You're No Genius? Don't Worry. You Can Still Beef Up Your Brain With a Little Effort.

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."

So will losing weight boost your brainpower? The jury's still out, but "it would make a lot of sense," Convit says. "The brain is very plastic."

It's the Memory, Stupid

Anyone who is forgetful will likely cop to feeling less than smart at times. What kind of dummy leaves a pot of pasta boiling on the stove while she heads to the grocery store? (It didn't cause a fire, in case you're wondering.) And how clever can you really be if you consistently forget the name of your business partner's husband? Actually, very smart, moderately smart or not so smart. "You can have a medium-poor memory and still have your cognitive function be very good," Linden says.

Still, improving certain types of memory can help your brain function at a higher level. Though there are plenty of mnemonic devices to help you -- picturing your neighbor as a pallbearer might help you remember his name is Paul, while ROY G BIV hints at the colors of the rainbow -- Linden points to two basic factors for a better memory: "You have to pay attention to stuff that's happening," he says. "And you have to prioritize what's happening and pay attention to the most important aspects."

The advice from Johns Hopkins's Gordon centers on boosting the kind of memory he thinks matters most. He calls it intelligent memory, the kind that does much of our thinking for us -- and does it fast. It's responsible for our coming up with words when we're speaking, knowing that 202 is the D.C. area code and reading without thinking about it, among other things. While episodic memory, the memory of specific facts, might tell you where you parked your car, intelligent memory tells you how to drive your car. A better intelligent memory can help in sophisticated thinking and creative leaps, Gordon says.

Building intelligent memory happens naturally, but if you work at it consciously you'll see better results. (Slackers beware: Even Gordon admits "it takes work.") Like Linden, Gordon says paying attention is critical. You can boost your intelligent memory by seeking out connections between facts, looking beyond the first solution for a better one, breaking a problem into pieces, thinking twice about a hunch and taking many small steps to find a solution. Most important, force yourself to stop and think, Gordon says. That allows you to examine the problem a little longer and check your results. Eventually, doing so will become a natural habit.

Eat Yer (Brain) Food

What you eat may also affect how you think. Omega-3 oils, for example, have been shown to aid in developing the brains of fetuses, babies and children. Some scientists believe they may have a similar effect on the brains of adults.

And thanks to a new understanding of stem cells, there's hope that the nutrient choline may help adults.

"Until five years ago, we thought you were pretty much finished forming your brain by 4 or 5 years of age, and we were wrong," says Steven Zeisel, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "In the last decade, it's become clear that there are stem cells in the hippocampus that are dividing until you're in your 50s." That means there's a good chance that what's beneficial for brain development early in life might also help later, although probably to a lesser degree.

"The science just hasn't been done yet," says Zeisel, who is studying the effect of choline in humans and whose mouse study showed a 30 percent memory enhancement in those exposed to choline during gestation and early life.

Since you can't go back to the uterus -- although, really, some days don't you wish you could? -- you can still load up on choline. One egg has about a third of your daily requirement. You can also get it from red meat and fortified foods or as a supplement, although it's not recommended for those who suffer from certain mental illnesses. The Agriculture Department lists the choline contents of many foods on its Web site (; search for "choline").

There are other substances known to give your brain a boost by improving alertness. "Sugar and fat work pretty well," Gordon says. "Caffeine is a good booster, and if you read Sherlock Holmes, you know that he liked cocaine." The problem is that these all have short-term effects and considerable downsides: obesity, diabetes, addiction.

Concentrate, and Relax

If you thought you'd have to spend all day with your nose in a book to get smart, think again. There's evidence that meditation does wonders for the


While studying the brain structure of people who practice Buddhist insight meditation regularly, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers found meditators have thicker brain matter in the area that deals with executive function, which refers to our ability to plan, think abstractly, understand rules and initiate appropriate responses. The study didn't look at whether those with thicker brain matter have higher-functioning brains, says lead study author Sara Lazar, but the team aims to find out.

In the meantime, Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, offers plenty of support for meditation. Davidson has long studied the impact of meditation on attention and concentration, and has found that "even relatively short-term meditation practice can substantially change certain aspects of attention and change the brain systems that underlie it."

Meditation can also help train people to regulate their emotions. Monks, it turns out, are masters of this, as Davidson found in a study. That inner calm "is extremely important for well-being and also very important for learning," he says. "If you are hyper-responsive to stress and to negative stimuli in your environment, it would interfere with your capacity to learn." Which in non-scientific terms means that getting all riled up every time your boss does that annoying thing with her teeth could be keeping you from your intellectual peak.

Discover, Experience, Learn

Although we're still studying the brain and intelligence, "for centuries there have been ways known for making you smarter," Gordon says. "We call it education. It's been known to work." Cute. But Gordon points out that it's not just what you learn in school but that you learn how to think. "You learn about different approaches," he says. "And that's part of being intelligent."

In addition, being in school gives you practice in memorizing things, a skill that fades with lack of use. Someone studying for an exam 15 years after they graduated from college, for example, probably will have a harder time memorizing lists of facts than someone with recent practice in cramming.

Exposing yourself to new experiences can also help improve inactive or less active parts of the brain, Linden says. "Do as many different kinds of mental exercises as you can," he advises. If you're a crossword puzzle nut, that's great, but you'll build up only the skills related to crossword puzzles. Instead, put down the pencil and try something else. Seek out new cultural experiences, visit new places, try a new hobby.

George Mason University neuroscience expert Jim Olds -- who is generally skeptical that you can improve your intelligence as an adult, by the way -- agrees that exposing yourself to new experiences can be a boon. "I watch adults at all ages right up to seniors become much more active intellectually as they become more engaged intellectually with their surroundings," he says.

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