The Science of Building Brain Power

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Until the publication of a major study in 2008, psychologists believed that intelligence is fixed at birth, that IQ is like a number tattooed on the soul. The new study showed that people can increase their “fluid” intelligence through training.

Smarter, Dan Hurley

When I was little, I was taught that our brain power is limited to what we are born with. After discovering the lie I was told, I became deeply fascinated with the science of building brain power. For anyone who shares this interest, the book “Smarter” by Dan Hurley is an essential read. The following is a quick summary of the things that really help when it comes to building brain power.

Brain Trainers

This has been a hotly disputed topic by scientists for years so what’s the truth? According to Hurley, brain trainers do work but there are good ones and not so good ones. Which are the good ones? The following have shown some potential:

  • Cogmed – I’ve read about them but never used their program. It is developed by Torkel Klingberg whose name should be familiar if you’ve ever studied the scientific literature on cognition.
  • Lumosity (these are some of the memory games on Lumosity). It should be noted, however, that not all the training games on Lumosity have been proven.
  • Posit Science (by the creators of BrainHQ) – co-founded by Michael Merzenich (another big name in brain research).
  • LearningRx (also called BrainRx) – which both my kids have done before.
  • First person shooter games (which I’ve written about here)

Diet and Nutrition

There are only two foods so far that have been shown to have any significant scientific backing:

  • breastmilk
  • coffee
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Bilingualism

There is not a lot about this topic since the findings to date are inconclusive. To gain real brain benefits, we would have to study the second language well enough to be considered bilingual. Doing a few lessons in school isn’t really enough to provide any knock-on effects.

Physical Exercise

There is a lot of research on the benefits of exercise on the brain. I’ve also written about before on my other blog if you would like to read about it:

Dan Hurley covers the benefits of exercise is a lot more detail. Some of what he shares are covered in the following news articles:

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Photo by Lukas from Pexels

There is a lot more in Hurley’s book if you would like to know more, but if you just want to know the bottom line:

  • Children who are fitter have higher levels of cognitive control compared to children who are less fit.
  • Walking, swimming, and/or biking three times a week improves memory, perception, and decision making.
  • Resistance training improves attention, conflict resolution, and memory.

My only gripe was that there were no recommendations on exactly what and how much. In another book written on the science of exercise and the brain, the following recommendations were made:

  • When to work out: before a cognitively demanding task – e.g. a project that requires complex analysis, a brainstorming session, or learning new material.
  • How much to work out: aerobic exercise, like jogging for 30 minutes, 2 to 3 times a week for twelve weeks was linked to improved executive function.
  • What sort of work out: aerobic exercise (like running) combined with activities that require complex motor skills (like rock climbing). Alternatively, you can choose a sport that simultaneously challenges the cardiovascular system and the brain (like tennis or dancing).

Music

After exercise, music would have to be the next best thing for building brain power. I’ve also written about the benefits of music here:

In his book, Hurley makes reference to the following studies that support the link between music and building brain power:

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Photo by Elly Fairytale from Pexels

It should be noted that the brain benefits from music comes from learning a musical instrument (it can be any instrument, including singing) rather than just listening to it. Also, the brain boost from music is not as great as physical exercise, however, it is still significant.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness is another topic I’ve explored before. You can read about it here:

A multitude of studies suggest that mindfulness meditation may enhance cognitive abilities, increase attention, expand working memory, and raise fluid intelligence.

The studies mentioned in Hurley’s book found changes in the brain’s white matter after only two weeks of meditation practice. If you would like to know more about these studies, you can find them here:

It should be noted that mindfulness has varying affects for different people. Not everyone will benefit from it and some people may see a greater benefit compared to others.

The Bottom Line

Based on the Dan Huxley’s research of what has been proven by science to effectively increase brain power, these are the things we should focus on:

  • Brain training – 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

Secondary focus – if you have the time, patience and willingness, you can also consider:

  • Learning a musical instrument – given the many other benefits of music, this could be an enriching way to boost brain power.
  • Meditation – while we cannot predict who it works better for, it is a simple practice that does not require significant commitment. Additionally, there are other benefits for children to learn how to meditate.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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