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SmartBrains, Becoming Smarter, and Intelligence

The MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review September/ Octo­ber edi­tion brings an arti­cle by Daniel Den­nett titled High­er Games: It’s been 10 years since IBM’s Deep Blue beat Gar­ry Kas­parov in chess. A promi­nent philoso­pher asks what the match meant (sub­scrip­tion required), which is cre­at­ing a lot of buzz on the sci­ence blo­gos­phere on whether humans or machines are “smarter”.

GABA ReceptorAll this begs the ques­tion, what does “being smart” means? “Is it pos­si­ble to improve intel­li­gence and become “smarter” and what does it real­ly mean to be “smarter?” (ques­tion asked by Patri­cia, one of our read­ers).

Today we bring you an answer to those ques­tions pro­vid­ed by David Gamon, author of Build­ing Men­tal Mus­cle: Con­di­tion­ing Exer­cis­es for the Six Intel­li­gence Zones:


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 may not be 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.


These key­words (pat­tern recog­ni­tion, men­tal flex­i­bil­i­ty, pro­cess­ing speed, cre­ative con­nec­tions, effort­ful prob­lem-solv­ing, deal­ing with nov­el­ty) illu­mi­nate what intel­li­gence is more than the still pop­u­lar IQ. We will be talk­ing more about intel­li­gence, cog­ni­tive skills and IQ over the next weeks.

Enjoy the long hol­i­day week­end (if you are in the US).

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7 Responses

  1. John L. Brown says:

    Mind­ful­ness is the key. A mind­set that is tru­ly mind­ful does not, of neces­si­ty, default into old pat­terns of think­ing. Pat­terns of think­ing are not oper­a­tive, at all. Use­ful, of course. But not the only bases of think­ing and learn­ing. If one relies only on estab­lished pat­terns of think­ing it is because they have not achieved mind­ful­ness. What does this mean? Large­ly, they have sub­scribed to the conventional;conditional think­ing of their peers, and soci­ety as well. There­fore, learn­ing requires the abil­i­ty and habit of inde­pen­dent reflec­tion and cog­ni­tion, and per­haps, courage, as well. Mind­ful­ness means con­sid­er­ing all of the options , even when the con­clu­sions are “cer­tain.” Mind­ful­ness implies con­tin­u­ous think­ing, reflec­tion, and seek­ing. This process is not only fun­da­men­tal to learn­ing, it is in truth, authen­tic learn­ing.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo John,

    Mind­ful­ness is very impor­tant. I don’t think any sin­gle fac­tor is THE key. I like your sen­tence “learn­ing requires the abil­i­ty and habit of inde­pen­dent reflec­tion and cog­ni­tion, and per­haps, courage, as well”. One needs both mind­ful­ness to be aware of options and fre­quent prac­tice of the “flex­i­bil­i­ty mus­cle”, learn­ing new domains, being able to adapt to a vari­ety of envi­ron­ments.

    Let’s always keep learn­ing!

  3. John L. Brown says:

    Hel­lo Alvaro, Thank you for your insight­ful response. I cer­tain­ly agree that mind­ful­ness is not THE only key to learn­ing and think­ing. Yet I intu­it that mind­ful­ness is a ground­ing prin­ci­ple, absolute­ly nec­es­sary, before one can ful­ly uti­lize oth­er poten­tial “tech­niques.” What I am sug­gest­ing, for con­sid­er­a­tion, is a hier­ar­chy of learn­ing, nat­ur­al stages of cog­ni­tion that evolve in an ide­al learn­ing sit­u­a­tion. No, I can­not offer proof for this view, but yet, for me, it is com­mon sense. I have not tak­en the time to define these poten­tial stages, but it seems clear that with­out mind­ful­ness; being ful­ly aware, awake, and con­scious, that learn­ing and think­ing can­not pro­ceed to the high­est estate that we are seek­ing. In short, I am sug­gest­ing that mind­ful­ness is a nec­es­sary pre­req­ui­site for authen­tic learn­ing and think­ing.

  4. Joe Young says:

    What exact­ly does it mean to sculpt your own brain

  5. Alvaro says:

    Good ques­tion, Joe 🙂

    It means that, the same way we can “sculpt” our body mus­cles by exer­cis­ing them, we will one day be able to ask “I need to sculpt/ build up the area of the brain X in order to improve func­tion Y, what tool should I use? med­i­ta­tion, some soft­ware pro­gram, work in a spe­cif­ic type of envi­ron­ment?”

    We will see devel­op­ing more neu­rons and stronger synaps­es as “sculp­ing”.

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