John von Neumann could multiply two eight-digit numbers together in his head – when he was six-years old.
At 22 he was helping to develop what would become quantum mechanics. His off-the-charts mathematical ability made the Manhattan Project a success. He all but invented game theory. (Ever hear the term “zero-sum”? He coined the phrase.) And building on work by Alan Turing and Kurt Godel he laid the groundwork for the computer you’re using.
Students could barely keep up with his brilliant lectures but they loved him because he’d crack risqué jokes during class (in three languages.) He’d throw wild parties at his house, occasionally pausing to prove a theorem on a cocktail napkin. And he loved annoying one of his co-workers. A guy named Albert Einstein.
Edward Teller, another genius physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project once said: “Von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my three-year-old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us.”
Don’t worry if you’re feeling a little intimidated. John Von Neumann was, debatably, the smartest person to ever live.
Smarts matter. But most of what we hear about intelligence is a heartwarming tale of utter nonsense. (For one thing, no, you don’t only use 10% of your brain. That’s one of those 20th century myths trapped in amber.)
IQ isn’t just “book smarts” or academic skill. It’s general problem-solving ability. Sure, other things matter, like motivation, curiosity, personality, etc. IQ isn’t everything — but it influences nearly everything.
Unsurprisingly, smarter employees are, on average, better employees. But it’s not just that smarter people can do more complex jobs. IQ also impacts performance of less complex jobs. Higher IQ janitors are, on average, better janitors. There doesn’t seem to be a threshold. More IQ generally means more better. (And, no, on average, Emotional Intelligence is not more important than IQ when it comes to job performance.) And its benefits are not limited to job performance. In fact, some studies find intelligence is as predictive of a long life as not smoking.
Is there anything IQ doesn’t improve? Not really. (Okay, that’s not totally true. People with higher IQ’s are more likely to need glasses.)
So what’s our problem here? IQ is largely genetic. It has a heritability of .5 and that pretty much sets the range you’ll stay in. It generally stabilizes between ages 7-10. Small changes are possible; large changes are very unlikely. Big increases are usually only due to addressing deprivations, like lack of childhood education, iodine deficiency, getting lead out of the water, etc. Most interventions have little effect and those that do generally fade out after the intervention ends:
Yeah, this is the kind of info that leaves welts. And now that I have seemingly painted myself into a corner, let’s get practical. No, you and I are not going to be John von Neumann. (When I went from graduate school to posting online, the average IQ of both arenas went up.) But then again, the vast majority of us don’t have the genes to be professional athletes either.
We can’t improve our genetics but a lot of our mediocrity is self-imposed. There are a number of prescription-strength things we can do to make sure we’re firing on all cylinders and making the best of what we have. We can’t do much to become dramatically smarter but we can do a lot to be less dumb.
Alright, it’s time to lift the zoning restrictions on your brain. Let’s get to it…
I know, I know – that sounds obvious. But as Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Ah, please never forget how useful the obvious can be.” Because as obvious as it may sound, we just don’t do it. UC Berkeley sleep researcher Matthew Walker reports, “Two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep.”
Getting enough sleep is a cognitive cheat code. Meanwhile, sleep deprivation knocks the intellectual right out of you. Educational studies show missing an hour of sleep turns a sixth grader’s brain into that of a fourth grader. There’s actually a clear correlation between sleep and grades: “Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged fifteen more minutes than the C’s, and so on.”
And the old maxim “sleep on it” is true. You do make better decisions after a good night’s rest.
Well, I don’t get enough sleep, but I feel fine…
That is the slumber equivalent of a drunk saying, ‘Gimme the keys. I’m okay to drive.” In studies, sleep-deprived people consistently underestimate how impaired they are: “after just a few days, the four- and six-hour group reported that, yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked.”
But isn’t there an easy magic pill?
Well, kinda: coffee and cigarettes. Caffeine and nicotine both boost brainpower, temporarily. (This must be how Cinderella felt.) But they’re a double-edged sword. Cigarettes, obviously, are mucho bad for your health. And while moderate amounts of caffeine are healthy, it can seriously monkey with your ability to sleep. (I am not a caffeine addict. I prefer the word “enthusiast.”) We think that college students who like to party get worse grades because of drinking, but studies show the majority of negative impact comes from daytime drowsiness due to caffeine and poor sleep.
So what else can we do to be less dumb?
Believe it or not, your brain is part of your body. And what’s good for your body is good for your brain. Here’s a sentence for you: “Scientifically, on the current evidence, exercise is the best way to enhance your cognitive function.”
When you exercise it boosts BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which helps you learn faster. How much faster? As much as 20%. In fact, cognitive control is measurably better after just a single exercise session.
And if you want to hold on to those precious IQ points as you age, there’s this: “An analysis of sixteen prospective studies including more than 160,000 individuals found that moderate levels of physical activity lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45 percent.”
