20150702

"I’d like to raise my IQ. Where do I start?"

Dear Dumbass: I’d like to raise my IQ. Where do I start?

Do you want to raise your IQ or actually become smarter? They’re not the same thing.

IQ tests are designed to be taken cold, with no training, like the SAT (which was originally intended to be an IQ-type test). These days, of course, most people prep for the SAT, and similarly, you can get better at IQ tests by practicing.

But why would you want to? High IQ doesn’t carry much prestige. Bragging about IQ is about as likely to help someone hook up as posing with a tiger cub on Tinder.

Let’s assume you have good reason to look into this. Maybe your kid needs to hit a certain percentile on an IQ test to qualify for a gifted education program – that’s how the LA public schools do it. If so, try to find out which test your kid will be given – LA used to use Raven’s Progressive Matrices – and go online to find practice versions. Have a couple of half-hour practice sessions with your kid to familiarize her with the format and what kinds of solutions to look for. A little practice when you know what test is coming can be worth 20 IQ points.

Likewise, you can beat the SAT with many dozens of practice sessions over months and years. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on tutors, take a huge series of practice tests. The makers of the SAT used to claim that you can’t study for it, but this was based on people not studying enough. They don’t claim that anymore.

To be good at the SAT, become familiar with everything they might throw at you. This can mean going through thousands of problems. Use books of old official SATs, which you can buy on Amazon or eBay. (Unofficial SAT problems are often too slapdash to use.) Start taking practice tests early – ninth or tenth grade or even earlier. Your total score should gradually increase by hundreds of points. I know people who’ve taken 20, 30, even 80 practice tests. It’s a lot of work but effective; hardcore preppers get into kick-ass schools. Many test prep companies offer free diagnostic SATs. Or you can take a free practice PSAT, which won’t waste as much of your Saturday. The SAT has been redesigned for 2016, but most of it has stayed the same.

Back to IQ. Googling “free IQ test” returns links to more than 20 tests of varying quality. Try a few quick tests; don’t buy the deluxe diagnostics they try to sell you, and take the results with a grain of salt. Games and sites such as Brain Age, Lumosity and Big Brain Academy offer timed practice on tasks which are similar if not identical to many of the tasks used to measure IQ on professionally administered tests such as the WAIS, WISC and Stanford-Binet. If you train diligently for these tasks, your IQ scores should go up. Does this reflect a real increase in intelligence? Probably not to any great extent. Will doing leg presses every day make you a better figure skater? Maybe, but there’s so much more involved in a triple Lutz.

What if you’d like to do more than just beat IQ tests? I think you can gradually increase your actual intelligence. The primary way to do this is to get in the habit of thinking and analyzing. Most people believe they’re always thinking whenever they’re awake. But there’s a difference between thinking and perceiving. If you’re just letting life wash over you, as when you’re numbly watching Wheel of Fortune without trying to solve the puzzles, you’re not really thinking.

You may have noticed the difference in brain function between normal perception and that wrapped-in-cotton feeling you get when you’re drunk or high or exhausted. That’s kind of like the difference between active thinking and passive perceiving.

Here are some ways to nudge yourself into doing more thinking:
  1. Read extensively and pursue topics across multiple sources. The internet has changed how we read. We now retrieve facts quickly and narrowly, which is convenient but not sufficient for building robust thinking skills. Widen your pursuit of information. Read the entire Wikipedia article. Click on some of the links. Get a library card.
  2. Find big, tough questions that require long-term thought. What will daily life be like 50 years from now? How might we prove or disprove the existence of God? How can I become more effective in interpersonal interactions? Are people basically good? Take some aspect of your life about which you have a little curiosity, and see if you can pull some big questions out of it. Return to these questions whenever your brain isn’t otherwise occupied (during traffic jams or bad sex, for instance).
  3. Play “What if?” games. I like to pretend I’m Ben Franklin or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen, suddenly experiencing the world through my senses. Each imaginary historical figure has to figure out when, where, and who their new host body is and what the world has turned into. This is weird, but so is NFL players high-stepping through tires. Hypotheticals imposed on everyday life are mental pushups.
  4. If you’re always on the internet or social media, look for mental challenges there. You can try tweeting. Twitter forces users to express their thoughts in 140 characters or less. Follow people who use Twitter to express actual thoughts, not just reports on moods or meals or 20%-off deals. Looking at the world and asking yourself “Is there a tweet in this?” forces you to make observations.
  5. Build up your analogy muscles. Geniuses and comedians and poets and pundits make connections between different areas of experience. Paul Cooijmans, who theorizes about intelligence, calls this “associative horizon.” It’s being good at saying “This is like that.”
And here are a few general tips on laying the groundwork for genius:
  1. Be healthy. If your body works like crap, so does your brain. Exercise, get enough sleep, eat less junk. Take a baby aspirin every day. Floss. Try brain-boosting drugs if you want – the only one I know that works for sure is coffee. (Doesn’t make you smarter, just more alert.)
  2. Stay abreast of tech. Natural-born intelligence becomes less important as we become smarter via our devices. Future people will be smarter than us because they’ll have smarter devices. Tech enables not-so-smart people to stupidly text in the middle of crosswalks but also helps smart people get even smarter. Eventually we’ll have tech installed in our bodies, and people will brag about their machine brain/meat brain ratio. The tech-savvy will have more and more of an advantage.
  3. Learn to think like a genius. Instead of letting experience just flow over you, get in the habit of asking yourself “Why?” and “How?” Geniuses like to say they’re not smarter than other people, they just ask more questions and work more persistently to answer those questions. (This is the genius equivalent of supermodels saying they were ugly in middle school.)