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 sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly 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 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 is 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, and it 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.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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