“Dumb jocks” aren’t looking so dumb anymore. So taking care of your body with sleep and exercise is important, but we can also stay smart by improving what we do with that gray matter…
Your car can have the most powerful engine in the world, but if someone else grabs the wheel, you’re not going to get where you wanna go. Impulsive feelings can lasso you and hogtie your judgment. Even if you have a high IQ, if you’re caught in a Pigpen cloud of emotion, you’re going to make bad decisions. It’ll be puberty redux.
Staying calm is the séance that precedes the exorcism. Scientists refer to it as “arousal control.” How do we stay chill? When you start to get stressed, relax yourself with deep breaths. Teaching recruits to monitor their breathing helped increase Navy SEAL passing rates from 25 to 33 percent. They didn’t freak out, screw up or quit.
Whenever you know you have something challenging coming up, take the time to prepare. A feeling of control reduces stress and keeps our thinking clear. Sounds simple but it’s powerful. When I interviewed someone who defuses bombs for a living, what did he say was vital for staying calm and making the right decision? Always knowing what you need to do next and focusing on that.
Like I said, IQ isn’t everything. It’s great for simple straightforward decisions, but with complex decisions rational IQ-style thinking can backfire. With complex decisions the research shows going with your gut can often be the better choice. And if you’re an expert at something, definitely go with your gut.
Emotions can be useful. To make smart decisions we need to listen to them – but not be controlled by them.
Still with me or are you checking text messages? That raises another issue…
The internet is half enlightenment engine, half dehydrated concentrate of stupidity. Spend too much time on social media (the epicenter of modern tantrum culture) and you will end up theatrically troubled. It feels like your brain is having trash shoveled into it. What else has such a capacity to make us both simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated?
Neuroscience conclusively shows your brain can’t multitask. Yes, you may think you’re good at it but just like sleep, this is an area where you shouldn’t trust your perceptions. Shifting between tasks is not seamless for your brain. Your focus and attention take a hit every time you switch. Constantly bouncing around between tasks produces the equivalent of a 10-point IQ drop.
Meanwhile, what does research show the most productive computer programmers have in common? An environment free from distraction. So when you want to be at your best, silence your phone and distance yourself from all those attention burglars. “Batch” all email checking, texting, and social media into pre-designated times. Then turn off notifications. This allows your brain to hum at full capacity and increases the secretion of elbow grease to get good work done.
But what’s the most powerful and easiest way to get smarter? Well, it’s not even about you…
Handling every challenge in life by yourself builds character (mostly through nightmares). Your education isn’t complete until you’ve learned to take a hint. When you’re unsure, get help.
You’re not in middle school anymore where getting someone else’s answers is called cheating. You can’t learn the smartest way to handle everything on your own. Ask for advice.
People are busy. They don’t wanna help me.
Wrong-amundo. The research says: “people underestimated by as much as 50% the likelihood that others would agree to a direct request for help…”
Fine, but they’ll be irritated and think I’m stupid.
No, that perspective is stupid. Wharton professor Adam Grant finds: “research shows that people who regularly seek advice and help from knowledgeable colleagues are actually rated more favorably by supervisors than those who never seek advice and help.”
Know what’s even better than just occasionally asking for help? Find a mentor. But does needing someone to guide you mean you’re not a genius? Quite likely the opposite…
For his book Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed over 91 of the most brilliant people in the world (including 14 Nobel prize winners). What did they have in common? By the time they were college age, almost every one of those earthshakers had an important mentor.” (To learn the best way to select and get a mentor click here.)
Okay, time to round it all up and learn the good news about the bad news regarding what happens to your smarts as you age…
Here’s how to get smarter:
Do we become less intelligent as we age? The scientific answer is: yes and no.
The research shows there are two kinds of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is raw processing power. Figuring things out with no knowledge. Crystallized intelligence is closer to expertise, based more on prior learning and information.
Fluid intelligence declines rapidly as we get older. In fact, it begins dropping at around age 25. Yeesh. But crystallized intelligence doesn’t even peak until age 60. It’s well known that top mathematicians and physicists do their best work in the first half of life. Meanwhile, great authors usually create their masterworks in the second half. (Fingers crossed.)
So as you age, focus on building skills and knowledge. Your processor may not be as fast but you can make up for it with a bigger hard drive. Become an expert at something deep and rich that you’re passionate about — and keep learning. You may not be as sharp as the young whippersnappers but if you focus on gaining more information about your field they won’t be able to keep up with you.
IQ isn’t everything. It’s just a measure of potential. It’s what you do with what you have that really matters. And, as P.J. O’ Rourke noted, maybe it’s a good thing we’re not John von Neumann:
“Smart people don’t start many bar fights. But stupid people don’t build many hydrogen bombs.”
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