August 01, 2014

Congratulations – you may be able to get even smarter than you are now. Unlike set physical attributes such as height, intelligence can vary, depending on the situation. And now, researchers are taking a closer look at the conditions that essentially make us more or less intelligent.  

Annie Murphy Paul, a contributing writer for Time magazine, has surveyed the research and identifies a few ways you can have a positive impact on your intellect.

The Brain is Overrated

Put down the Sudoku and go for a walk. The brain is just one part of the body and the whole system is interconnected. Research shows that “being physically fit, getting regular exercise, is the best thing you can do for your brain and you intelligence,” says Paul.

And there’s an added benefit if you exercise outside. “Nature – looking at trees, looking at waves, looking at the sky and the clouds – is a uniquely restorative way to get our attention back in shape after it’s been fatigued.”

After physical exercise, social interaction is the second most important thing people can do to build their intelligence. As anyone who’s juggled office politics knows, “interacting with other people is an incredibly mentally challenging exercise, and I think that’s a smarter way to keep your brain in shape.”


Work and school environments can also affect performance to a greater degree than people realize, and too often those conditions are not taken into account.

“Because we focus so much on identifying intelligence, say, colleges selecting the very best students or, in corporate life, the war for talent, we think that if we get the smartest people,” says Paul, “our job is done.  And then we end up at great effort and expense, picking the smartest people and putting them in stupid situations.” 

Paul uses the open plan office as an example of a “stupid situation.” “It’s hugely distracting and detrimental to work performance, and yet that’s the setting in which many of us do our work.”

To counteract this trend, researchers are finding ways to apply conditional thinking in these environments, where we have to function at our best.

Kids Just Want to Have Fun

As global competition increases, so does the pressure to test younger and younger kids.

However, academically-oriented preschools and kindergartens can be counterproductive because young children learn through play and social activities. “Research shows [an academic focus] doesn’t advance their abilities any more than a play-based, social, emotional-based approach to learning.”

Critical thinking can still be practiced at a young age; it just needs to be approached differently. “Low stakes, no stakes testing, in the sense of quizzing ourselves or asking ourselves to retrieve information from memory, actually strengthens those memories,” according to Paul. “We’re doing a lot of testing, but we’re doing it wrong.”

Still Curious?

A couple of researchers that Paul mentioned in her interview are Gregory Walton, who wrote “The Myth of Intelligence” and Edwin Hutchins, author of “Cognition in the Wild.”

And before you go jogging, give your brain a workout with this Mensa quiz.

Body and Mind, Annie Murphy Paul, intelligence, brain

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