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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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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Peak Performance, Professional Development, Uncategorized

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

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