Every parent, every boss, every teacher, possibly everyone wants to improve intelligence, because we operate from this paradigm that improved intelligence somehow makes us quicker, faster, richer, smarter, you fill in the blank…. If I somehow have more of ‘it’, then I will achieve more and achieve ‘it’ more easily.
But what is intelligence at the level of the brain? The psychologists will measure a number of constructs, but at the level of the neuron, intelligence is the connections between neurons, what we have learned to call neuroplasticity, and neuroplasticity can be enhanced, recovered, nurtured.
In fact, you could make a point that since it is now accepted science that we grow new neurons every day, which we call neurogenesis, that we can grow new intelligence every day,and the brain fitness folks are saying that we can work out our brain to make it a most hospitable place for neuroplasticity, and neurogenesis to happen.
So improving intelligence will certainly involve working out the brain, as Simon Evans,PH.D. and Paul Burghardt,Ph.D. point out int their excellent e-book called Brainfit for Life. Evans and Burghardt make a compelling case for taking care of the brain and its neuroplastic and neurogenetic capacities. Taking care of the hardware makes the software more effective, so if we think of improving intelligence as a goal, then I want to suggest that a brain growing more neurons and forming new connections is a brain with more intelligence.
Evans and Burghardt site the research and make a compelling case for taking care of what they call the pillars of brain fitness, which are physical activity/exercise, nutrition, including lots of antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids, good sleep, stress management, and novel learning experiences to improve intelligence.
Sounds vaguely like messages you got from Grandmother, except for the novel learning experience part, right, because the Seniors I know now say cross word puzzles and sudoku keep their brains sharp, which is correct up to a point.
The novel learning experience that really improves neuroplasticity and neurogenesis is the kind of novel learning experience you experience when you are learning a new language or a new instrument, where there is a continually growing complexity and an appropriate amount of success and failure.
So the key to this brain fitness pillar is that it is novel, and doing crosswords or sudoku which do not increase in complexity will not be the best help for my brain.
Put another way, as a counselor, I cannot read another counseling book, and expect increased neurogenesis or neuroplasticity.
But What About My Schedule…?
Is there a solution to improved intelligence and my limited schedule for practicing a new instrument or new language?
Well, Evans and Burghadt describe some research about a computerized task called the dual n back task.
It increases what is called fluid intelligence, which is very broadly, the intelligence that allows me to pick one stimulus from many to pay attention to.
Practice with this tool will rapidly teach you about your lack of attentional skills, meaning you will learn how fast you drift away from a task.
The dual n back practice will impact the neuroplastic connections between your attention paying neurons, and the researchers have actually demonstrated in increased intelligence using a paper and pencil intelligence test, so it is possible isn’t it, to demonstrate improved intelligence.
The catch? The experimenters tried a number of different practice schedules, and the schedule demonstrating the most success was the practice one time per day for nineteen days schedule, each practice lasting a half-hour, so there is a time commitment, and a need to follow through regularly for the best results.
Practice makes perfect for your neurons too, and your boss/teacher/supervisor/wife will love you newly improved intelligence.