One reason people may find discussing intelligence uncomfortable is the belief that it is something you are born with and so you can do nothing to influence it. This undercuts social equality and feeds into the link between intelligence testing and eugenics, which still looms large for many.

  • Exercise:
    the brain generates new neurons when you exercise, and interestingly, even if you take long walks.
  • Thinking:
    once neurogenesis is achieved through exercise, the newly-minted neurons die out naturally unless you strengthen them. This is done when you push your brain to its limits, like solving tough mathematical problems, write a non-trivial computer program, write philosophy, and so forth.
  • Mirroring:
    the brain has mirror neurons that pick up at the subconscious level whatever it finds in its vicinity. If you are surrounded by smart, intelligent, and wise people, you will slowly become more and more like them. The converse is true too, so avoiding morons is imperative.
  • Sleep:
    when you sleep at night, and early, getting 8 hours and waking up without an alarm clock, you allow your brain to optimally function.
  • Brain food:
    certain foods are superfoods for the brain. Dried wolfberries for overall mental optimization, blueberries for enhancing memory, and walnuts for repair, for instance. Have 5 walnuts a week, at the very least. Look, it even looks like your brain. If you can’t have walnuts, consume fish, twice a week.
  • De-stressing:
    stress reduces brain plasticity, causing mental retardation (you will make bad choices), suggestibility (you will usually agree to whatever people say), and ultimately depression (you will begin to despise yourself). On the flip side, removing stress from your life increases and improves your brain capacity and function. How to de-stress? Avoid the potential sources of stress instead of forcing yourself not to re-act is one method. Another is exercising and building muscle, as muscles absorb your daily stress, leaving your brain free and intact.
  • Reading:
    updating the cognitive riches of your mind can have long-lasting and life-changing benefits. Read great books by excellent authors, and see for yourself how quickly you will begin to see the world through the new lenses acquired from your readings.
  • Love:
    yes, indeed. Having love in your life (when you hug your loved one) causes the brain to release oxytocin—the feel-good neuro-chemical—which improves brain function and strengthens your willpower. If you have trouble with human love, get yourself a pet, a cat will do. Cats show humans a great deal of love and are lovable creatures.

For many years, the search for specific intelligence genes proved unfruitful. Recently, however, genetic studies have grown big and powerful enough to identify at least some of the genetic underpinnings of IQ. Although each gene associated with intelligence has only a minuscule effect in isolation, the combined effect of the 500-odd genes identified so far is quite substantial.

“We are still a long way from accounting for all the heritability,” says Plomin, “but just in the last year we have gone from being able to account for about 1 percent of the variance to maybe 10 percent.”

So genes matter, but they are certainly not destiny. “Genetics gives us a blueprint – it sets the limits. But it is the environment that determines where within those limits a person develops,” says psychologist Russell Warne at Utah Valley University.

“About 50 percent of the difference in intelligence between people is due to genetics”

Consider the height, another highly heritable trait. Children will grow taller if they eat a nutritious diet than if they eat a less nutritious one because a good diet helps them achieve their full genetic potential. Likewise with intelligence.

Iodine deficiency during childhood is associated with lower IQ, and addressing this in developing countries has boosted cognitive skills. So too has treating parasitic worms and removing lead from petrol.

Other environmental influences on IQ are not as obvious. Cases of abuse and neglect aside, twin studies reveal that the shared family environment has only a very small effect on cognitive ability. Plomin, therefore, suspects that intelligence has less to do with parenting style than chance.

“It’s idiosyncratic factors that make a difference,” he says, “like the kid becomes ill or something like that – but even then, children tend to bounce back to their genetic trajectory.”

There are many more but this answer will become too long otherwise. 

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