How Smart Can We Get? 4 Takeaways for Students

A recent episode of NOVA scienceNOW tries to answer an interesting question: How Smart Can We Get? The human brain is an impressive organ that changes over time – here are four useful points for students interested in how they can develop their thinking skills..

  • Areas of the brain literally grow through training.

Size isn’t everything, but learning creates visible growth in the brain. A knob forms on the right motor cortex after just 15 months of training on a string instrument, and a similar knob forms on the left side through piano training. These are stark examples of the concept of brain plasticity; the ability of your brain to change and grow throughout your lifetime.

  • Your memory is more expansive than you think.

A memory champion can memorize 303 numbers, or the order of a deck of playing cards in just five minutes. An average person can memorize 60 random numbers or 40 random words in about ten minutes. How? A memorization technique called the Method of Loci. It’s a multi-sensory, location based approach.

Like every other one of our biological faculties, our memories evolved through a process of natural selection in an environment that was quite different from the one we live in today. And much as our taste for sugar and fat may have served us well in a world of scarce nutrition but is maladaptive in a world of ubiquitous fast-food joints, our memories aren’t perfectly suited for our contemporary information age. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. (NYT)

You’re wired to remember locations – use familiar places as an anchor for new information. By adding extra information like a stupid, novel image (bacon hands), sound, emotion, and movement, you create even more connections that increase the odds of remembering.

  • Intelligence can improve over time.

Your brain can grow over time, but bigger might not be better. The ‘grey matter’ of the brain is the outside nerve cells. Your brain also includes ‘white matter’; long nerve fibers connecting different regions of the brain to one another. New research suggests that these connections between specific regions might be one of the best indicators of intelligence; and you can do things to improve those connections, like learning to juggle! When it comes to your brain, you need to use it or lose it. Learning new skills builds connections within your brain and makes future learning easier.

  • Your emotions are important.

What happens in your brain when you choke during an exam? Activity in the hippocampus, specifically the amygdala which processes emotions including fear and anxiety, interrupts your prefontal cortext (where working memory is). Your emotions are talking over your rational brain, and you choke.

Break the cycle by journaling before a stressful task. In a psychological study, students who wrote about their feelings in a journal for 10 minutes before a test scored 1/2 a grade-point higher than those who didn’t. This suggests that taking time to get your feelings off your mind frees up cognitive resources, allowing you to perform just as well in a clutch as you would normally.

Your emotions are a central part of your thinking and affect your learning, memory, and performance in school.

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