November 7, 2017

How to Become a Smarter, Sharper Version of You

You can train your brain to grow and do more amazing things

We all want to be smarter.

But can we actually increase our intelligence, or is intelligence–like our height or eye color—something that is fixed for our whole lives?

Personally, I struggle with the idea that intelligence is fixed. I’m sure you can think of moments in your life where your experiences, your motivation, or simply your determination helped you become smarter. I know I can.

What’s more, research has shown that the act of believing intelligence to be something that can grow can result in greater academic achievement and professional success. I’m all about this type of positive thinking.

So what are some simple lifestyle hacks that will help us be smarter? Here are 7 ways we can all keep the claws sharp.

1. Read

Every time you open a book, you are exposing yourself to new vocabulary and complex sentence structure. But reading offers you a whole lot more than a lesson in grammar. Reading may be the best way to strengthen your emotional intelligence, increase your knowledge and up your ability to solve new problems. And lucky for you, it doesn’t really matter what you read; non-fiction, fiction, even science fiction all have their benefits:

  • Nonfiction. Whether you read a biography or a self-help book, you are increasing your worldly knowledge. In fact, studies show that you remember facts better when they are presented in the form of a story. What’s more, you are also learning how these facts pack a whopping big-picture punch when applied to historical or current events and your own day-to-day life.
  • Fiction. Novels help us make big picture connections between life and real life. It does this by helping us navigate complex social relationships and by enhancing our ability to detect and understand other people’s emotion. For example, in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, we see the story unfold from Elizabeth Bennet’s perspective. As such, we are persuaded that Mr. Darcy is an arrogant and narrow-minded man. By the end of the novel, however, we come to realize that we’ve misjudged the situation. Novels often deliberately lead the reader into a misguided perception of the world only to lift and remove these misunderstandings at the end when the characters, themselves, discover the truth. Reading is a social experience we can discover in the comfort of our own living room.
  • Science fiction. Although considered a sub-category of fiction, science-fiction has the added opportunity to push your ability to predict and problem-solve. Science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson, calls this “cognitive-mapping.” In science fiction, you are presented with a vision of what the future could be. These type of novels are not meant to be accurately predictive, but rather to help you scenario-build. What is the current status-quo and where might it go 50 years down the road? Sci-fi presents a fictional future while representing current problems. How would you solve them?

2. Teach

One of my favorite ways of studying in college was to explain complex concepts to my friends. Every morning, my roommate and I would walk together to our respective 10 A.M. classes. On Monday mornings, I would use our ten minute walk to “teach” my roommate the ideas or skills I had learned the previous week as a way to refresh my own understanding in preparation for a weekly quiz. Luckily, I had a patient friend who was happy to be the recipient of my mini-lectures!

This technique, called the protégé effect, can be really useful for increasing your own knowledge. What makes it so effective? When you teach material to someone else, you translate concepts through your own voice. As you explain the material, you start to identify gaps in your understanding, which leads to informative deduction or further research. Every now and then, your student will ask a question that will change the way you think about the material you are teaching.

Use this technique when learning a new concept on which you will be tested or when preparing for a presentation. If you can’t find a willing student, simply practice aloud to your dog or alone in your car on your commute. Just hearing yourself out loud will provide an added level of cognitive stimulation.

3. Surround yourself with diverse people

In addition to being a teacher, be an active listener. Everyone has his or her own unique skill set. By surrounding yourself with people in other professions, people from diverse backgrounds, people who are smarter than you, or even people who you may disagree with, you are exposing yourself to new concepts. This kind of novelty creates neural pathways that strengthen your brain and you are gaining a new perspective or skill!

Looking at things from someone else’s perspective also helps keep our own ego in check. It allows us to consider new solutions for personal and professional problems. Even if you don’t agree with what someone else has to say, a little debate pushes you outside your comfort zone and helps stimulate the mind.

Perhaps it will change your position on some matter, or perhaps it will strengthen your own argument. Just remember to stay humble. No one benefits when things get heated and emotionally charged. But if you are willing to learn, you may be surprised what others can teach you.

4. Exercise

It doesn’t take much, but a little physical exertion every day will actually help you focus, complete cognitive tasks (like planning) and avoid memory declines associated with aging.

It turns out that hitting the gym or swimming a few laps in the pool can cause your brain cells to reinforce old connections between neurons and form new connections. This denser neuron network is better able to process and store information, essentially resulting in a smarter brain.

But a sweat-inducing workout can do more for your brain than making it a lean, mean cognition machine. Exercise also offers incredible mental rewards. When you get your heart pumping, your body releases feel-good neurochemicals and endocannabinoids that can fight stress and increase your mood.

5. Practice mindfulness

When I first heard of mindfulness, I thought it sounded complex.

You see, I’m not the lotus-legged, incense-burning hippie that I imagine practices mindfulness. But it turns out, it’s actually really easy for anyone to do.

Mindfulness is simply about being aware of what you’re thinking and deciding where you choose to focus your attention. Have you ever walked from one room to another room without realizing how you got there? This is an example of being “asleep” in your day, not being fully alive or present. Mindfulness teaches you how to slow down, to pay more attention to each moment, and to observe things objectively.

There’s no one way to practice mindfulness. You can practice in a quiet room, on a walk or while enjoying a meal.

Here is a short mindfulness exercise you can do in 30 seconds:

Feel your breath move in and out of your body. Straighten your back, lift your shoulders and observe how your breath changes. Let your hands relax in your lap. Observe your body as you breathe. Feel how the shape of your chest changes with each breath. Feel how the shape of your belly changes with each breath.

Now, if you can, close your mouth and breathe in through your nose. Breathe out through your nose. Listen to the sound your breath makes as it moves through your nose. Lift the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, take a deep breath in, and listen to how the sound changes. Imagine waves on a rocky beach flowing in and out, making the sound you hear as the water washes over the stones.

Feel your chest expand again as you breathe. Feel your legs against the chair. Open your eyes.

Mindfulness helps to slow down initial reactions through objective observation of what thoughts and feelings exist before deciding what they mean and how to respond. So whether you’re stuck in a traffic jam or gearing up for a long day at work, mindfulness allows you to take the time and space necessary to figure out how you want to react to a situation, to assess how big or small it is, and how stressful it is for you.

How can it make you smarter? Growing evidence suggests that training in mindfulness meditation improves not just psychological well being but also produces measurable improvements in a range of cognitive areas, including attention and memory, probably by reducing susceptibility to stress and distraction.

6. Find your passion

One of the best ways to become smarter is to find something you are really passionate about.

Become an expert on whatever topic is important to you. As long as you’re passionate about the subject, you won’t mind putting in the hard work to master it. Not only will this help you become smarter, but others seek you out as the expert on the subject.

What’s more, deeply internalized knowledge can help you make giant intuitive leaps. One example that gets talked about is Steve Jobs’ decision to take a calligraphy class in college. Inspired, his passion eventually led to the streamlined, clean look of Apple products. You never know what your passion lead to.

Your passion doesn’t have to become your job, though. In fact, it’s helpful if it doesn’t! Without professional pressure and the need to make money, you can enjoy learning at your own pace and follow your own interests, which is another important exercise in letting your mind grow.

7. Challenge yourself

It’s never too late to learn something new. In fact, adult education is one of the best investments of time, money, and energy that you can make. New experiences help create neural pathways that strengthen the brain.

This doesn’t have to be a huge investment. Here are several really simple ways to learn something new that you can do in small doses:

You could try to learn and use a new word every day. There are numerous apps that help you do this that will send you a new word to learn each morning.

You could try playing and getting good at a difficult game. Lumosity has brain-training games programed to provide stimuli that push your brain to adapt and retrain itself in uncharted territory, or you can take up an old school game like chess.

Why not try taking a new route to work? Or, stop at a different coffee shop for that morning latte. Displacement is good for the brain. It forces you to focus on street names or read new menu options. It offers you a change of scenery so that your brain can’t go on autopilot.

Another way to challenge yourself is to take a class. You could take a class relevant to your work or just for fun. Bonus points if it differs from how you spend the majority of your day.

For example, I spend a lot of time working on the computer. Playing the guitar, however poorly, allows me to express myself and use my brain in a completely different way. This kind of “cognitive diversity” exercises different parts the brain. Remember the “use it or lose it” idea? With enough stretching, you can keep your brain nimble and sharp.

Just thinking of your intelligence as malleable can help you automatically and unintentionally adopt behaviors that will actually help you become smarter. A deliberate follow-through on one or more of these tips will increase opportunities to engage your brain. Will they help you become a genius? Perhaps not. But they can sharpen your brainpower over the long-term.

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