Consider this scenario, you're struggling with a tricky problem at work and you had to do the embarrassing UM HI, routine to cover the fact that you forgot the name of the person you always bump into at the copy machine. Now you are at happy hour you've clammed up because someone mentioned GLOBAL WARMING and though it dimly rings a bell, you're not sure if it's a table sport or a place or some sort of noodle dish. If only you were smarter, you think. Not that you're dumb (we'd never call you that, at least not to your face). But wouldn't it be nice to have all the answers, a picture-perfect memory and the ability to astonish your friends or wow your boss with big words and bigger thoughts?
Most will agree that being smart is more than merely acing an IQ test, which typically measures a specific set of capabilities and assigns a score. Not that high scores don't matter for are tied to educational achievement and higher income, social status and even longer life. However in the real world, intelligence is much, much vaster and there are many varieties of it. The idea that there are multiple intelligences and that that people can be intelligent visually, musically, mathematically, athletically, interpersonally and intrapersonally was introduced by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. Still, whatever the type of intelligence, most people judge brainpower on practical factors, including how much you know, how well you can access what you know and what you do with it. Which still leaves us wondering how much can be expanded beyond the original biologic cards that you've been dealt. Research shows that although children's brains develop at an astonishing clip, that ability slows in adulthood. And clearly some people start off with much fuller decks than others.
BUFF BODY, BUFF BRAIN – Here’s another reason to hit the gym: Staying active is good for the brain. Exercise improves the flow of blood throughout your body, including to your noggin, which helps it operate better. The effect is especially important as we age. In general, anything that leads you to be healthier, mentally or physically, leads to you being more alert, which leads you to being more attentive to the task at hand, which leads to better performance." That includes getting enough sleep and avoiding illness. Exercise also stimulates the creation of certain proteins, including brain-derived neurotrophic factors that are important for brain development and repair. Exercise improves your overall health, boosts your mood and keeps your weight down.
EAT YER (BRAIN) FOOD – What you eat may also affect how you think. Omega-3 oils, for example, have been shown to aid in developing the brains of fetuses, babies and children. Some scientists believe they may have a similar effect on the brains of adults. And thanks to a new understanding of stem cells, there's hope that the nutrient choline may help adults. Until five years ago, researchers thought that we were done forming the brain by 4 or 5 years of age, but they realized that they are wrong. In the last decade, it's become clear that there are stem cells in the hippocampus that are dividing until you're in your 50s." That means there's a good chance that what's beneficial for brain development early in life might also help later, although probably to a lesser degree.
CONCENTRATE N’ RELAX – If you thought you'd have to spend all day with your nose in a book to get smart, think again. There's evidence that meditation does wonders for the thinker. While studying the brain structure of people who practice Buddhist insight meditation regularly, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers found mediators have thicker brain matter in the area that deals with executive function, which refers to our ability to plan, think abstractly, understand rules and initiate appropriate responses. The study didn't look at whether those with thicker brain matter have higher-functioning brains, says lead study author Sara Lazar, but the team aims to find out. In the meantime, Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, offers plenty of support for meditation. Davidson has long studied the impact of meditation on attention and concentration, and has found that "even relatively short-term meditation practice can substantially change certain aspects of attention and change the brain systems that underlie it." Meditation can also help train people to regulate their emotions. Monks, it turns out, are masters of this, as Davidson found in a study. That inner calm "is extremely important for well-being and also very important for learning," he says. "If you are hyper-responsive to stress and to negative stimuli in your environment, it would interfere with your capacity to learn."
DISCOVER~EXPERIENCE~LEARN – Although we're still studying the brain and intelligence, "for centuries there have been ways known for making you smarter," Gordon says. "We call it education. It's been known to work." Cute. But Gordon points out that it's not just what you learn in school but that you learn how to think. "You learn about different approaches," he says. "And that's part of being intelligent." In addition, being in school gives you practice in memorizing things, a skill that fades with lack of use. Someone studying for an exam 15 years after they graduated from college, for example, probably will have a harder time memorizing lists of facts than someone with recent practice in cramming. Exposing yourself to new experiences can also help improve inactive or less active parts of the brain, Linden says. "Do as many different kinds of mental exercises as you can," he advises. If you're a crossword puzzle nut, that's great, but you'll build up only the skills related to crossword puzzles. Instead, put down the pencil and try something else. Seek out new cultural experiences, visit new places, and try a new hobby.