Three Powerful and Effective Ways to Become Smarter

Jon Hawkins

Unlock your brain's full potential by utilizing these simple tips.

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Some people think intelligence is inherited. When I did better than them in school exams, these people would say:

“You’re so lucky you’re smart.”

As if they were the victim of some defective gene that caused them to fail. My achievement wasn’t worth recognizing; I was just lucky to have inherited my knowledge.

But they didn’t see the hours of sacrifice I’d spent preparing. I’m not naturally smart at all; any knowledge and skills were earned, not given.

Our genetics might influence us. But I’m an advocate of the interactionist approach: (as well as our biology) our environment and actions play a role. If we want to reach our full intellectual potential, we have to work at it.

We all like the thought of being smart. But very few are willing to put the work in. In this digital age, we have instant access to all the information we need. Rather than thinking for ourselves, we’ve become reliant on this.

But you can’t trust everything you see online. Instead of blindly believing everything, you need to develop your intelligence. Doing so will help you critically think for yourself: to question the validity of things, and to learn which sources you can trust.

We go to the gym and train our physical muscles. So why do we neglect our mind and how do we train its muscles?

1. Train Your Brain

Our brains are influenced by our environment. Thanks to neuroplasticity, it’s being shaped by the things we expose it to. In the words of neuroscientist Richard Davidson:

The brain is constantly being shaped, wittingly and unwittingly, by environmental forces.”

People aren’t naturally talented. Long-term practice prepares and equips their brain for a challenge. For example, Kuhn et al (2014,) discovered frequently practicing Super Mario causes an increase of the brain’s grey matter — making them better at the game.

We can’t expect to develop a healthy, intelligent brain if we don’t expose it to the right stimulus:

  • Our recall won’t be good if we don’t train the parts of the brain involved in memory (the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex).
  • We can’t expect to know things if we don’t expose ourselves to new information.
  • We’re wrong to think we will achieve our full potential without practice. Every task requires unique skills, which take cognitive effort to perfect.

Taking on new challenges and putting your brain in new (yet uncomfortable) environments might be the best way to improve your skills and intelligence. But which tasks are best for doing this?

Reading Helps You Stay Sharp

Reading provides the perfect balance. It broadens your knowledge by exposing you to new perspectives. But it’s also a powerful tool for training our minds — one that improves our knowledge of the stimulus we see.

  1. It strengthens the brain. Using MRI scans, psychologist S.M. Houston discovered that reading uses a number of complex neural networks. As your reading ability improves, your mind becomes more sophisticated. For example, readers experience more intelligent connections in the somatosensory cortex (the part responsible for responding to physical sensations).
  2. It increases your social abilities and language comprehension. Readers find it easier to understand the feelings of others. They also experience increased empathy and emotional intelligence.
  3. It’s perfect for building your vocabulary. Researcher Kate Cain has discovered those who read regularly have more intelligent communication skills and analytical abilities.

Writing Promotes Healthy Brain Activity

Writing helps us untangle our minds and promotes clear thinking.

By consolidating we can absorb information much quicker. Our brains find it easier to remember the things we consciously make a note of. It forces us to pay attention to memories and internal dialogues. It also encourages us to reflect and question the things we see.

It’s important you write things by hand. Handwriting unlocks certain parts of our brain. Karin James (Indiana University) has discovered certain neural pathways are only utilized when we draw out letters. These correlate with improved recall and intellectual brain activity.

2. Create Music

According to new research, regularly playing a musical instrument influences the capabilities of the brain. It could increase your IQ by over seven points.

A musician's brain is structurally different. For example, the sections in charge of motor skills and storing information become more active as you learn an instrument. This could increase your alertness, reaction times, and “emotional perception.”

Simon Landry (University of Montreal,) discovered musicians have an “altered statistical use of multisensory information.” Meaning they’re better at understanding and integrating information from multiple senses. According to neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday :

“It stimulates the brain in a very powerful way because of our emotional connection with it.”

Changes in the Brain

Instrumentalists experience changes in the brain that make them smarter. Most notably, the corpus callosum (nerves linking two sides of the brain) is larger in musicians. Areas responsible for movement, hearing, and visuospatial abilities are also bigger.

Studies (by Christian Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug) have proved keyboard players experience an increase in grey matter in various areas of the brain. Which enhances their verbal memory and literacy skills.

These effects arise after playing an instrument consistently for 14 months. But the benefits are long-lasting. Those with musical training preserve their improved abilities for their entire lives.

As Loveday puts it:

“It’s a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way that nothing else does”

3. Have Self Confidence

According to a report by Harvard Medical School, not believing in yourself could worsen your ability.

“Myths [about your abilities] can contribute to a failing memory”

For example, middle-aged people do worse on memory tasks when they have been exposed to stereotypes that link old age and cognitive decline. But they perform better after being told their age doesn't affect their abilities.

We can explain this using the “illusory truth effect.” Which states we naturally believe false information after repeat exposure. When people assess whether something is correct, they evaluate whether it feels familiar. Long-term exposure and repetition make things much more familiar, making them more likely to be believed.

As a result, middle-aged people who are repeatedly exposed to negative stereotypes will start to believe that “because they are old, they can’t remember anything.”

Unfortunately, those who believe they are not in control, are less likely to work on their memory skills. So will inevitably experience IQ and cognitive decline.

But if you believe you can do something, you have a better chance. You’ll be more willing to practice when something is within your reach. That includes improving your memory recall and IQ.

If you want to be more intelligent, have confidence in yourself and use that self-belief as fuel to practice your skills. Surround yourself with encouraging people, rather than those who make you feel like you’ll never be smart.

The Takeaway

Some people think intelligence is inherited. When I achieve and they fail, they blame their circumstances and angrily moan they were born with a defective “intelligence gene.”

But I’m an advocate of the interactionist approach. While biology does play a role, our actions and environment ultimately determine whether we reach our full potential.

So we need to train our minds like we do our other muscles at the gym. Some powerful and effective ways to do so are by:

  1. Training your mind. Your brain is shaped by its environment. You can’t be expected to have good recall if you haven’t trained your mind. Two easy ways to do so are reading, which strengthens our neural networks; and writing, which is good for recall.
  2. Creating music. Regularly playing an instrument causes drastic changes in the brain linked to long-term enhancements of verbal and literacy skills. After around 14 months, musicians often experience an increase in IQ of over seven points.
  3. Having self-confidence. A report by Harvard Business School states that believing in yourself could make you more intelligent. So you should surround yourself with encouraging people.

Nobody is born smart. No baby can recall Pythagoras's theory or answer quiz questions. We have to work to improve our intelligence. Even the world's greatest thinkers had to start from scratch. As Albert Einstein puts it:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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