It wasn’t so long ago the brain was believed to stop developing after a certain period of time. Neurological connections were formed relatively early in life, and were understood to become fixed as we aged.
This meant that, when damage to the brain occurred, it was thought to be tough luck – there was no chance of regeneration, or for new connections to be formed.
Nowadays, thanks to further research and studies, we know that the brain continually reorganises and adjusts in response to internal and external conditions.
Scientists call this neuroplasticity, which speaks of the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways that can, for example, help people recover from considerable brain damage.
When we think about our brains – or any number of subjects – our perceptions are often fixed. This tends to contradict the fact of the matter, something we usually discover much later on, as with the case of how the brain develops.
If we take another example, that of intelligence, we see that same process of thinking fixed firmly in place. Let’s imagine a person who we deem to be of less-than-average intelligence. It’s likely that we’ll assume the person in question is pretty much stuck with their lot with little chance for them to improve by increasing their levels of intelligence.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer describes such assumptions as mindless thinking: once we process information (e.g. this person lacks intelligence), we put it to the back of our mind as fixed information – something that we take to be forever true.
This is a problem because it restricts the ability to innovate, create, and imagine new possibilities. As Langer puts it, we are frequently in error but never in doubt.
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So, can a person increase their levels of intelligence? The word “intelligence” is a sweeping term – there are a number of ways in which intelligence can be measured. For the sake of ease, we’ll consider general mental ability: problem-solving, critical thinking, and the ability to innovate and create.
In taking any subject, we risk severely limiting our own potential and that of others when we embrace rigid thinking.
This is where we get attitudes arising such as, “This is the way it’s always been done,” and “This is the way it should be.”
As we can see, progress has very little room for manoeuvre.
When it comes to intelligence, there are a number of ways that it can be developed. Having said that, a side note is called for. Not everyone can be an Einstein, Feynman, Turing, or Curie. Such people are called exceptional for a reason. But while not everyone can reach truly impressive levels of intelligence, anyone with sufficient faculties can improve their general mental ability, and in turn do great things through the contributions they make.
Here are just four suggestions that we can use to develop our minds, or – if you’re already an Einstein – help others to grow and develop theirs:
1. Practise developing communication skills
When I was at school, I read Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince. To my surprise, I understood very little of what the authors said. But I was curious about the ideas I did understand, and I looked to read more books that stretched my mind.
In doing so, I was able to see how words were used and structured, how ideas were formed, how arguments were made and how conflicts were resolved.
Similarly, by having discussions about ideas; by writing down thoughts in a journal; by playing word games; and by listening to interesting talks, communication skills are enhanced by virtue of immersing ourselves in the habit of practice.
2. Use your body
Anyone who dances or plays the piano will know that, along with the enjoyment that comes with self-expression, there’s a tremendous amount of focus that develops through the constant participation in these activities.
The same goes for activities such as painting, martial arts or yoga.
Through these, our gross and fine motor skills are improved, and they provide us with a constant centring of the mind, which strengthens our decision-making, levels of concentration, and attention spans.
3. Play the numbers game
Our ability to think rationally and logically can be significantly enriched by regularly taking on crossword puzzles, number games (for example, Sudoku) and other challenging games that stretch the mind.
These encourage us to look at different ways in which problems can be solved, and to take on different perspectives, which means that we pull the mind away from fixed-thinking and incline it towards broader views when tackling difficult problems.
4. Get in touch with your emotions
In his book, Emotional Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman talks about the importance of understanding our thoughts and emotions in order to get a sense of who we are, as well as our place in the world.
By developing emotional intelligence, we are also able to build relationships that centre on compassion and empathic concern, enabling us to react and respond appropriately to a wide range of circumstances that arise within our relationships.
Sandy is a former Leaderonomics editor and is now a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. As editor of www.leaderonomics.com, he has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.