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In a lot of ways, your overall intelligence is fairly well established before you ever have anything to do with it. Family genetics, your diet as an infant, vaccinations, illnesses during childhood—there are studies linking all these factors and hundreds more to your eventual smarts as an adult. But just as you can work hard in the gym and change your diet to overcome bad physical genetics, you can also train your brain to far exceed its initial intellectual potential. “It may not be a muscle, but you can train your brain just like you would your biceps to perform at a significantly higher level,” says neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of the University of California, San Francisco. According to Merzenich, no matter what your age or current intelligence level, that gray matter in your skull is constantly changing and evolving. Put a little work into it, he says, and your IQ, visual acuity, and ability to manage and process data can grow and improve significantly.
Here are 25 of the most effective ways to get you started on the road to pumped up intelligence.
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Go out for drinks. Accept that blind date your friend has been trying to push on you. Sign up for Tinder—whatever it takes to get the job done. Why? When Princeton scientists studied a group of sexually active rats and compared them with rats who were getting it on only a few times a month, they found that the more active rats had an increased number of neurons in their brains, especially in the regions responsible for controlling memory. These rats also grew more cells in their brains over the course of the study—and had more connections between those cells—than the more virginal rats. You’re no rat, but researchers believe the finding may hold true in humans as well, thanks to the lower levels of stress hormones and anxiety found in people who have sex more frequently.
Believing in yourself isn’t good only for your overall self-esteem and well-being. It can also play a crucial role in how well your brain performs in different settings. When researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the relationship between test-takers’ motivation level and performance on a standard IQ test, they found that those who scored the best on the tests also tended to have the most positive attitudes. A second study conducted at Columbia and Stanford universities supports the finding. In this trial, researchers found that teenagers who had the most self-confidence—including believing they could successfully develop their math skills—actually had the most success doing so, consistently outperforming their peers and improving their test scores throughout the course of the two-year study.
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Yes, too much alcohol isn’t ever going to do your body—or brain—much good. But just as it’s been shown to be good for your heart in smaller doses, alcohol also appears to be good for your brain when consumed responsibly. In a study conducted at Italy’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, researchers found that 29% of people over the age of 65 who rarely drank during the course of their life experienced some form of mental impairment as they got older, compared with just 19% of people who drank 3 moderate amounts of alcohol.
Your brain isn’t just fresher after eight full hours of sleep. It also has more learning potential and performs better than when it’s sleep deprived. How much of a difference does adequate sleep make? When German researchers at the University of Lübeck gave a group of men and women between the ages of 18 and 32 a series of complex math problems to solve, they found that well-rested individuals were three times more likely to figure out the rule for solving the equations than those who weren’t getting enough sleep. And the benefits don’t end there. Research from the University of Notre Dame found that people who get enough sleep are also better able to remember visual cues and process emotional information than men and women who skimp on pillow time.
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The key nutrients to make sure you’re getting enough of include vitamins B, C, D, and E. In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers at Oregon Health & Science University measured vitamin levels in the blood of 104 adults and then compared their scores on different cognitive tests, as well as MRI brain scans. The healthier the subjects’ diets were—and the more of these vitamins they had in their blood—the bigger their brains were and the better they performed on each mental test they were given.
Working up a sweat for just 90 minutes can dehydrate your body enough to cause your brain to literally shrink away from the sides of your skull—the equivalent of a year and a half’s worth of aging and abuse. That’s the warning from a 2009 U.K. study in which teens worked out in varying levels of sweat-inducing clothing; when they were then asked to play video games following the workout, brain scans showed their brains had to work much harder, and actions that would have been completed fairly easily took significantly more brain work to complete.
It’s not just your imagination telling you that coffee makes you think more clearly. It really does. When researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences gave rats a jolt of caffeine equivalent to what a human would get from two cups of coffee, then measured the performance of nerve cells in the brain, they found that the strength of electrical messages being transmitted increased significantly. And when your synapses become stronger and perform better, your ability to learn and remember also skyrockets.
