Want To Think Faster? Here’s How.

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

Smart young people are justifiably confident in their ability to remember an enormous amount of information and call it up quickly. What’s more, they’re probably confident that they can grasp new concepts and learn their intricacies quickly — abilities that are virtually imperative in today’s world of rapid technological change.

Smart older people who have spent a lifetime learning and storing that information may be frustrated with a declining ability to process new information. In fact, they may deny a decline in their ability. But self-denial in the face of reality is probably the root of their frustration. They may be happier, and in the end more productive, if they embrace the natural change in their cognitive abilities.

Researchers have long recognized that there are different types of intelligence. Two that are directly related to age are fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. In his book, From Strength to Strength, Harvard Professor Arthur C. Brooks says, “If you are experiencing decline in fluid intelligence – and if you are my age, you are – it doesn’t mean you are washed up. It means it is time to jump off the fluid intelligence curve and onto the crystallized intelligence curve. Those who fight against time are trying to bend the old curve instead of getting onto the new one. But it is almost impossible to bend, which is why people are so frustrated, and usually unsuccessful.”

But what about people who are not at Brooks’ advanced age? What about younger people who are still in the prime age to optimize their fluid intelligence? Are there any ways to enhance their fluid intelligence? In researching the subject for Inc.com, Jeff Haden believes he has identified an answer, in part based on a study in the journal Intelligence.

First, Haden offers a reason for wanting to enhance your fluid intelligence in the first place: “Fluid intelligence is the ability to learn and retain new information — but also to use that knowledge to solve a problem, to learn a new skill, to recall existing memories and modify them with new knowledge… In short, to have ‘applied intelligence.’” Using fluid intelligence to store ever greater amounts of new information, in other words, is only the start — the goal is to improve your ability to use that information in your job or your personal life.

There is one fundamental way to enhance your fluid intelligence: “To keep improving your fluid intelligence,” Haden writes, “once you master a new process, a new routine, a new skill, a new anything, you need to focus on learning something else. The key is to stay uncomfortable and keep challenging yourself.

“Then you get to double-dip. You gain new knowledge, new skill, and new experience, and you keep your brain ‘bulked up’ since it’s forced to continue forging new neural connections.

“That double-dip also makes it easier to keep getting smarter at a biological and neurological level. The more you know, the more you can leverage the power of associative learning, the process of relating something new to something you already know. In simple terms, associated learning is like saying, ‘I get it: (This) is basically like (that).’ The more you learn, the more likely you will be able to associate ‘old’ knowledge with new things. 

“This means you only have to learn differences or nuances, and will be able to apply additional context —context that also helps with memory storage and retrieval — to the new information you learn.”

Pushing yourself to constantly keep learning, then, is the best way to keep sharp and increase your store of knowledge. Younger people who do this will find themselves with a much greater store of knowledge to draw upon — gracefully and willingly, as Brooks would encourage — when they inevitably reach the stage where the most productive thing they can do is call upon and leverage that crystallized knowledge. Or, as Brooks sums it up: “When you are young, you have raw smarts; when you are old, you have wisdom. When you are young, you can generate lots of facts; when you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them.”