Better brains

We kind of want better brains: more creative and with better memory. In my courses, I teach improving the brain power via simple training routines. This path is definitely safe and effective, yet it may be combined with other cool options with some remarkable results. Here I want to discuss some alternative approaches. For more reading, check out here, here, here, here , here, here, here, and here.

Creativity as a habit

Creativity works as a kind of wonder drug improving mental connections, bringing joy, and increasing motivation. Some advanced productivity processes like productive rumination, superfluidity, and correct multitasking involve creativity as out-of-the-box thinking, systematic brainstorming and problem-solving, and non-trivial organization of the processes and their execution respectively. Sorry for the long sentence. In other words, it means that a creative brain is a productive brain. Or maybe creativity equals high brain connectivity.

There are many kinds of creativity. Most of us do not really access so-called “out-of-the-box thinking”. Counterintuitively,  this sort of creativity is very high in children, and to acquire it we need to “unlearn” multiple self-imposed limitations we tend to acquire around the first grade of school.

Another kind of creativity development involves a lifestyle inducing creativity, with long walks, introversion, constantly venturing our of the comfort zone, and polyphasic sleep with lucid dreaming.  This “creative” lifestyle is actually quite healthy.

Do not confuse creative lifestyle with substance abuse. People on substances feel that they are more creative, but objective testing of creativity shows otherwise. This finding is concerning, since people usually can evaluate their own creativity quite accurately.

When not properly controlled, creativity may lead to strange behavior, loneliness, and depression – this is a domain of half-mad artists and scientists. If you are like 99% of humans, what you have is not excess creativity, but a lack of creativity.

Brain gyms

In a different end of the brain training spectrum, there are brain gyms with multiple exercises training specific brain functions. Unlike creativity that is a whole-brain activation, brain gyms activate very specific areas of the brain we would not use otherwise.

Brain gyms are very effective, but their usefulness is questionable. People using brain gyms really improve the neural functions relevant to the specific exercises. However, these are not the most useful neural functions – as we train the useful functions all the time anyway. Thus brain gyms provide incredible improvement in a fixed set of not-very-important tasks.

As an example consider Sudoku. Solving such numerical puzzles is not something mathematicians or accountants need. People who enjoy sudoku, usually do not have a lot of math in their lives. My wife loves sudoku and is ranked very high globally in some sudoku games, because it makes her sleepy in the evening. This is not her way to become secretly a math genius – but an alternative to counting sheep.

Brain gyms are very effective in restoring confidence in cognitive functions after a stroke or a car accident. They are not properly suited for most of us and they do not make people smarter. Want to become smarter by playing games – try chess, learn music, or juggle.

I quote:

For researchers interested in the biology of human memory it is reasonable to focus on specific brain regions. Yet for educators interested in implementing brain-based learning strategies, it is critical to note that these brain regions do not function by themselves. Over-indulgent practitioners often fall prey to a modern-day form of phrenology—if we can only boost activity in these brain regions, we can solve the problem of poor student learning. Even worse are those practitioners who use brain regions as markers for “styles” of learning—are you a left-brain (verbal), right-brain (spatial), back-brain (perceiving), or front-brain (thinking) learner? A major pitfall in applying brain-based learning approaches is the over-attribution of brain regions to psychological function. Efficient learning and retention depend on coordinated brain activity in a multitude of brain regions. No brain region works in isolation. 

Zap your brains with electricity

While I do not recommend long-term brain electrification, there are studies with applying small currents to certain brain areas over half an hour. As a result, depending on activation, various brain functions improve. One can theoreticize, for example, that neural implants zapping the brain when we try to remember something may improve memorization by 30%.

Neural implants are future technologies, but we can already apply small currents to our heads using very cheap and massively available TDCS devices. Such devices are usually safe, and the improvement they offer is not amazing but also not negligible. Moreover, applying the electrodes differently various mental functions can be addressed. For example, some snipers report improved accuracy as a result of wearing TDCS device. TMS devices reportedly may treat some forms of depression.

We do not fully understand how such devices work. A small electric current may improve connectivity in some neural synapses, and we know that these synapses store memory and do some other useful things.

Current TDCS devices are uncomfortable, and after half an hour my skin starts to itch. Nobody knows if long-term use of such devices may lead to dependence or some other adverse effects. Short-term applications appear to be safe.

Productivity improving brain scans

If we venture further into dystopic reality with currently available tech, we may address brain scans. Some unsubstantiated rumors actually reported Chinese government scanning the brain of employees using an EEG device. Such devices may be very small and may generate some indication to the managers each time the employee dozes off.

This is not what we address when discussing biofeedback, and yet such biofeedback may potentially be effective. We might not have the discipline to report our own level of activity, but using biofeedback we may improve not just emotional self-regulation, but for example planning of daily activities. Or maybe we will improve our ability to focus on the tasks that we find boring, for example planning boring tasks when we are naturally more alert due to Adderall release in case of focus deficiency.

Guided evolution

The human brain is approximately x3 large than the brain of a chimpanzee. Brain volume consistently increases in both chimps and humans until around 22 weeks of pregnancy. After that, chimp brain growth slows while it continues to increase in humans. By 32 weeks, the rate of chimpanzee brain growth is about 20% of that observed in humans. Longer development of the brain possibly enables better brain connectivity. Larger brain volume enables more brain interconnectivity, including interconnectivity between distant areas of the brain. This is one of the reasons that the neocortex structured as a folded sheet is functionally very effective. Yet the estimated difference in intelligence for children born at ≥34 gestational weeks compared with 40 gestational weeks is negligible, with a negligible reduction after 40 weeks.

We could in theory become smarter as a result of guided evolution. We see something similar when comparing city-dwelling raccoons with forest raccoons. These ideas are not directly applied to humans. Schools, trainers and mentors are very effective. Availability of healthy food especially during early childhood also contributes around 30 points of IQ. So while people in some countries and areas are definitely smarter than in others, it is not due to evolution. I wonder what would happen if scientists developed a chemical that boosts brain growth in the womb after the 32nd week, for example boosting placental function.  Endocrine disrupting chemicals in rats show decreasing intellect of the offsprings. So in theory the effect can be reversed – venturing into some unexplored territory.

While selective breeding of humans is a definite taboo, pregnancy supplements are not frowned upon. So in theory, choosing just the right supplements for pregnant mothers may generate an evolutionary advantage. While writing this text, this idea is purely theoretical. Yet it may become practical in the near future.

Practice sex for smarts

Some studies reported here show that the act of sex itself makes people smarter, improving memory. While this statement looks like one of the Seinfeld episodes, it is backed up by serious science, tested with adults above the age of 50. Some researchers conclude it is because sex boosts brain cell growth in areas of the brain associated with memory. Others suggest it’s because of the sexual “afterglow” that pumps us full of dopamine and oxytocin. This sex-related memory improvement was also tested in various animals. According to studies, frequency matters more than other parameters.

While recommendations of physical work-out, diet or nootropics are quite common, usually we do not associate sexual activity with higher intellect. And yet science points otherwise…

Conclusion

Lifelong learning is still the best path to being smarter. And yet it can be boosted by habits. Some of these habits are prenatal or deal with early childhood and are in control of the mothers. Other habits are totally in our control, like the food we eat and what we do before sleep – be it sudoku or something sexy. And if that is not enough, we can boost our performance via dedicated technology. Why not? It is considered to be safe…

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