By Christina Breda Antoniades
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 11, 2007

You're struggling with a tricky problem at work. Then you had to do the embarrassing "Um, hiiiiiiiiiii," routine to cover the fact that you forgot the name of the woman you always bump into at the copy machine. And now at happy hour you've clammed up because someone mentioned Pyongyang, and though it dimly rings a bell, you're not sure if it's a table sport or a place or some sort of noodle dish.

If only you were smarter, you think. Not that you're dumb (we'd never call you that, at least not to your face). But wouldn't it be nice to have all the answers, a picture-perfect memory and the ability to astonish your friends or wow your boss with big words and bigger thoughts?

It's a common desire, but just how plausible it is depends on whom you ask. And before you get an answer, you'll almost always get this question: What do you mean by smart?

"It's a real quagmire," says Kurt Fischer, director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Mind, Brain and Education program. "Most people mean what intelligence tests test for, but more probably they really mean learning and problem solving."

Most will agre e that being smart is more than merely acing an IQ test, which typically measures a specific set of capabilities and assigns a score (called an intelligence quotient). Not that high scores don't matter: They've been tied to educational achievement and higher income, social status and even longer life. But there's controversy over how well IQ tests capture the entirety of cognitive function and how much they really tell us about someone's smarts.

"In the real world, intelligence is much, much vaster, and there are many varieties of it," says Barry Gordon, a Johns Hopkins Medicine professor of neurology and co-author of the book "Intelligent Memory: Improve Your Memory No Matter What Your Age" (Viking Adult, 2003). The stay-at-home parent juggling carpool and babysitter schedules requires a high level of organizational skill and problem-solving ability, for example, but may not get recognition for that form of intelligence. Ditto for someone who has an amazing ability to communicate with others or play the violin.

The idea that there are multiple intelligences -- that people can be intelligent visually, musically, mathematically, athletically, interpersonally and intrapersonally -- was introduced by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. (He later added naturalistic intelligence.) Still, whatever the type of intelligence, most people judge brainpower on practical factors, including how much you know, how well you can access what you know and what you do with it.

Which still leaves us wondering "how much can be expanded beyond the original biologic cards that you've been dealt," Gordon says. Research shows that although children's brains develop at an astonishing clip, that ability slows in adulthood. And clearly some people start off "with much fuller decks than others," Gordon says. But it's also clear that "mental properties that were thought to be immutable were in fact modifiable by experience," he says. What that means (and we're not calling you dumb) is that if you work hard enough, you can indeed get smarter.

Buff Body, Buff Brain

Here's another reason to hit the gym: Staying active is good for the brain. Exercise improves the flow of blood throughout your body, including to your noggin, which helps it operate better. The effect is especially important as we age, says David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In general, anything that leads you to be healthier, mentally or physically, says Fischer of Harvard, "leads to you being more alert, which leads you to being more attentive to the task at hand, which leads to better performance." That includes getting enough sleep and avoiding illness.

Exercise also stimulates the creation of certain proteins, including brain-derived neurotrophic factors, that are important for brain development and repair. That's not all. Exercise improves your overall health, boosts your mood and keeps your weight down. Excess weight can be bad for the brain, says Antonio Convit, medical director of the Center for Brain Health at New York University's School of Medicine.

Convit, who has done multiple studies on body weight and the human brain, says being overweight leads to being insulin resistant -- even in people who aren't yet diabetic -- which in turn can lead to lower cognitive function. "In adults, it seems to be specific to the ability to learn and recall new information," Convit says. "There is good evidence for that on cognitive tests as well as looking at the studies of the brain itself."

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