Saturday, March 17, 2012

5 Ways to Boost Cognitive Capacity

A 2008 study on fluid intelligence and working memory by Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, and Perrig showed for the first time, that it might actually be possible to increase intelligence through training. Up until this point it was assumed that intelligence was genetic, remained relatively fixed, and could not be improved in any lasting way. Among the study's findings:
  1. Fluid intelligence is trainable
  2. The training and subsequent gains are dose-dependent - meaning, the more you train, the more you gain. 
  3. Anyone can increase their cognitive ability, no matter what your starting point is.
  4. The effect can be gained by training on tasks that don't resemble the test questions (typical intelligence test questions)

Writing about this study in Scientific American, author and Behavioral Therapist Andrea Kuszewski provides us with five ways to increase fluid intelligence and cognitive ability:

  1. Seek Novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things the Hard Way
  5. Network

1. Seek Novelty.
When you seek novelty, you create new synaptic connections with every new activity you engage in. These connections build on each other, increasing your neural activity, creating more connections to build on other connections.

Constantly exposing yourself to new things puts your brain in a primed state for learning. Novelty also triggers dopamine, which not only kicks motivation into high gear, it also stimulates the creation of new neurons—and prepares your brain for learning.

2. Challenge Yourself.
Challenging yourself is about more than keeping your brain active and involves more than mental games and puzzles. Work by scientist Richard Haier shows that intense training on novel mental activities (in this case the video game Tetris) can produce increased brain activity and cognitive growth initially, but that activity drops off. Why the drop? Once the brain figured out how to play the game, and got really good at it, it got lazy. It didn’t need to work as hard in order to play the game well, so the cognitive energy went somewhere else instead.

In order to keep your brain making new connections and keeping them active, you need to keep moving on to another challenging activity as soon as you reach the point of mastery in the one you are engaging in. You want to be in a constant state of slight discomfort, struggling to barely achieve whatever it is you are trying to do. This keeps your brain on its toes, so to speak.

3. Think Creatively.
Creative thinking is about using both sides of your brain, focusing on a diverse range of topics and subjects, making remote associations between ideas, switching back and forth between conventional and unconventional thinking.

4. Do Things the Hard Way.
Your brain needs exercise the same way your body needs exercise. If you stop using your problem-solving skills, spatial skills, logical skills, and cognitive skills, your mental muscles will atrophy much the same way your physical muscles would without use.

We have a variety of modern conveniences and technologies that help make things easy for us. GPS tells us how to navigate the city, auto spellcheck and grammar check keep us from having to remember how a word is spelled or whether to use a common or semicolon. These are great conveniences, but they do little to build brainpower. If you want to increase cognitive capacity, one of the best things you can do is say no to shortcuts and use your brain.

5. Network.
By networking with other people - either through social media such as Facebook or Linked-In, or in face-to-face interactions - you are exposing yourself to the kinds of situations that are going to make items 1-4 much easier to achieve. By exposing yourself to new people, ideas and environments, you are  opening yourself up to new opportunities for cognitive growth.

Full article by Kuszewski

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