Friday, May 11, 2012

Can you get smarter? Brain training, Nootropics and Intelligence.

People love super hero movies and comics.  Many of us wish we could pick up a car like the Hulk, or wield a magic hammer like Thor, but I suspect a lot of us also admire Tony Stark.  As Iron Man, Stark can fly and shrug off bullets, but when he takes off the armor suit, he's still a genius.  Batman is similar.  Take away the Kevlar suit and the wonderful toys, and Bruce Wayne is still the World's Greatest Detective.

Being very intelligent is a sort of super power in its own right.

Most of us would like to be smarter.  At some point in our lives we tackled a problem at school or work that brought us to the limit of our intelligence, and that's a humbling moment.

But what if we could get smarter?

Companies are pursuing that idea in two ways--drugs and brain training.

Nootropics, also called smart drugs, are drugs that are supposed to make people smarter.  Well, sort of.  Drug makers claim nootropics do all sorts of things, including improve your memory, up your attention span and concentration, and even make you smarter.

Testing these claims is not easy.  It's difficult for scientists, doctors and the rest of us to even agree on what intelligence is.  After all, there isn't just one type of IQ test, but rather many tests.  And taking a drug that makes you feel more alert isn't the same thing as actually being smarter.  In fact, with many of these products, it would be more accurate to say they are 'productivity enhancers' rather than smart drugs.  In the same way that a big cup of coffee or a bottle of Mountain Dew is a productivity enhancer.

Among the drugs there are all sorts of approaches, including vitamins and herbs, recreational drugs, stimulants, blood flow enhancers, mood stabilizers, etc.  And like any pharmaceutical maker, these companies are looking to make money.

People tempted to experiment with Nootropics might consider that in many cases, there are no long-term studies of their effects, and little regulation of their safety and dosage. 

Brain training appears to be the safer route.  No nasty chemicals in your head, and scientists keep telling us that the brain is like a muscle.  Various companies offer training regimens that claim to increase our working memory, fluid intelligence and brain plasticity. 

I think if you train at a specific task, you generally get better at it.  You can practice counting cards in a Blackjack game or memorizing as many digits of Pi as you can, and you'll get better at that task.  But is this the same as being smarter?

Maintaining what you have may be a more realistic goal.  People that do crossword puzzles or study a new language or learn to play a musical instrument are definitely helping their brains stay sharp.  But I call that maintenance, not an increase in actual intelligence.

People looking for a magic pill or program to make them smart will probably be disappointed.  As the authors of SMART DRUGS 2 point out:  

"In practice, the first and most boring advice is often the most important. Many potential users of smart pills would be better and more simply advised to stop taking tranquillisers (sic), sleeping tablets or toxic recreational drugs; eat omega-3 rich foods, more vegetables and generally improve their diet; and try more mentally challenging tasks.

One of the easiest ways of improving memory, for instance, is to increase the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain. This can be achieved by running, swimming, dancing, brisk walking,..."

That sounds like pretty smart advice to me.       

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(Sources:  Wikipedia overview of Nootropics.  An article in The Atlantic wherein the author self-experiments with Nootropics.  The "Smart Drugs 2" page.  And a company called Lumosity that offers brain training.)

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