You might think how smart you are is something with which you're born, and you can't do much to change it, but recent research has shown that isn't true. It turns out there are methods you can take to increase your crystallized intelligence, the facts you know and can access, your fluid intelligence -- how you see and identify patterns -- and even your emotional intelligence or how well you understand what others are feeling. Furthermore, learning new hobbies like the ones in this article can actually create new neural pathways and make your brain stronger.
Reading can make you smarter in a myriad of ways. It increases crystallized intelligence -- we learn things by reading about them! Fiction especially increases our emotional intelligence by helping us identify with someone else's emotions and experiences. But even more remarkably, reading creates white matter in the brain. White matter is the material that connects the centers of analysis and experience, the grey matter. We experience these connections as thoughts, which means that reading literally makes you a better thinker!
In terms of sheer use of the brain, nothing is more effective than playing music for getting smarter. Playing a musical instrument works sections of the brain that process movement and motor skills, language, memory, senses, experience, emotion, logic, math, vision, hearing, attention and focus, spatial skills and coordination, and problem-solving. Adding words to music creates more pathways to that information, which is why we can remember things when we've sung them.
We all know the stereotype of the dumb jock, but the truth is, playing sports or any kind of focused physical activity can make you smarter. Studies show physical activity increases cognitive function in children and adults, and keeping active throughout adulthood is associated with staying sharp and healthy in old age. There are several reasons sports can improve brain function and make you smarter. For one thing, physical exertion leads to higher oxygen intake, which improves brain function overall. Exercise also increases the brain chemical BDNF or brain-derived neurotrophic function. BDNF keeps your neurons and neuronal pathways healthy, and allows you to create new ones. In other words, the connections between areas of your brain get stronger, and your thinking and analyzing abilities increase.
In addition to being fun, research suggests playing games and working puzzles keeps your mind sharp. From Scrabble to canasta to crossword puzzles, games can help you better recall information, solve problems more quickly, and learn new vocabulary. Games have the capacity, when played over several months or years, to rewire the brain, sharpening cognitive skills and improving memory. Experts have long known the benefit of games for senior citizens and those in rehabilitation, but designers are now creating games to help average people develop mental skills and retain skills they might otherwise lose. If your memory isn’t great, if you feel you miss connections between competing bits of information, or if you need a little help learning to multitask, consider reviving family game nights to help you over the hump.
It might be hard for parents to believe, but recent studies consistently show playing video games can make people smarter. Fast-paced games teach players how to quickly and accurately assess a situation and make appropriate decisions, a skill that has far-reaching real-life benefits. In addition, gamers have to learn fast and learn well or face destruction within the world of the game; it turns out these learning skills also form connections useful in real life -- gamers become better learners. Finally, gaming increases cognitive flexibility, the ability to re-evaluate and re-direct a strategy. This phenomenon occurs when different areas of the brain connect and communicate, which is exactly what is happening when you play video games!
Writing is one way the brain untangles thoughts and helps us think clearly. Recent brain research suggests writing mirrors thought -- if your writing is jumbled and complicated, your thoughts are too. Writing, therefore, provides a means of clarifying thought, making it more rational, logical, and consistent. Through the daily exercise of writing —principally through journaling, but other types as well — you can connect the thoughts in your brain and smooth them out so others can better understand your meaning. Writing also allows you to see where your thinking is over-complicating matters that might be, on closer examination, quite simple. Writing helps us better absorb information (remember all those notes we had to write in high school?) and thus learn significantly more.
It seems counter-intuitive -- how can spacing out make you smarter? Shouldn't you be working on something? But brain scans show that when your mind is wandering, it is working incredibly hard and getting stronger by the minute. A long-lost concept in our culture is the fact that these unstructured, seemingly lazy moments give creative ideas space to root and grow, overtaxed nerves a chance to relax and heal, and all those neurons what they need to strengthen and increase. Many of the world's brightest and most successful people swear by daydreaming, although some prefer to legitimize it by calling it meditation or reflection. While they aren't quite the same thing, the effect is: they give the brain room to rest, play, and grow, making you smarter.
In some circles, "he likes to work with his hands" is code for "he's not that good in school," but in reality, working with your hands is good for your brain. This is especially true when doing fine motor skills tasks such as knitting, coloring, or detailing. These activities require attention and focus and unleash creativity by working multiple sections of the brain. They can also relieve stress and anxiety and increase alertness. In addition to all those benefits, working with both hands, not just your dominant one, leads to increased connections between both sides of the brain, which is one characteristic of intelligence.
The introverts among us might not like it, but the science is pretty conclusive in this area: socializing makes you smarter. Compared to people who avoid social interactions, people who regularly interact with others have a better working memory, identify patterns faster and more accurately, and have stronger measures of emotional and fluid intelligence. This doesn't mean you have to party every night or hang with friends every day -- quiet and introspective time also has its benefits. But the back-and-forth of meaningful conversation, the attempt to understand where someone else is coming from, and the emotional investment of important relationships, all come together to create brain activity and strengthen neural connections. Socializing hobbies that make you smarter might include girls' or boys' nights out, clubs, church groups, professional organizations, or simply movie nights with friends. However you go about it, socializing can boost your smarts at every stage of life.
There are people who love gardening, and those who just don't get the appeal. But it turns out science is on the side of the gardeners. You've probably heard the hobby is relaxing and gratifying, but studies are now showing there are biological benefits to plunging your hands into the dirt. First of all, the physical rewards of seeing your flowers or vegetables grow creates brain chemicals that enhance cognition. In addition to that, a strange new discovery found a bacterium in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, helps the brain create serotonin. Many people think of serotonin as the brain chemical that keeps us happy, but it's also one of the chemicals that helps us learn.
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