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On being “smart” and building neural connections

Your questions 

– Patricia: Is it possible to improve intelligence and become “smarter” and what does it really mean to be “smarter”?

– Thomas: What could I do to systematicly create more and more neural connections (increase IQ)?

Dr. Gamon responds:

As we age, our brains accumulate an ever larger collection of patterns. This gives us a kind of mental quickness that compensates for the slowing of processing speed. Instead of having to piece together the pattern bit by bit from scratch by associating individual pieces of data, you need only a few pieces of data to make you realize that they fit a pattern you already know, much the way a few bars of melody are all you need to recognize an entire song.

The more experience we accumulate, the more of these patterns we hold in our brains, and the less effort we have to make to piece together new pieces of data in new ways. With that comes a danger. We get lazy. It’s a lot easier to recognize a pattern than to piece the pattern together in the first place.

It also happens that we become limited by the patterns we accumulate in our brains. Instead of having new insights – new patterns – we tend to assume that old patterns are sufficient to handle new data. Maybe in some cases they are, but maybe in some cases we would piece together new patterns if only we were open to the idea that the old patterns might not be all there is.So on the one hand, we have a richer array of patterns to draw on in processing information and figuring things out, and we can come up with creative insights by making connections between patterns that we might at first had thought were completely different. (That’s what metaphors are.)

But one thing we have to guard against as we age is a loss of mental flexibility. Mental flexibility – the ability to switch rapidly between two things at once, or change cognitive horses in mid-stream, or see old things in a brand-new way – naturally tends to decline as we age. So it’s important to do more than just rely on old familiar patterns as we get older. The more patterns we have, the easier it is to get away with relying on them, but the more important it is that we do MORE than just rely on them.

A part of your brain responsible for mental flexibility and really effortful problem-solving is called the prefrontal cortex, which is right up at the front of your brain behind your forehead. This is a part of your brain that tends to decline the most with age. So it’s important to do things that give this part of your brain a lot of exercise. Fortunately, it’s not hard to do it in a way that’s fun rather than just unpleasant. Doing mental arithmetic gives your prefrontal cortex a workout, but it’s not much fun. You’d need an awful lot of willpower to do a lot of mental arithmetic exercises every day, and sooner or later you’d probably just give up.

The trick is to take advantage of all those patterns without JUST relying on them. The thing you need to do is process new data in new ways, and form new patterns all the time, instead of just falling back on the old ones. This is the importance of novelty – not just doing new things with your brain, but also learning new tricks for making sure you’re not just falling back on old patterns when processing new data. So you can keep all those old songs in your mind, but learn new ones too, so your inventory grows larger every day instead of stopping in your 20s or 30s.

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