You Can't Make Yourself Smarter, So Focus On These 4 Things Instead

Just about everyone would like to be at least a little bit smarter, if given the chance. Plenty of supplements, apps, and tools promise to increase your brainpower, but evidence still suggests you can't make yourself smarter. Is this a fatalistic discovery? Sure, a little bit — though you may be able to save yourself from a big of age-related cognitive decline, you're otherwise basically stuck with the brain you were born with. Nonetheless, accepting the things you can't control is also freeing in a way, and may help you to refocus on the things you can control.

School and other kinds of training can give the illusion that we're getting smarter, but much of that is either just normal childhood and adolescent development or increasing domain-specific knowledge and skills. The underlying level of ability that your brain can bring to bear on academics and everyday life, sometimes referred to as "general intelligence" or g, hasn't itself changed at all. For instance, a few years back researchers from several universities in the UK failed to find any improvement in general intelligence in experimental participants who had improved significantly at certain brain-training tasks. If you keep giving them the brain-training task, they get better at it, but their scores on the "benchmarking" IQ-like test (a quite sensitive and specific one) never improve.

Since intelligence is correlated with positive life outcomes, this is unfortunate. But if you can't literally make yourself smarter, what can you do?

Practice, practice, practice

Even if you can't get more IQ points, you can choose to more effectively use the ones you have. For instance, many students accidentally top out at their math abilities short of their true potential because they harbor self-limiting beliefs about who excels at math and how — and, as a result, they don't put in the hard work it typically takes to learn it. Research shows that people who don't believe that their willpower is limited manage to muster more of it. Sure, some people are doing better at their pursuits because they're smarter than you, but for the most part they're also likely just plain working harder. The happy upshot of this is that, if you work harder, you'll see results too.

Choose your battles

That being said, it's not necessary (nor possible) for you to put in tons and tons of effort into every single domain of your life. It makes sense to choose the hardest things that you enjoy and/or can make a living at and practice tons at those. But, especially once your formal education is behind you, you probably won't find yourself working super hard at things you hate and also can't use day-to-day (calculus, anyone?). That's fine too.

Take care of your body

Don't forget that your brain is stuck in your body (at least for now), so it won't run optimally unless you're taking care of yourself. Omega-3's have become well-known for having positive cognitive effects, but the list doesn't stop there. You need to focus on including the right fats and excluding the wrong carbs to optimize brain performance over time, perhaps via a "Mediterranean diet" of sorts. It's harder to do well on cognitive tasks when you're ravenous so it's tempting to load up on sugar to power through. But new habits are hard to form and the more subtle improvements from a high-quality diet will take time to emerge. Don't forget to get enough sleep too!

Learn new things

If you have anywhere close to a normal IQ, you still have the capacity to learn all kinds of new things to add to your store of knowledge — about science, history, art, and more. And larger stores of background knowledge help the world to make sense to you, even if you aren't a genius to begin with. As nice as it is to have a Ferrari motor under the hood of your head, there's just no substitute for actually knowing things that can't be learned except from outside sources.

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