Why Doing Things the Hard Way Can Help Power Your Brain

Build “fluid intelligence” to stay more focused and productive.

Posted in , Jan 5, 2022

Thinking hard

Many of us want to start the new year with a fresh energy to be focused, productive and successful. It’s reductive to say it so plainly, but it’s also accurate to consider a lot of New Year’s resolutions are about trying to get smarter.

Neuroscientists distinguish between types of intelligence. “Crystallized intelligence” is concrete, measurable learning, like a child who’s learned their times tables or the capital cities of every state in America. Crystallized intelligence is cumulative, and it builds as we deepen our learning and understanding of facts, figures and concepts. 

For a productive, positive New Year, though, we might be—ahem—wise to focus on “fluid intelligence.” Like the name implies, fluid intelligence is the ability to apply information to a wide range of situations. When we use our fluid intelligence, we draw on our memories and use what we’ve learned in the past to help us solve a problem in the present. This is the type of intelligence that enables us to think flexibly, change our perspective in light of new understandings and apply our past experiences and knowledge to new challenges and situations. 

Behavioral therapist Andrea Kuszewski wrote in Scientific American, “Fluid intelligence is trainable….the more you train, the more you gain.”

So how can we “train” ourselves to improve fluid intelligence? Kuszewski outlines principles that, when practiced regularly, encourage our brains to remain lithe. Among these are to seek out novelty, challenging our brains to navigate new-to-us situations (as opposed to doing the same “brain training” activities every day) and thinking creatively, both by taking on explicitly creative projects like artwork and also by opening our minds to new ways to take on old tasks. 

But my favorite suggestion of Kuszewski’s is to increase fluid intelligence by “doing things the hard way.” She writes, “Efficiency is not your friend if you are trying to increase your intelligence.” Tools like using a GPS to guide us on every driving trip are helpful and even sanity-saving when we’re in new places. But it’s also the kind of “efficiency” that lets our brains off the hook when we need to get ourselves from A to B.

On a regular basis, try switching off the GPS and navigate to a new destination using your memory or consultation of a map before you leave. Give yourself plenty of time and embrace the opportunity to course-correct when you make a wrong turn. And know that even if you feel frustrated, you are investing your energy in fluid intelligence—a strength you will be able to draw on throughout the year.

What other opportunities do you see to “do things the hard way” to keep your brain sharp?

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