8 Things That Can Make You Smarter

'The science of learning' sheds new light on ways to keep expanding intelligence

This article originally appeared on Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog.

In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the poet Wallace Stevens takes something familiar — an ordinary blackbird — and by looking at it from many different perspectives makes us think about it in new ways.

With apologies to Stevens, I’d like to present different ways of looking at intelligence — eight perspectives provided by the science of learning. This is a relatively new discipline that’s an agglomeration of cognitive science, psychology, philosophy and neuroscience. Its mission is to apply the methods of science to human endeavors — teaching and learning — that for centuries have been treated mostly as an art.

As with anything to do with our idiosyncratic and unpredictable species, there is a lot of art involved in teaching and learning. But the science of learning offers some surprising and useful perspectives on how we educate young people and how we guide our self-directed continuing education throughout our lives.

Bottom line: As long as we are conscious, we are always learning. Culled from cutting-edge research, here are eight things that can make you smarter.

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1. Situations By this we mean any conditions under which we learn: in the workplace, classroom or a social setting. Situations can be internal or external, brief and transitory or persistent and long-lasting. They can also be physical conditions, including stress, how much sleep and exercise we get or the mental states we create by the levels of attention and motivation we’re able to apply.

So essentially, all intelligence is situational. On one level this is obvious, but on another it is quite radical — because, since its earliest beginnings, intelligence has been conceptualized as an innate characteristic of the individual, invariant across time and place and determined mostly by genes.

This was the view of many prominent thinkers, including Francis Galton, the father of psychometric testing, who used the notion of inherent, fixed intelligence to try to prove that it ran in the blood of England’s most eminent families. Lewis Terman, the creator of the modern intelligence test, used the same principle to identify and cultivate children who were “gifted.” And Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of the notorious 1994 book The Bell Curve, used the conceit of inherent, fixed intelligence to argue that America’s class structure was the inevitable product of the IQ levels of various racial and social groups.

So to assert that intelligence is in large part a product of the situations we find ourselves in is a departure not only from the way science has traditionally thought about ability but from the way many of us still do.

2. Beliefs Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck distinguishes two types of mindsets: the fixed mindset, or the belief that ability is fixed and unchanging; and the growth mindset, which is predicated on the assumption that we can continue to develop through learning and practice.

These attitudes influence how we think about ourselves, how we perceive the world around us and how we act when faced with a challenge or with adversity. The psychologist David Yeager, also of Stanford, notes that our mindset effectively creates the “psychological world” in which we live. A belief that’s oriented around fixed limits suppresses intelligence, whereas a belief in the continuous capacity to grow allows just that — it stimulates intelligence.

3. Expertise One robust line of research is concerned with the psychology of expertise: what goes on in the mind of a pundit. Researchers have found that they don’t just know more, they know differently, in ways that allow them to think and act, especially within their bailiwick.

An expert’s knowledge is not shallow or superficial; it is well organized, around a core of central principles. It is automatic, meaning it has been streamlined into mental programs that run with a minimum of conscious effort. It is flexible and transferable to new situations; it is self-aware — that is, an expert has the skill to wisely evaluate his own material. This quality takes a long time to develop, of course, but it’s never too late to dive deep in a subject area that interests you, and that plunge will, in turn, continue to boost intellectual capacity.

(MORE: How to Master Anything, at Any Age)

4. Attention You’ve probably heard about the “marshmallow test,” a famous experiment conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. He found that children who could resist eating a marshmallow in return for the promise of two marshmallows later on did better in school and in their careers.

Well, there’s a new marshmallow test that we face every day: the ability to resist the urge to check email, respond to a text or see what’s happening on Facebook or Twitter. We’ve all heard that because “digital natives” grew up multitasking they excel at it, but in fact, we now know there are information-processing bottlenecks in everybody’s brain that prevent us from paying attention to two things at the same time. Focused attention is an important internal situation that we must cultivate in order to fully express our intelligence.

5. Emotions We sometimes give short shrift to this area when we’re talking about academic success, but the science of learning is demonstrating that our emotional state represents a crucial internal situation that influences how intelligently we think and act.

When we’re in a positive mood, for example, we tend to think more expansively and creatively. When we feel anxious, we use up some of the working memory capacity needed to solve problems, leaving us with less intelligence to apply to whatever we have to deal with.

One line of investigation within the science of learning has to do with hope. Research has found that hopefulness actually inspires us to try harder and persist longer, but only if it is paired with practical plans for achieving our goals and — this is the interesting part — specific, concrete actions we’ll take if and when our original plans don’t work out as expected.

6. Technology There’s a fascinating line of research in philosophy and cognitive science into what’s called the extended mind. This is the idea that the mind doesn’t stop at the skull — that it reaches out and loops in our bodies, our tools and other people.

Brain-scanning studies have found that when we use a tool, like a rake, to reach an object beyond our reach, our brains actually designate neurons to represent the end of the rake — as if it were the tips of our own fingers. The human mind has evolved to make our tools, including our technological devices, extensions of itself.

The problem is that those gadgets so often make us dumber instead of smarter. I’ve already mentioned how technology can divide our attention, producing learning that is spottier and shallower than what occurs under full concentration. Technology can also make us dumber when we allow key skills to atrophy from disuse or fail to develop those skills in the first place.

A common example: The ready availability of technology has convinced many people that they don’t need to learn facts anymore, because they can always “just Google it.” In fact, research from cognitive science shows that the so-called “21st-century skills” that we’re always hearing about — critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity — can’t emerge in a vacuum. They must develop in the context of a rich base of knowledge that is stored on the original hard drive, one’s own brain. For tech to make us smarter, we need to know when to put it away.

(MORE: How I Overcame My Fear of Technology)

7. Our Bodies Ever since the cognitive science revolution of the 1970s, the dominant metaphor for the brain has been the computer: a machine that processes abstract symbols. Yet the science of learning is demonstrating that this metaphor is seriously flawed. It might be more accurate, in fact, to compare the brain with the heart. All the things that make the heart work better — good nutrition, adequate sleep, regular exercise, moderate stress — make our gray matter work better, too.

Let’s look at sleep, since that’s something so many of us are lacking. We often don’t recognize that it is actually a key part of the learning process. It’s during sleep that the brain consolidates the memories it formed during waking hours — meaning that it sorts through those memories, weakening the ones that are trivial, strengthening the ones that are important and connecting up these new memories to the memory structures that already exist in the brain.
8. Relationships It’s likely that one partner is “in charge” of remembering when the car needs to go in for inspection, while the other takes care of remembering relatives’ birthdays. This is called transactive memory and it’s just one of the ways that relationships with others can make us smarter than we would be on our own.

An extension of this is the relationships we have with institutions and organizations. A feeling of belonging is critical to the full expression of our ability and suggests that we aim to be situation makers — creators of circumstances that evoke intelligence in ourselves and others.

I hope by reflecting on these different approaches to learning, you already feel a little smarter.

Annie Murphy Paul
By Annie Murphy Paul
Annie Murphy Paul writes about how we think and learn — and how we can do it better. She writes the Brilliant Blog, at www.anniemurphypaul.com, and is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.

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