Long a staple of speculative fiction and modern myth, the idea of brain enhancement has experienced a bit of a renaissance in the twenty-first century. Today there are dozens of programs that claim to enhance brain activity, from books and DVDs to lectures and “brain retreats”. Which raises the question: how does a consumer differentiate between legitimate methods of brain enhancement and less respectable programs designed to make someone a quick buck?
Many of today’s programs of brain enhancement revolve around the concept of the IQ, or “intelligence quotient.” The concept of an objective measure for intelligence was first proposed by Sir Francis Galton, and later refined into the standard IQ test by Alfred Binet. IQ tests designate 100 as the measure of “average” intelligence based on a bell-curve, and are composed of a number of different tests designed to measure verbal reasoning ability, the capacity for analytic thought, math skills, and memorization abilities.
However, there’s much debate over how accurate numerical IQ scores are as a measure of brainpower. First of all, as with all standardized tests, it is possible to train an examinee specifically for the test, thereby increasing scores without necessarily increasing brainpower. In this sense, the IQ test seems a less than ideal measurement of brain enhancement.
Furthermore, opponents of standardized intelligence tests such as Stephen Jay Gould have argued for years that the test is biased toward specific socio-economic and, potentially, ethnic groups. In his landmark book The Mismeasure of Man, Gould examined how early forms of the IQ test often required participants to have a working knowledge of items that might be of everyday use in Western European and American culture, but not necessarily in the cultures from which test candidates originated. Gould posited that early IQ test designers suffered from a bias that cast people of Western European descent as inherently more intelligent than people of other ethnic groups.
Today, there are alternative test models aimed at a culturally fair assessment of intelligence. For instance, the Cattrell “Culture-Fair Test” focuses on visuo-spatial reasoning and other less verbally based areas of intelligence. In the Cattrell test, a test taker doesn’t have to have a good command of English to do well; nor does one need specific knowledge related to an English-speaking culture, which was another flaw in first-generation IQ tests.
Another modern take on measuring intelligence is the multiple intelligence test: based on the idea that there are multiple facets to intelligence, this test is designed to measure a candidate’s mental acuity in several different realms of ability, only some of which correspond to Binet’s original IQ measurements. In the multiple intelligence model, there are 8 recognized types or facets of intelligence, as follows: linguistic/verbal, mathematical/logical, musical, visuo-spatial, kinetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.
While some of these categories are self-explanatory (verbal and mathematical intelligence refers to people who are skilled at verbal expression or logical problem-solving, for example), others are somewhat less obvious. For instance, kinetic intelligence refers to the ability to move one’s body in different ways and learn new bodily movements. Athletes, acrobats and martial artists usually have highly developed kinetic intelligence. Interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence could apply to those who are “people smart”: who have an inherent skill for social interaction, and in the case of intrapersonal intelligence, for getting in touch with their own inner thoughts and feelings. Finally, ecologists, park rangers and people in similar professions may exhibit naturalist intelligence, defined as an intuitive sense of how to interact with the natural world of plants and animals.
Beyond the brain enhancement hype, it is true that there are certain brain exercises you can use as brain enhancers to increase your brain’s resilience and thus its capacity for learning. For instance, many of us seem wired to favor one hemisphere of our brains over the other, even though different equally important skills are encoded into each hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. Have you ever heard someone say she’s more “right-brained” or “left-brained”? This expression refers to the kind of mental work we’re more comfortable performing day to day. The left brain tends to be more analytic: it’s the half of the brain dedicated to processing verbal information, mathematics, and logical problem solving. Our left brain also helps keep us focused on immediate tasks. The right brain is the neglected side for many of us. It is the artistic or creative side of the brain, responsible for processing visuo-spatial information, music, emotions, and creative visualization.
You can do brain enhancing exercises to improve the abilities of both sides of the brain: for instance, if you want to strengthen your left-brained faculties, try doing some logic and word puzzles to sharpen those ever-important verbal abilities. Writing— even short pieces like blog comments, product reviews, etc.— can do wonders to help you learn sentence and paragraph structure, grammar, and will develop your outlining skills. Math-based puzzles like Sudoku also help develop the left brain.
The right brain responds well to novelty, it seems. Exercises to develop your right-brained abilities include doing normal tasks “illogically” or in a new way: you could get dressed with your eyes closed, or take a different route to work some mornings. Try playing a musical tune on the piano without sheet music, or singing a song from memory. To develop your visuo-spatial skills, try sketching something while looking at the object itself rather than your paper. These kinds of challenges can literally rewire your brain by encouraging it to grow new neural connections.
The capacity for memory and learning is a vital component of brain activity within any set of criteria for measuring brain power. Thus, an improvement in one’s memory absolutely registers as a useful measure of brain enhancement. Of the methods available for this nature of enhancement, the most effective may be a combination of memory and brain enhancement “exercises” like those above, and herbal supplements designed to aid the neurons as they both encode and recall information.