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Think of it as a pre-workout warmup for your brain. Pick something new each day—a cell phone number, a song lyric, a new vocabulary word, a favorite quote—and try committing it to memory, quizzing yourself every few hours to see how well you’re remembering it. “It may sound like a waste of time, but it’s an incredibly useful exercise,” says Marie Pasinski, M.D., a Harvard neurologist and author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Boost Your Brain Power! “In the digital age, we’ve ceded so much memory to our phones and computers. But remembering things is a skill like any other—it requires maintenance.”
“Interacting with people challenges your memory and forces your brain to stay nimble and grow,” Pasinski says. It may not even matter whether the new friends are real or virtual: Psychologists at University College London analyzed brain scans from 125 college students and then looked at their Facebook accounts. They found that the students with the most friends also had significantly larger brains, especially in areas associated with memory and emotional response.
Just walking more can amp up your brain power, according to research funded by the National Institutes of Health. In the study, sedentary men and women were encouraged to walk for 40 minutes three times a week. One year later, almost all participants in the study performed better on memory and intelligence tests, due primarily to improved connectivity between cells in the brain and nervous system.
That means natural meats, grains, fresh fruit, and produce, and as little processed food as possible. (In other words, nothing with a label or created after about 1900.) Why? In a study of almost 4,000 children, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, researchers found that kids who were given a “traditional” or “health-conscious” diet consistently scored better on IQ tests than children fed a diet high in processed foods. Although the human brain grows at its fastest during the first three years of life, researchers say a clean, healthy diet is just as important after the brain is fully developed.
“What you eat affects how you think,” says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, Ph.D., a professor of neurosurgery at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “And eating a high-fructose diet over the long term may alter your brain’s ability to learn and remember information,” he says. The Chilean researcher found out just how bad too many sweets can be for your brain by studying animals who were given high-sugar diets and comparing them with animals fed a more standard diet. Over time, he says, large amounts of sweets in the brain can impair synaptic activity, disrupting the ability to think clearly. Instead of soda, candy, ice cream, and baked goods, get your sweet fix on M&F-approved foods like fresh fruit and Greek yogurt.
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Or, sign up for guitar lessons. Whether you’re listening to music or playing it, a good song expands your potential for learning. Numerous studies show that mastering a musical instrument changes the anatomy of the brain and rewires your cells to think faster and more accurately. Although the effect is less pronounced when you’re just listening, it’s still there. A classic UC Irvine study conducted in the 1990s found that the IQs of undergrads soared temporarily after listening to Mozart. The study led to a best-selling series of books called The Mozart Effect.
Even if you aren’t diabetic, large fluctuations in insulin levels in the body can dull your brain’s response times and inhibit peak performance. Some researchers even speculate that insulin resistance caused by consistently high levels of insulin in the body over time may be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. On the flip side, if insulin levels are low, or the pancreas stops production of the hormone, the memory may suffer as well: A study conducted at Brown University found that insulin-resistant rats were more likely to become disoriented and have trouble finding their way out of a maze. Two ways to keep blood sugar stable: Eat carbs on the low end of the glycemic scale, and avoid both skipping meals and bingeing.
“Use it or lose it” doesn’t apply only to your muscles. Leading an active lifestyle helps to keep the tissues in your brain every bit as young and active as those throughout the rest of your body. In fact, regular physical activity seems to help slow or even reverse the brain’s physical decay over time. Scientists at the University of Illinois have proven exercise’s prowess at keeping the brain healthy. In studies on mice, they found that regardless of whether the animals ate a super healthy diet or traditional “boring” mouse food; had cages filled with toys and games; or were kept in a stimulation-free environment, the one factor most responsible for improving their memory and performance in cognitive tests was a running wheel. Mice who ran ended up simply being smarter all around in virtually every test, compared with mice who didn’t. Best of all: The increase in brain matter was visible after just a few weeks.
The more you watch, the less you know, says a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Scientists analyzed questionnaires from nearly 4,000 people, looking at not just their overall intelligence level but also their personal data, such as the amount of TV the respondents watched each day. Not surprising, those who watched TV or Internet-based broadcasts the most (four hours or more a day) also had the lowest mental-acuity scores. Compounding television’s mind-rot effect, a study from Iowa State found that students who watched more than two hours of TV a day were twice as likely to be diagnosed with some form of attention disorder, such as ADHD, due to the amount of rapid-fire stimuli the brain is typically overloaded with during television viewing.
