Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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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