulate cognitive growth.
Journaling is one of the best tools for self-reflection, problem solving, generating creative ideas and building emotional intelligence. Get creative: use metaphors and analogies as well as sketches – use all areas of your brain.
Exercise your memory
Memory, both short-term and long-term, is a critical component of intelligence. Make sure you exercise your memory just to keep it in tip-top condition. Play memory games like memorizing number plates and commiting poems and quotes to memory. Learn memory systems like the memory palace and the peg system to boost your capabilities.
Remember how brains love novelty? One of the best ways to force novelty into your life is to break habitual routines, large and small. It can be as simple as brushing your teeth with the other hand, taking a new route to work, saying “hi” to strangers, taking a trip or even starting a new career – just get that novelty in there.
Exploring other cultures exposes you to so many new sights, tastes, sounds and feelings that you can’t help but get cognitive growth as a result. In addition to the biological perspective, it also makes you question long-held social norms – the more different the culture is from your own, the greater the potential for positive growth.
For successful people, failure leads to success. For unsuccessful people, failure prevents it. If you fail at something, use it as positive pain to propel you into doing better. Fail forward – you will have more novel experiences, you’ll challenge yourself more and as a result you will increase your intelligence.
Learn critical thinking.
Learn to recognize logical fallacies, as well as social and cognitive biases, so you can both rid your own thinking of them and recognize when they’re being used by others (hint: politicians and advertisers).
Increase emotional intelligence.
Emotions play such an important role in our lives that it’s worth learning how to perceive, use, understand and manage them. Mastering your emotions leads to greater self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and motivation.
Learn a new language.
Learning a new language not only makes you sexier, but more intelligent too. Mind and body hacker, Tim Ferris is advocate of language learning, saying: “It is, bar none, the best thing you can do to hone clear thinking.”
Do it the hard way.
Technology is making life easier and easier, but if you want to make yourself smarter, try doing things the hard way – so instead of using the map on your phone, use a traditional map to find your way; instead of searching for that snippet of information you used to know, use your brain to retrieve it from your memory banks – challenge yourself to stretch your abilities.
Studies have shown that training with dual n-back increases working memory and as a result fluid intelligence. Even better, since it’s a dose-response effect, the more you train the better your fluid intelligence becomes.
Drawing, painting and playing music all engage different areas of the brain, which in turn can get you thinking in new ways and coming up with creative solutions to problems.
Human interaction is complex and being able to navigate these complexities is the basis of social intelligence. It stands to reason then, that by immersing yourself in social situations will enable you to improve your social intelligence, provided you are commited to learning from the interactions.
Always keep learning.
Your intelligence and memory are like muscles – use them or lose them. Being a life-long learner, not only makes you a more interesting person (and thus, more attractive), but also keeps you brain in good shape.
Watch intelligent TV.
TV isn’t necessarily bad for your intelligence – watching documentaries and other intelligent shows (i.e. shows with multiple storylines, complex plots and complex social interactions) will actually stimulate your thinking, making you smarter.
Act & dress the part.
You know that saying ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’? Well the same thing can be said of intelligence – it’s more about your sense of self: your beliefs about your intelligence can act as limitations if you think you’ve reached your mental limits. The way to get round this? Believe that intelligence is a skill rather than a talent.
You know how in school daydreaming is discouraged? Well it turns out that daydreaming enhances creative problem solving. Look at Einstein, the guy daydreamed (he called it a thought experiment) that he was riding on a beam of light, which in turn played an important role in the development of his theory of special relativity. So forget what the teachers said, daydream away.
Protect your equipment.
So, not only does having sex make you happier, but, like exercise, it also promotes neurogenesis – the formation of new brain cells.
Meditation helps you to stress less, which is good because too much negative stress is bad for your brain’s health. The culmative effect of the powerful hormones which are released into your brain when you react badly to stress, damages and kills brain cells. Meditation helps you to avoid this, which is part of the reason Zen monks are so chill.
That’s it for our tips on how to boost your intelligence and make yourself smarter; we like the philosophy of marginal gains as used by the British Olympic cycling coach: all the small improvements, no matter how small, add up to a big result. Try out a few of these tips and see how they work for you.
The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss. I know, it sounds like a book about cooking, and you do learn that too, but it’s actually about meta-learning. Definitely worth a read, along with The 4-Hour Body, if you haven’t read that one already.
Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans. This little gem is packed with practical mind enhancement tidbits from how to improve your memory to how to make better decisions.