How to Become Smarter and More Creative

Who doesn’t want to be smarter and more creative? The ability to conjure and connect, retain and recall, innovate and improvise are crucial components of success in every area of life. Especially in the competitive environments of school, work, and love, greater intelligence and creativity provide an edge that enables people to stand out from the crowd.

Many people are under the illusion that intelligence and creativity are genetically determined. But while there’s no doubt that a person’s genetic heritage does play a role in determining what’s cognitively possible for them, few if any people ever live up to their maximum intellectual potential. And the idea that there’s nothing one can do to improve intelligence and creativity flies in the face of both science and common sense. The fact is, there are a number of things you can do today that will begin improving your cognitive performance and enable you to reach heights of intelligence and creativity you may not have known you were capable of.

And the best thing about it is no special products or programs are necessary. All is needed are the same basic qualities required for improving any area of one’s life: intentional effort and self discipline.

Here are eight things you can begin practicing right now that will put you on the path to greater intelligence and creativity, beginning with the more mundane, but arguably, the most fundamental:

1. Eat Healthy

It is easy to forget that the mind is dependent upon a muscle called the brain, and like all muscles in the body, the brain depend upon good nutrition to function well. The Franklin Institute’s Brain Food Pyramid is a helpful visualization of the brain’s nutritional needs, rooted in solid neuroscience research. As they summarize the matter, “Fats build the brain, and proteins unite it. Carbohydrates fuel the brain, and micronutrients defend it.” Additionally, a recent study has shown that chemicals found in certain foods like eggs, beets, and fish may enhance the brain’s ability to function and heal. And just think about it: doesn’t your body feel sluggish and tired when you’re hungry or eat lots of over-processed, sugary foods? What goes for your body goes for your brain, too. Taking care of your body and being healthy is taking care of your mind. Eat smart to be smart.

2. Stay Hydrated

Your brain is up to 90% water. Recent research on the brain and hydration has shown that dehydration can cause brain shrinkage and impair brain function. Confusion, irritability, lack of concentration, memory loss, drowsiness and other mental impairments have all been linked to dehydration. Oxygen and important neurotransmitters chemical signals in your brain travel through blood, which thickens and slows when dehydrated. Drinking enough of the right kind of fluids is absolutely crucial for maximizing your brain’s ability to achieve its full potential. The fact is, most people go through their day dehydrated. If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated, which is why it is important to drink throughout the day, not just with meals, and not just when you’re not thirsty. The doctors at the Mayo Clinic recommend eight or nine cups of water a day for optimal body and mind performance. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages do not count. As diuretics, they cause the body to expel water, thereby increasing dehydration. Trade a glass of water for that soda, coffee, or beer to start thinking more clearly and creatively. Mind your hydration for a healthy mind.

3. Sleep Enough

As major companies like Google, Cisco Systems, and Procter & Gamble have realized, sleep enhances every aspect of mental performance, from learning and memory, to creativity and innovation. That’s why these companies have integrated sleeping into their employee’s workday schedules, even going so far as to provide special “sleeping pods” where employees can nap in peace and quiet. Some schools are starting to wake up to the importance of sleep to cognitive function, starting classes later in response to several studies showing students who get less sleep do much worse on assignments and tests. Again, this is in full agreement with common sense. When you’re tired, it’s harder to think. Various sleep studies have linked sleep deprivation to depression, confusion, memory loss, and other symptoms that impede cognitive function. Other studies have shown potential long-term effects of sleep deprivation. One study suggests that over time, the brain rewires itself in less than optimal ways to compensate for impairments in brain function caused by lack of sleep. Long-term memory loss and impairment has also been correlated with long periods of sleep deprivation. The thing is, like hydration, once you feel tired, you’re already operating at less than optimal levels. Most people do not get enough sleep (about 8 hrs. a night on average), meaning most people are not as intelligent or creative as they could be. Sleep your way to a better state of mind.

4. Exercise Routinely

Studies have shown that, like sleep, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise improves nearly every dimension of cognition, including creativity. The type of exercise doesn’t seem to matter, as long as it gets your heart rate up, and the results last for at least two hours afterward. The caveat is that it only seems to work for those who are already physically in shape. For people who are out of shape, the fatigue from aerobic activity counteracts the short-term cognitive benefits. Exercise has more long-term effects on brain function as well. Research has shown that exercises increases the level of brain chemicals called “growth factors” that help generate new brain cells and forge new connections between brain cells, the physical basis of learning. According to one Harvard researcher who has written a book on the subject, “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning.”

5. Read Widely

As one well-known study on the influence of reading on general intelligence shows, reading builds vocabulary and mental agility in ways that enhance intelligence and creativity throughout a person’s life. Reading widely also builds a database of background knowledge in a person’s mind that allows them to interpret their experiences more deeply and make deeper connections between ideas. It is important to learn how to read slowly and interrogatively. In other words, read actively, writing down your questions and reactions in the text. This exercises your brain and aids in retention. It is also important to read widely. Stretch yourself. Read outside of your current interests or field. Read books you know you’ll disagree with. Doing this will sharpen your thinking and also expose you to new ways of seeing the world, providing more intellectual materials for you to work with. Read multiple genres. Reading poetry is helpful, as it not only stretches your imagination, but forces you to slow down and pay attention, a key component of intelligence and creativity.

6. Connect Aggressively

As author Steven Johnson argues in his book on the history of innovation, Where Good Ideas Come From, “Chance favors the connected mind.” Johnson’s historical survey demonstrates that connectedness, in terms of communication between normally isolated people and ideas, is the primary engine of innovation across history. The number of groundbreaking inventions and innovations has increased exponentially with each major breakthrough in communications technology (from the printing press to the internet). The more connected people are, the more new and creative ideas they have, as different inventions and ideas clash, combine, and complete each other. Johnson recommends taking up multiple hobbies, mingling at coffee shops, and multi-tasking as ways of developing a more connected mind. Frequenting a broad variety of blog and news sites and following the links is another. The goal is to furnish your mind with the materials and stimulation that enable it move beyond its ordinary habits, routines, and limitations.

7. Risk Repeatedly

Fear of failure, embarassment, or censure undermines innovation and creativity at every turn. There is no way to generate new and expanded ways of thinking and creating without pushing the boundaries of what feels comfortable and secure. You’ve got to put yourself out there. Behind every successful idea or innovation lies a thousand failures and rejections. As Samuel Beckett wrote, “Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Cultivating an experimental attitude to people and to life is absolutely key to unlocking your intellectual and creative potential. This usually requires facing down deep-seated fears of failure, rejection, and embarrassment. Finding a friend or two that can help and support you in this is helpful. The point is to avoid staying locked in to a world of possibility defined by fear and false assumptions about “what would happen if…” Risk and failure inevitably open up new vistas on reality and possibility that would’ve remained otherwise unperceived.

8. Re-situate Regularly

Change your environment or move into another one. A recent study suggests that the process of adapting to a new cultural environment involves a psychological transformation that may lead to greater creativity. The study looked at students who studied abroad, but the process of adaptation and psychological transformation can attend to much less dramatic changes in environment. Wherever we live we are surrounded by numerous micro-cultures and sub-cultures that embody diverse ways of living, thinking, and evaluating the world. Each one of them offers a new angle of vision, an expansion of our mental world that can fuel our intelligence and creativity in new ways. Spend time in an area of town with a different racial or socio-economic makeup than the one you’re used to (better yet, move there if you can). Spend significant time with people of different faiths and political persuasions than you. If you normally drive to work or school, take the bus, ride a bike, or walk. Find some way to place yourself in the position to have your imagination stimulated and your vision transformed.

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