Is it possible to make yourself smarter? Until about 10 years ago, most neuroscientists said no. "Back in the day people thought intelligence was genetic," says Dan Hurley, a science journalist and author of the recent book Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power. "It was Darwinian: Sorry folks, your brain’s not up to snuff."
But a growing field of study proves that our mental capacity can be strengthened through cognitive exercise, just as we can build up the body by lifting weights. It’s not a question of memory, mind you. "Training short-term memory and long-term memory has no real benefit and isn’t related to intelligence," says Hurley. "They’re useful, but there are plenty of absent-minded professors and geniuses who don’t remember the names of people they met at a party." Instead, it’s our working memory and fluid intelligence "that separate a Steve Jobs and Bill Gates from the rest of us," Hurley explains. "They can put things together, see patterns, and read between the lines."
Working memory is our ability to toggle between disparate information from moment-to-moment, while organizing it into useful components. Fluid intelligence is our ability to detect hidden patterns. People who decipher ancient texts or top-notch spies have particularly strong fluid intelligence. "They’re called intelligence analysts for a reason," says Hurley and says there’s now an entire program in the U.S. government—the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity or IARPA—that’s working to advance this field. But brain training isn’t just for spies. We can all benefit from a brain workout.
Case in point: Healthcare.gov. "What was the real problem with the site?" Hurley asks. "Was it a lack of high IQ nerds? No. All those nerds were just doing their jobs, but nobody was putting the larger pieces together. That project required smart people to step back and see the thing in its entirety." Which is exactly what fluid intelligence is for. So how can you pump up your brain? Here’s Hurley’s advice.
Hurley spent three and half months doing Lumosity, an online brain training program designed by neuroscientists. The games can help easily distracted people focus, allow older individuals to hang on to cognitive function longer, and train you how to see patterns and make connections, which is the essence of fluid intelligence.
If you're skeptical, Hurley has some words for you. "There is a wealth of published information demonstrating that Vitamin C supplements are completely useless unless you’re a British sailor in 1793 and yet people continue to take that Airborne crap," he says. Meanwhile, when it comes to brain games people keep protesting, "‘but it’s not proven!’"
He understands that you may not be ready to fork over your credit card. But no worries. Play the free brain training came "Dual N-Back" or try a game. "Absurdly, sharp shooter games been shown to have significant benefits in decreasing your reaction time and responding to stimuli," he says. "We don’t think of those things as ‘intelligence’ but they’re important cognitive skills." At the very least, he says, it’ll prevent you "from driving into that car that’s pulling out of the parking lot."
"The ability to focus and shut out the world is really important," says Hurley. "It’s how physicists have those crazy breakthroughs and solve profound problems." Us ordinary folk can attain a similar depth of concentration by practicing mindfulness meditation. All you do is sit quietly and focus on your breath. When your thoughts begin to wander, you gently pull them back. When that work meeting pops in your head, come back to your breath. When you start mentally adding to your grocery list, come back to your breath. Doing this for even 20 minutes a day can have dramatic results, especially, Hurley says, if you’re one of those "office workers who are checking Facebook every 20 minutes."
"Doing something physical can really pay off with your mind," says Hurley. "Weights and cardio are two of the best proved methods to strengthen working memory and fluid intelligence." The trick, however, is to keep pushing yourself. The exercise has to be "progressive"—i.e. increasing in intensity. "Just jogging like you’ve always done will only help you stay where you are mentally," Hurley says. You have to stretch your body a little past its limit in order to expand the mind.
"As Frankensteinian as it sounds, a very low dose of electric current (9 volts) applied carefully to the right part of your forehead will stimulate areas involved in high-level thinking," Hurley says. This technique is not approved by the FDA, but it’s legal and there are companies that offer the service. Hurley himself was treated by Harvard neuroscientists. "I would encourage people not to try this at home, unless they want to look like the guys on Tosh.O who go water skiing off the roofs of their houses." He adds that while he was having the treatment he saw a dramatic improvement in his Lumosity scores.
"I specifically do not mean picking up that dusty guitar that you used to play and thrashing at some old songs from the '80s. I’m talking about getting lessons and practicing," he says. Learning a musical instrument exercises the brain in much the same way as the Lumosity games, teaching you to juggle multiple tasks at the same time. "I learned to play the renaissance lute. I really had fun," he says. Alternately, he suggests chess lessons. "It’s progressive and requires mental juggling, analyzing, and systematically playing with possibilities," he says. "But again, don't just sit down with your college buddy. Take lessons."