Science Questions with Surprising Answers
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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

How do I turn on more parts of my brain and get smarter?

Category: Biology      Published: August 6, 2014

Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

Turning on more parts of your brain does not make you smarter. The brain does not really work that way. An example of a brain experiencing high activation is a seizure. During a seizure, a person has severely decreased functioning and mental capability. A person having a seizure can't talk, can't walk, and can't do math problems. This extreme example should make clear that "turning on more of the brain" does not equal "smarter".

The brain contains a complex network of neurons that includes many feedback loops. Thoughts, memories, and calculations in the brain are emergent phenomena that arise out of the interplay of many neurons. A new idea is not stored in a single neuron. Rather, an idea is stored in the way many neurons are connected together. More specifically, an idea is stored in the way a brain signal travels through these connections in a cascading, looping, non-linear fashion. The analogy that the brain works like a computer is completely wrong. Standard microchip computers are deterministic, linear, and have localized processing operations. This type of processing is excellent for doing long mathematical calculations and carrying out deterministic actions such as displaying photos or editing text documents. However, this type of processing is terrible at generating creativity, recognizing patterns in complex systems, attaching value to information, extrapolating complex trends, learning new skills, and generalizing data into a small set of principles. In contrast to computers, the brain is non-deterministic, asynchronous, non-linear, and has delocalized processing operations. In this way, the brain is really the opposite of a traditional microchip computer; it is good at generating creativity, recognizing patterns, evaluating information, extrapolating trends, learning new skills, and generalizing data; but it is bad at doing long numerical calculations. Since a computer is linear and deterministic, you can make it more powerful simply by installing more processor cores and more RAM. In contrast, the brain is non-linear and non-deterministic, so turning on more neurons at once won't make the brain smarter.

These comments lead to the question, "How does a person get smart?" My response is, "What do you mean by smart?" I do not give this response to be evasive. My response gets at the core of how a brain works. Strictly speaking, your brain is always getting smart in some way, whether you are working at it or not (assuming your brain is generally healthy). Your brain is always processing the external world, finding patterns, forming memories, and learning information. From a neurological perspective, skipping your math homework and watching cartoons instead does not make your brain any less smart. It just makes your brain good at reciting cartoon theme songs instead of being good at solving math problems. If your job is to recite cartoon theme songs on stage, then watching cartoons will make you smarter than completing your math homework will. With this in mind, "smart" does not really mean using your brain more. Assuming you are generally healthy, you always use the optimal amount of brain power whether you try to or not. "Smart" means using your brain to learn the information and skills that are important to you.

The fields of mathematics, science, language, and history all contain facts, concepts, and skills that pertain to the real world. These concepts and skills either exist in the real world, are applicable to the real word, or are useful in carrying out professions in the real world. For these reasons, the learning of concepts and skills in mathematics, science, language, and history has become culturally associated with being smart. But a person who drops out of school and spends all of his time enjoying video games, television, movies, and fantasy books is still smart in the neurological sense of learning things and filling his brain with information. He is just smart in areas that are mostly useless, non-productive, and non-employable. Note that making a video game is entirely different from playing a video game. Memorizing where all the treasures are hidden in your favorite video game does not make you more able to get a job designing games. It takes mathematics, language, art, and programming skills to build virtual worlds. That is what I mean when I say that the knowledge and skills gained by playing video games are mostly useless, non-productive, and non-employable.

In short, the way to get smart is to decide what field is important to you, and then spend a lot of time working and learning in that field. If you want to get good at math, do math problems again and again. Furthermore, you have to put in the work to make sure you learn to do the math problems correctly. If you want to get good at playing the violin, practice every day. There is no magical way to learn a subject without putting in the hard work and time.

With that said, there are more effective ways of learning a subject than others. As mentioned previously, the human brain is constructed so that it is good at recognizing and learning patterns. Therefore, you will learn a subject more quickly if you first learn the rules, and then connect the information into patterns using the rules as you go. For instance, learning how to read by going through a list of 5000 of the most common words and simply memorizing the sound of each word is slow and tedious. In contrast, mastering a few dozen phonics rules is much more effective. As another example, memorizing a list of battle names and dates in a particular war is less productive. In contrast, it is more effective to first learn about war heroes, weapons technology, basic geography, and the war strategies that were used; and then connect the names and dates of the battles to these concepts. Creating maps, charts, timelines, and biographies is far more effective for learning history than memorizing unconnected list of facts because the human brain is optimized for seeing and learning patterns.

Topics: brain, intelligence, math, optimize the brain, patterns, smart, unlock the brain