In his new book “Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power“, Dan Hurley takes a hard look at this relatively new field of neuroscientific research that has been revolutionising our understanding of intelligence. If you have ever wished you were born smarter, or wondered if you could increase your intelligence, this is a book you really can’t miss.
When I first glanced through “Smarter” in the bookstore, I confess that I wasn’t particularly moved. While I acknowledged that the book provided a good review of the latest understanding on intelligence, I didn’t think there was anything I hadn’t already read about in my own personal quest for increased intelligence. But since my attention was distracted by my 4 year old who was making a mess in the children’s section of the bookstore, I made an impulsive decision to buy the book even as I was still deliberating whether this book was a worthy addition to my overflowing bookshelves.
After reading the book, I must say that I am really glad that I bought it. Dan Hurley is an excellent writer – both entertaining and easy to read but still effectively capturing the essence of the messages from a rather technical field of science. Most of all, what really made the purchase worth it, was the stuff I didn’t already know about.
Hurley was pretty thorough. He’s covered just about everything that has been found to help increase brain power. All of these subjects have scientific backing, the problem is whether the science is sound or significant. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, some of the commonly held “facts” we all take for granted aren’t backed by solid scientific research. They have supportive research – yes, but solid research? Not even close. Some of the stuff I’ve been holding as gospel have yet to demonstrate any significant effects on intelligence. Dang!
But I digress, these are the topics he covered:
- brain training
- diet and nutrition
- physical exercise
- mindfulness meditation
- thinking caps
I won’t go into the full details here, but these are the take home points…
Yes, they work. But there are good ones and not so good ones. Which ones are proven?
- Cogmed – I’ve read about them but never used their program
- Lumosity (these are some of the working memory games on Lumosity)
- Posit Science (who make BrainHQ) – co-founded by the illustrious Michael Merzenich
- LearningRx (also called BrainRx)
- First person shooter games (which we wrote about here)
Diet and Nutrition
Regrettably, only two foods so far have been shown to have any significant scientific proof backing them:
There was not a lot about this topic since the findings to date are rather inconclusive. If there are benefits to be had, you are required to study the second language well enough to be considered bilingual. In other words, the few lessons you had in school won’t cut it.
We knew about this one but Hurley covers it in greater detail. These are a couple of news articles that discuss some of the findings from the studies he references:
There is more in Hurley’s book but you’re going to have to read it if you want to know about it.
We knew about this one, too, but here are a couple of the significant studies he writes about that support music and brain power:
- Examining the association between music lessons and intelligence
- Case study on the impact of IOE research: Music Education – Bridge Project
The brain boost from music is apparently not as great as physical exercise – surprise, surprise! – but it is still significant nonetheless.
We wrote about this very recently, so you can read more about it here. The studies that Hurley refers to are different, though. They were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and they are far more compelling than the ones that we wrote about. Check them out:
- Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation – abstract
- Chinese meditation IBMT prompts double positive punch in brain white matter
What’s covered in the book? Here are the chapter titles:
- Expanding the Mind’s Workspace
– The pioneers who overturned a century of dogma
- Measure of a Man
– Testing my brain before I train
- A Good Brain Trainer Is Hard to Find
– A skeptic’s guide to what does (and does not) work
- Old-School Brain Training
– Training methods of the ancients
- Smart Pills and Thinking Caps
– The promise and peril of sci-fi methods
- Boot Camp for My Brain
– Setting up my training regimen
- Are You Smarter Than a Mouse?
– The biological and evolutionary basis of human intelligence
- Defenders of the Faith
– Meetings with the arch-skeptic
- Flowers for Ts65Dn
– The search for a drug for Down syndrome
- Clash of the Titans
– A tale of five scientific meetings
- Final Exam
– My post-training results
The Bottom Line
Yes, I’m going to ruin the story and tell you the ending, but if you’re really serious about studying intelligence, you really should read this book. So what’s the bottom line:
- Brain training works – focus especially on developing working memory and attention
- Combining brain training with exercise is even better than the sum of either one alone
- Doing something new and challenging is enormously beneficial