Buff Your Brain

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, January 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Buff Your Brain


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

Want to be smarter in work, love, and life? Scientific advances offer proven ways to enhance your gray matter.

Brain training to sharpen memory. Aerobic exercise to preserve gray matter. Meditation to hone connections between reason and emotion.

It all sounds great, but there's something that has long bothered us about the growing number of studies pinpointing ways to buff your brain: they don't go far enough. Sure, exercises to improve memory are better for your brain than, say, watching reality TV, but the most you're going to gain is more reliable access to knowledge already scattered around your cerebral cortex. If the information isn't in there, no amount of brain training will tell you how the Federal Reserve system functions, why the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the significance of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, or why Word just crashed. Not to mention the kind of information that could significantly improve your day-to-day life: wouldn't it be wonderful to understand and remember more of what you read and hear (what's the catch with annuities again?), to learn--and retain--new skills to improve your job prospects (animated Power-Points!), and to connect bits of knowledge to, say, discern what makes your boss tick.

Yet that's what we all want--to know more, to understand more deeply, to make greater creative leaps, to retain what we read, to see connections invisible to others--not merely to make the most of what we have between our ears now, but to be, in a word, smarter. By raising our mental game we would be able to pick out the most significant data in a company's annual report, see immediately when a marketer or advertisement is conning us ("increase the molecular structure" of water to make it healthier for your Siamese fighting fish, as one bottler promises? Don't think so), understand medical studies relevant to what ails us, grasp the significance of the euro meltdown to our retirement savings, and make smarter decisions in work, love, and life.

As we dug into the latest research in neurobiology and cognitive science for this second annual installment of the Newsweek/Daily Beast guide to being smarter in the new year, one discovery from 2011 therefore stood out above all the others: that IQ, long thought to be largely unchangeable after early childhood, can in fact be raised. And not by a niggling point or two. According to a groundbreaking study published this fall in Nature, IQ can rise by a staggering 21 points over four years--or fall by 18.

A higher IQ can get you more than admission to Mensa and bragging rights on online-dating sites. IQ, measured by a battery of tests of working memory, spatial skills, and pattern recognition, among others, captures a wide range of cognitive skills, from spatial to verbal to analytical and beyond. Twenty points is "a huge difference," says cognitive scientist Cathy Price of University College London, who led the research. "If an individual moved from an IQ of 110 to an IQ of 130 they'd go from being 'average' to 'gifted.' And if they moved from 104 to 84 they'd go from being high average to below average." Her study was conducted on people ages 12 to 20, but given recent discoveries about the capacity of the brain to change--a property called neuroplasticity--and to create new neurons well into one's 60s and 70s, Price believes the results hold for everyone. "My best guess is that performance on IQ tests could change meaningfully in adult years" too, she says. "The same degree of plasticity [as seen in young adults] may be present throughout life."

In their recently published study, Price and her colleagues documented how IQ changes are linked to structural changes in the brain. In the 39 percent of subjects whose verbal IQ changed significantly, before-and-after brain scans showed a corresponding change in the density and volume of gray matter (the number of neurons) in a region of the left motor cortex that is activated by naming, reading, and speaking. …

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