Five Things That Can Surprisingly Make You Smarter

Books and calculators aren't the only game in town, kids.

Every Friday, I’m compiling a list of five things that meet one criterion. “What is that criterion,” you ask? Well, it’s going to change every week and you’re just going to have to try and keep up.

This week…

Five Things That Can Surprisingly Make You Smarter

It seems like everything nowadays is bad for us, in some way. Cell phones put off radiation, television turns our brains to mush, and all of our food is processed and dangerous. We're all doomed to die young, fat, and stupid.

While plenty of these criticisms have roots in truth, I find it much more interesting to focus on the water that is still in the glass. Anyone can be pessimistic. Anyone can be detractive. Anyone can be cynical. Negativity is actually quite easy to pull off and thus, very popular (see: the Internet).

The questions I like to ask: What isn’t so bad? What are the benefits? Where’s the silver lining? We’re all dead anyway, so we might as well keep things positive (even if just to trick our minds into ignoring that “we’re all dead anyway” point).

So, the next time you’re half-listening to someone’s boring rant on why you should sell your Playstation 3 or why you’re too young to be taking afternoon naps or why you waste too much time swimming laps, show them the list below, knowing that much of your daily routine serves a far greater purpose. Oh, and then head-butt them with your giant brain.

5. Facebook

Weird, isn’t it? But it’s true. At least according to psychologist Dr. Tracy Alloway.

This is obviously a very new area of research and thus probably deserves a lot more investigation before being ushered in as inescapable truth but so far, it would appear that the uber-popular social networking site can enhance one’s working memory (translation: the ability to remember information and then use that information later). It all seems pretty logical – you stalk a girl on Facebook and memorize her interests so that when you “accidentally” run into her at her favorite coffee shop, you can pretend to like the same movies as her and instantly connect. You couldn’t pull that off without Facebook.

4. Video games

Like Facebook, a lot of working memory is involved in most video games. Most modern titles require you to remember the purpose of many different tools and items, the specifics of a certain objective, and several specific locations all at once (in addition to searching for monsters). Further, the speed and depth of current video games condition the player’s brain to process and analyze the virtual situations much faster than they would in a normal setting. If you don’t believe me, track down some Major League Gaming videos on YouTube.

Dually, many video games also employ strategy and problem-solving that can surprisingly mirror subjects like mathematics and language. For example: if a player cannot solve a certain problem in the game, they will eventually clear this hurdle either by applying the principals of another similar situation in the game or by seeking help from an authority on the subject (the lessons learned obviously to be utilized again, at a later stage).

Of course, this isn’t to say that ten-hour Halo marathons will unquestionably improve one’s grades, IQ, or job prospects; just because a guy consults a skilled friend or tracks down a detailed video game walkthrough online doesn’t mean he can then turn around and just as easily solve a calculus problem or translate a passage in German. However, accruing experience in video games will introduce the player’s brain to the processes that will allow them to more effectively deal with/solve real problems that have nothing to do with sniper rifles, robots, or dogfights in space (especially amongst younger gamers).

But look, seriously: if the zombie plague breaks out or the aliens start invading, don’t act like the suburbs won’t churn out some of Earth’s mightiest heroes – they absolutely will. Once those kids get used to holding the real shotguns rather than the controller, we’re going to realize just how educational these video games could be.

3. Napping

Earlier this year, a book about improving brain performance was published by neuroscientist Richard Restak. One of the many revelations contained within related to the power of the nap – essentially, a midday power nap produced as much “off-line memory enhancement” as a full night of sleep.

Brain Rules (another recent book centered on how to take full advantage of the brain’s capabilities) revealed that NASA pilots, after 30-45 minute naps, increased their cognitive performance of their pilots by 33%.

Translation: a nap recharges your batteries and freshens you up, making you ready to perform at peak capacity. Plus, it means you can stay up later that night and watch all of the football game that inexplicably doesn’t kick off until 9 PM on the East Coast.

2. Music

Everyone is familiar with the notion that listening to classical music can aid in learning and memorization, even though it is still very much just a theory. But what about creating music? How does acquired skill, in terms of playing an instrument, affect the brain?

Several studies have shown that the brains of people with reasonably long-term experience playing music are noticeably different than those of musical novices. One set of findings revealed that the ability to play music can alter the brainstem (an area of the brain usually reserved only for the regulation of automatic, involuntary body habits like breathing and heartbeat) to the point where the mind grows much more capable of distinguishing different tones, even when focused on something else. Even more research confirms this discovery while also noting that musicians are much better than non-musicians when it comes to clearly picking out specific speech sounds in noisy environments.

In short: start playing music, as it will help you inch incrementally closer to being Daredevil.

1. Exercise

For a long time, the common perception of those who exercise a lot is that they’re brainless drones determined to make up for their weak minds with strong bodies. Recent studies are proving that this is one of the dumber assumptions in history.

Improved bloodflow, more consistent and higher levels of certain chemicals in the circulatory system, and the increased stimulation of neurons leads to better overall cognitive function (both immediately after the workout and far beyond). Once we had the scientific capabilities to quantify this, it really did seem pretty obvious.

Whether it’s among adults or children, one’s capacity for learning is notably increased with frequent exercise. Done. No arguments. Of course, whether most athletes are aware of this benefit and/or take advantage of it is not something that anyone can guarantee (the dumb jock stereotype had to come from somewhere, right?).

Regardless, exercise and the other activities listed above will only assist the brain's functions if one believes they can assist the brain's functions. Going online and then playing some guitar are not magic elixirs, they are just a couple of ways in which one can begin to get the most out of that big lump behind their eyeballs.

Justin Brown

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook