How to Make Your Brain Better: Smarter


Can you be smarter than you already are? Short answer: yes, and no. In the big picture, our inborn level of intelligence is fixed. For example, we don’t have objective evidence that all people can learn to be geniuses. We identify gifted children when they are children. This is not only true for intellect but also for most or all “talents”. Some people are good at one thing, other people are good at something else. They can’t really learn to have the talent of the other people.

The biological foundation of talents (including intelligence) is not currently known. Since brain function derives from brain cells, and their integration, we can presume that talents derive from some form of cells or integration that is particularly adept at one function or another. However, exactly what makes an adept system is not currently known. We don’t know if it is based on having more brain cells devoted to a particular task, or the way brain cells talk to one another. People often hope it is simply a matter of more of one chemical or another. So, for example, people who take amphetamines may think they are smarter. In the short haul amphetamines do produce an increased alertness, which has some positive effects on performance. However, long term amphetamines are a trap. They lead people to take more and more. They become addicted. Their brains rot from intolerance to the over-stimulation. Then they often end up chronically disabled, or even die. Amphetamines are not the answer.

Hollywood has recurrently grappled with the issue of drugs to make us smarter – in the form of some “designer” drug. For example, there is the movie “Lucy”. In that movie a chemical (drug) unlocked the “90% of our brain that we don’t use”. However, this is just a movie. In another post I discuss this theory that “we only use 10% of our brain”. Here, it is enough to say it’s a myth. Thus far, no drug has actually been useful to make people actually smarter (able to process information and ideas in ways above their normal level of processing). Rather, so far drugs have only temporarily increased alertness (such as amphetamines, with the above consequences), or given people “alternative experience” (such as hallucinogens).

Perhaps the reason that drugs don’t actually work to make us smarter is that the issue is not fundamentally centered on brain chemicals. The key to intelligence is more likely the numbers or connection patterns between brain cells. And, of those two, intelligence is most likely to stem from the connection patterns of cells. The reason I can say this is that genius brains have been studied. Researchers do not find an inordinate number of cells. Details of connection patterns cannot be determined on autopsy. So, if this is the real issue of genius then it would make sense we have not been able to see it so far.

In total, it appears that broadly we need to accept our inborn level of intelligence and then use it to its best capacity. We can learn to do more with what we have.

Intelligence basically can be thought of as the ability to gather information and then work with it usefully. Information itself comes in many forms. An athlete works with physical orchestration information. Excellent athletes are “intelligent” in the ways of athletics. Alternatively, artists work with the information embedded in various forms of art (visual art, music, etc). Excellent artists have an intelligence for putting art together into forms that accomplish the artistic task (based on the art form). Academic intelligence may come in the form of ability to remember great quantities of information, or in a form of integration that extends basic data to useful forms. Excellence in any of these forms of intelligence depends upon having a talented brain, learning skills and information that can be used by that talented brain, and then creating something of use that is excellent in comparison to what others can do. Both the middle and the last steps are skills. For example, a vast amount of information is available on the internet to anyone with access. An intelligent person can learn techniques to sort through this vast amount of information. People can also be taught techniques for creating useful products (using the word “product” broadly, as an outcome rather than just a commercial thing).

So, we can learn to be smarter, to a degree. We cannot, at this time, necessarily increase our basic intelligence; but we can learn techniques to use what we have in more useful ways – thus increasing our practical level of “intelligence”. Some examples of those techniques will be the subject of another post.