Have a tough work issue you’re trying to power through? You may want to go it alone rather than pull together a group for a brainstorming session. A recent Virginia Tech study warns that certain group settings—whether it’s a committee meeting, a class, or even a cocktail party—can alter the expression of your IQ, making you seem dumber (or, at least, less able to process information) than you’d be if left to your own devices. The finding, according to study author Read Montague, Ph.D., shows just how interwoven psychological traits like self-confidence, intelligence, and outgoingness can be, and how impossible they may be to separate for certain individuals.
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Or unpack that old Xbox 360. Turns out improved hand–eye coordination isn’t the only reason to embrace your love of Grand Theft Auto or Madden. When researchers in Belgium did an MRI analysis of the brains of 150 teenagers, they found that those who played video games frequently had more brain cells in the left ventral striatum of their brain—the region responsible for controlling the interplay of emotions and behavior. The better developed this region is, the better your potential for learning becomes.
Pile your plate high with salmon, tuna, and other ocean dwellers at least a couple times a week. (If you don’t like fish, pop a daily fish-oil supplement instead.) In a study of 4,000 teenage boys conducted in Sweden, scientists found that eating fish twice a week increased subjects’ verbal and visuospatial intelligence scores by more than 10%. Although the exact mechanism behind fish oil’s ability to improve mental performance still isn’t known, study author Kjell Toren, M.D., Ph.D., believes the benefit may come from the combination of improving blood flow to the brain, reducing inflammation, and boosting the immune system—all courtesy of seafood’s ample supply of omega-3s and-6s.
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When researchers at the University of Michigan tested the IQs of 172 men—some of whom smoked regularly and some who didn’t—they found that the smokers scored lower on the tests across the board. According to their finding, years of tobacco use appears to dull mental performance, dimming the speed and accuracy of a person’s overall thinking ability. A more recent study conducted at Tel Aviv University confirms the finding. When researchers there measured the IQs of 20,000 soldiers between the ages of 18 and 21, they found that guys who smoked more than a pack a day averaged a 90 on their IQ tests, while the average score for a nonsmoker was 101 (typical IQ scores for healthy adults usually range from 84 to 116).
When you leave your comfort zone and do something new, your brain creates new neurons (that’s a good thing). It doesn’t matter what new skill you decide to take up—speaking a foreign language, painting, carpentry—any time you’re learning one thing, your brain is becoming better at learning everything. Need proof? When researchers at McGill University, in Montreal, enrolled a group of 30 men and women in tango lessons and tested their cognitive functions regularly, they found that after 10 weeks of classes, just learning a new dance had also helped the individuals score better on memory tests and get better at multitasking.
It doesn’t matter whether your body is battling infection, toxins, or chemicals— anything that leaves your tissue inflamed, whether inside or outside your body, may have a negative effect on your mental performance. In a study of 50,000 men ages 18–20, Swedish researchers found that inflammation in the body was consistently linked to lower intelligence levels. Among the best inflammation fighters: foods full of omega-3s and antioxidants.
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Human growth hormone is a naturally occurring substance that helps your body to develop. But after the age of 30, levels start to plummet. Additional doses—in the form of injections or supplements—may be a solution for keeping your body and brain going strong well into old age. In a study conducted at the University of Washington, researchers found that cognitive ability improved 5–7% in people taking HGH supplements, compared with those taking a placebo.
Whatever form your relaxation takes, it will ultimately help you to be smarter in the long run, Pasinski says. When University of Oregon researchers taught a group of roughly 100 students a type of stress-busting meditation, they found that within just two weeks, study participants showed improved neural signaling within the brain, and after a month they found enhanced connections between brain cells—two of the primary factors responsible for better learning.
Holding your breath while working out in the pool improves the flow of blood to your brain. As with your muscles, the more oxygen those tissues in your cranium get, the stronger and healthier they become—and the better they’re able to function.