Keeping a fit mind is like keeping a fit body: there are no reliable gimmicks or shortcuts. Health comes down to daily lifestyle choices, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and being judicious with french fries and six packs. IQ, just like weight, begins with the little choices.
Some people don’t believe that IQ can change, but it can. Any aspect of personality is malleable. Over time and with effort, people can become more agreeable, more patient, more goal-oriented. And these can be lasting changes that improve life more than money or other circumstantial improvements (Boyce, Wood, and Powdthavee 2013).
Intelligence is also malleable. For example, researchers have found that early interventions with autistic children have had wonderful effects on intellectual functioning (Reichow and Wolery 2009). Others have shown that training children on various types of logical relationships increased their IQ test scores dramatically (Cassidy, Roche, and Hayes, 2011). And unsurprisingly, Norwegian researchers found that education has a lasting effect on IQ (Brinch and Galloway, 2011).
Intelligence is also malleable in adults. It’s important to trust in that. People are likelier to improve their personality style and intellectual functioning when they believe it’s possible (Dweck 2008).
Obi-Wan Kenobi understood that when he urged Luke to trust the force—and nobody’s wiser than Obi-Wan. (The Alec Guinness version of Obi-Wan was wise, anyway. The Ewan McGregor version was a dolt, which illustrates my point that IQ can increase with age.)
So what is an IQ score, anyway? It’s really nothing more than a sloppy numerical representation of what a person is capable of doing in the world. In fact, the numerical IQ score is such a slovenly statistic that psychologists are moving toward richer discriptions of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.
Cognitive functioning changes over time. My recent post on marijuana discussed the various ways in which chronic pot usage damages intellectual functioning. But intellect can just as easily move upward.
Though I’m not opposed to fancy brain-training websites, I think they’re unnecessary. I believe the more meaningful way to improve intellectual functioning is simply to use your brain the way it was meant to be used. Engage in life, seek new experiences, solve problems, and have fun.
Active engagement in life is the mental equivalent of taking the stairs instead of the elevator. With that as a foundation, here are seven modest suggestions for increasing IQ.
1. Exercise Your Weak Spots
Athletes know the the value of focusing on their weaknesses. If you’re great at catching the football but only mediocre at running it, then the quickest way to improve your overall performance is to run wind sprints and work the tires. (That might not make sense to those of you outside the U.S., but I’m sure you get the idea.)
The opportunity to exercise weak spots are all around us. If you’re weak in math, then try mentally calculating your change at the cash register before the clerk hands it to you. If language is your foible, then work on replacing filler words like “a lot” or “that thing” with precise and descriptive terms. Play with puns, and speak publicly whenever possible.
No matter what area of cognition you want to strengthen, life presents little puzzles every day. Take advantage of them.
2. Memorize Things and Learn New Skills
Your brain is designed to learn and recall information. Use it. Memorize a Shel Silverstein poem, or your children’s social security numbers. Devise a mnemonic for your favorite recipe, or make a mental map of a city you’ll soon be visiting. Study a language. Take a math class. The more information you learn, the easier it is to relate new information to existing knowledge. That brain of yours is the most complex machine around. It needs to be used in order to stay in good working order.
3. Don’t Rely on Technological Shortcuts
There was a time, not long ago, when it was easier to remember important phone numbers than to look them up in a Rolodex. We had to study a road atlas before taking a trip. We had to carry real calendars in real briefcases.
Now our smart phones dial for us, navigate for us, and track our obligations. I think smart phones might be the single greatest threat to mental fitness.
Smart phones are really no different than rolodexes or backseat navigators, except that they’re so darned easy to rely on. Surrendering to them completely causes mental skills to atrophy. If you want to hang on to those neurons, take the time to memorize the important phone numbers—and actually dial them rather than telling your phone to dial them for you. Turn the GPS off once in a while and solve the navigation puzzle on your own. And stay mindful of your obligations rather than relying exclusively on a device to do it for you.
4. Be Curious
Do you want to be the smartest person in the room at your next party? It’s easy: simply talk less than everyone else and ask more questions. Seize the opportunity to learn about other people, the lives they lead, and the jobs they do.
You don’t even have to wait until your next black-tie event. Just be curious about the world around you. Do you know how an internal combustion engine works? What about neurons, or economies, or furnaces? If you don’t know how these things function, you should. If you do, there are endless others things to discover. Curiosity is a mind’s best friend.
5. Invite Criticism
One of the mind’s jobs is to adapt to the environment and replace ineffective habits with more useful behaviors. To that end, criticism is a gift even when it is hard to hear. If we can set ego aside, other people will generously offer new and better ways of doing things.
Not all criticism is useful, so here are a couple of criteria for weeding out the weak or damaging criticism.
First, consider the source. There are people who build things up, and there are people who tear things down. Criticism from the first group should be taken with gratitude; criticism from the second group should be taken lightly.
Second, watch for trends. If multiple people are making similar observations, it might benefit you to consider their feedback. An intelligent mind adapts to the ever-changing environment. Good criticism is like rocket fuel for that process.
6. Slow Down and Look Beneath the Surface
After high school, I spent a couple of years repairing pinsetter machines at an 80-lane bowling alley. Sometimes a machine would have a repetitive problem. Bearings would break or belts would snap in the same place on the same machine.
As a trainee, I was prone to asking no questions and simply replacing parts whenever necessary. But an older mechanic named John taught me how to slow down, identify patterns, and ask why the problem kept recurring.
John moved slowly and deliberately. He would stand back and examine the totality of a problem before picking up a tool. Some people thought he was lazy. Maybe he was, but in a very good way. John saved himself a lot of time—and he saved the company a lot of money—by slowing down and looking beneath the surface of a problem. He was a genius because he had the patience to ask this simple question: what’s really going on here?
7. Exercise and Sleep
While we’re on the subject of maintenance, a sharp mind requires basic upkeep. Physical exercise makes the mind sharper, and proper sleep helps us consolidate new knowledge. Both behaviors improve mental clarity.
You have to maintain the mental equipment if you want to increase IQ. Forgoing sleep and exercise is like leaving your tractor out in the rain.
Here’s one more tip: if you want to measure your intellectual functioning, please don’t waste your time with online IQ tests. You will end up loving your brain far too much, or far too little, and you probably won’t gain any useful information about your strengths and weaknesses.
Instead, find a licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive assessment. It isn’t free, but you will gain a great deal of useful insight about your mind, along with individualized strategies for peak mental performance.
We all want a trim body and a plump brain. No matter which direction you’re trying to move the numbers, big changes come from small, consistent behaviors. Plus, life is more fun when you’re fully engaged. No matter what you might have heard from Aerosmith, the stairs are more interesting than the elevator.
Boyce, C.J., A.M. Wood, and N. Powdthavee. 2013. “Is Personality Fixed? Personality Changes as Much as ‘Variable’ Economic Factors and More Strongly Predicts Changes to Life Satisfaction.” Social Indicators Research 111:287-305.
Brinch, C.N., and T.A. Galloway. 2011. “Schooling in Adolescence Raises IQ Scores.” PNAS 109:425-430.
Dweck, C.S. 2008. “Can Personality Be Changed?” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17:391-394.
Reichow, B., and M. Wolery. 2009. “Comprehensive Synthesis of Early Intensive Behavioral Interventions for Young Children with Autism Based on the UCLA Young Autism Project Model.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 39:23-41.
Cassidy, S., B. Roche, and S.C. Hayes. 2011. “A Relational Frame Training Intervention to Raise Intelligence Quotients: A Pilot Study.” The Psychological Record 61: 173-198.