Getting smarter

If only there were a pill. Also: gratitude, recipes(?), and 7 other things worth your time.

Thank you and welcome once again to all of our new subscribers over the last 24 hours. I’m glad you’re here. Please share this newsletter with friends and family, and maybe even suggest that they might want to sign up, too. The link is right below.


I like to think I'm a pretty smart guy. But, we all do stupid things sometimes.

I'm reminded of the half hour I once spent searching frantically for my glasses, only to realize they were perched on the brim of my baseball cap.

Writing in The New York Times a few years back, Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, examined the current state of scientific thought on whether we can truly train ourselves to be smarter.

While “cognitive decline is a nearly universal feature of aging,” he set out to survey whether we can get any of that brainpower back.

With that in mind, here are some of the keys to understanding what science says you can (and can't) do to increase your intelligence.

1. Brainteasers work—but maybe just at making you better at brainteasers.

Friedman starts by citing a British study that divided a group of students into four classes and tested how well they performed on tests after various forms of brain training and games.

“Although improvements were observed … there was no evidence that brain training made people smarter. Scores on the benchmark test, for which subjects could not train, did not significantly increase at the end of the study.”

However, participants over 60 years old showed more increase in performance than younger people. A later study with older participants, he writes, showed that “continued brain training helps older subjects maintain the improvement in verbal reasoning seen in the earlier study.”

2. Believing you can improve helps—at least with younger brains.

This sounds familiar, right? When it comes to younger people especially, studies have shown that simply convincing them that they can improve their intelligence can create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they perform better on intelligence tests.

3. Physical exercise and avoiding depression

Seriously, when in life does physical exercise not help?

In the case of developing brains, the idea is that it can promote the physical growth of neurons. Researchers tested the effects of resistance, aerobic, and balance exercises on groups of people who had “mild cognitive impairment,” Friedman writes, and found that “both resistance and aerobic training …. improved equally on spatial memory.”

Separately, major depressive episodes can negatively affect intelligence, and can decrease the presence of a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.”

Friedman: The solution could potentially lie in antidepressant medication, which, “aside from making people feel better...can block the depression-induced drop in BDNF.”

4. As for other drugs--it's complicated.

If science fiction promises a simple pill that can increase brain size and intelligence, we’re not there yet. But, drugs like Ritalin and Adderall can make people feel more intelligent by increasing focus and making “the world feel more interesting by releasing dopamine in key brain circuits,” Friedman says.

Beyond that, the jury is out, although there is some evidence that these drugs can make it easier to “to recall previously learned information--an effect that might confer some advantage in the real world.”

5. Having good human relationships increases brainpower.

The one sure thing that seems to help increase brainpower, according to Friedman, is having better relationships with other people. For example, a Harvard professor tracked 17,000 people who were at least 50 years old, over a six-year period--periodically giving them intelligence tests along the way.

"The results showed that people with the highest level of social integration had less than half the decline in their cognitive function of the least socially active subjects," Friedman writes.

So where does all this leave us? It's pretty simple: “Forget the smart drugs and supplements; put on your shorts and go exercise. If you're 60 and up, consider brain training. And do it all with your friends.”


Gratitude — and recipes?

Thanks to everyone who responded to my question about gratitude, and what you’re thankful for this year. So far, we’re getting exactly what I’d hoped for. There’s still time—just reply to this email if you’d like to share, for possible inclusion in a column later this week.

I also had another idea. It’s about food.

I was thinking, are there foods, or recipes you especially enjoy at Thanksgiving? And would you want to share them (and the recipes)? Especially since many of us are staying local and celebrating with fewer people (but see below), I thought it might be interesting to ask.

I have no idea how many replies I’ll get to this, and time is kind of short. But if people reply to this email with some of them today, I’ll see if I can find a way to compile them for Wednesday (ahead of the holiday, in case anyone wants to try any of them).


7 other things worth your time

  • Maybe this is the end? Without conceding, President Trump said he’s “recommending” that the government proceed with “initial protocols” of the transition to President-elect Biden’s administration. Meanwhile, Secret Service agents assigned to Trump are being asked if they’d like to transfer to Florida. (Twitter, NPR, ABC News)

  • Western Union abruptly closed its 407 locations across Cuba after 20 years on Monday, driven by new U.S. sanctions. It’s a big deal because such a large portion of the island relies on remittances from family members in America, especially with almost zero tourism during the pandemic. (AP)

  • President-elect Biden named more cabinet picks: Janet Yellen for Treasury and Alejandro Mayorkas for Homeland Security. Jake Sullivan will be the national security advisor (no Senate confirmation required), and former Secretary of State John Kerry will be climate czar. (Washington Post, CNN)

  • Thanksgiving travel is down from last year — but still, it’s nowhere near zero. In fact, “the 3 million who went through U.S. airport checkpoints from Friday through Sunday marked the biggest crowds since mid-March.” (AP)

  • The head of security for Apple and two top officials with the sheriffs office in Santa Clara, where Apple’s headquarters is located, are among those charged in a scheme to trade $70,000 worth of iPads in exchange for California permits to carry concealed firearms. (The Verge)

  • There’s a thing in the military called “challenge coins,” which are basically sourvenirs or mementoes that commanders can hand out. They’ve taken on a life of their own outside the military, too. But in my continuing effort to one day be able to say “now I’ve seen everything,” I present the challenge coins apparently used by security guards at Disneyland, completely with a red white and blue Mickey Mouse in the shape of the Punisher. (Task & Purpose)

  • Survey: Average child asks for a pet 1,584 times before turning 18. (The Dad)

I’ve written before about this study at Inc.com. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com. 

And of course, please share Understandably! Seriously, if you’ve wondered, What can I do to help Bill? That’s the #1 thing I need—for people who enjoy this newsletter to encourage friends and family to sign up as well. Thank you!

Share Understandably

One-click review and feedback: