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5 ways to improve fluid intelligence (backed by research)

A popular quote says:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.”

What does this mean?

Simply put:

There are different kinds of intelligences, and we talk about it all the time. Some people are book smart, others are street smart; some are people smart, and others are emotional smart.

It was Raymond Cattell back in the 1960s who first dissected intelligence, identifying two types: crystallized and fluid.

Crystallized intelligence is everything that you learn and experience throughout your life, while fluid intelligence is your inherent problem-solving intuition.

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And the goal?

To increase both intelligences.

But while it might be simple to figure out how one can increase their crystallized intelligence—study, read books, do new and different things—it might be a bit more difficult learning how to open the door to your fluid intelligence.

However, research has found that it is possible after all.

So how do you increase your mind’s inherent ability to solve abstract problems and identify hidden patterns?

According to one researcher, Andrea Kuszewski, there are 5 ways you can exercise and improve your fluid intelligence.

We’ll discuss each one in this article.

But first…

Fluid Intelligence definition

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According to author and coach Christopher Bergland:

“Fluid intelligence is the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. Fluid intelligence involves the ability to identify patterns and relationships that underpin novel problems and to extrapolate these findings using logic.”

In short, fluid intelligence is your innate knowledge bank. Unlike crystallized intelligence, it cannot be improved by practice or learning.

Fluid intelligence, as one study puts it, is “our ability to creatively and flexibly grapple with the world in ways that do not explicitly rely on prior learning or knowledge.”

Psychologists think that fluid intelligence is handled by the parts of the brain like the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for attention short-term memory.

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So, in a world that relies on crystallized intelligence—acquiring skills, excelling in academics—how can you increase your fluid intelligence?

Read ahead.

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5 ways to improve fluid intelligence

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1) Think Creatively

What better way to make your brain more creative than by thinking creatively?

You have to think of your brain as a muscle, and like every other muscle in the body, it needs to be used and exercised before it rots away.

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And this means you have to think creatively, using every part of your brain regularly.

One study shows that highly-creative solve problems by using diffuse thinking processes, which allows the brain to analyze much more information at once.

Methodical people, on the other hand, focus their attentions more narrowly, which doesn’t allow the brain to digest as much information.

In short, creativity exercises your cognitive skills, which helps train your fluid intelligence.

By thinking in ways that go beyond our usual scope of thought, we train our brain to become greater than what we are now. This increases our ability to generate original ideas and develop new and unconventional thoughts.

2) Find New Things

As an adult, it’s so easy to fall into a routine. Before you know it, your New Year’s resolutions are once again brushed off for the next year.

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Even if you think you are in full control of your mind, routines can make you fall into a kind of trance—your brain works on auto-pilot while you drive to work, get your projects done, work on your usual hobbies and past times, and slowly but surely your life passes by.

This is why it’s so important to find new things. Introduce your mind to different activities, hobbies, and experiences.

This jumpstarts your brain into creating fresh synaptic connections in the brain, increasing what is known as your “neural plasticity”.

According to psychologist Sherrie Campbell:

“The unfamiliar gifts you with diverse experiences which vastly increase your knowledge. The brain responds to new things by creating new neural pathways. Each new pathway become stronger with repetition giving us new skills and strengths.”

The higher your neural plasticity, the more you can understand and store new information. According to Kuszewski, “Expand your cognitive horizons. Be a knowledge junkie.”

3) Socialize

As we fall into our routines, we also fall into the same social patterns.

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Our interactions generally become more and more limited as time goes on—our social circle naturally becomes smaller as we leave university, get married, and get a full-time job.

But by forcing yourself to continue meeting new people and introducing your brain to new opportunities and environments, you can keep your neural connections growing.

In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that socializing helps prevent memory loss and exercises cognitive skills.

The researchers concluded:

“Our study provides evidence that social integration delays memory loss among elderly Americans. Future research should focus on identifying the specific aspects of social integration most important for preserving memory.”

This might be the hardest part for those who have forgotten what it’s like to socialize, and according to Kuszewski, the harder it is, the better.

Other people naturally bring new challenges, and new challenges mean new problems that the brain has to solve.

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4) Keep the Challenges Coming

Regulars at the gym know the mantra: No pain, no gain. Every week they increase their weights, do harder workouts, and admire the improvements happening all over their body.

But for those focused on their brainpower, we don’t usually think of it the same way. We forget the importance of challenging our brain rather than just learning new things. But without this challenge, the brain will just learn to operate at a lesser degree.

In her article, Kuszewski talks about a 2007 study where participants were given a brain scan while they played a new video game for several weeks.

Researchers found that participants who had played the new game had increased cortical activity and cortical thickness, meaning their brain had become more powerful just by learning the new game.

When they were given the same test again on a game that was already familiar to them, there had now been a decline in both their cortical activity and thickness.

5) Don’t Take the Easy Way Out

Finally, perhaps the exercise you least want to hear: stop taking the easy way out. The modern world has made life incredibly easy. Translation software removes the need to learn languages,

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GPS devices mean you never have to use a map or remember a mental map ever again; and little by little, these conveniences that stop us from using our brain actually hurt us by doing exactly that: they prevent our brains from getting the exercise they need.

Technology writer Nicholas Carr even goes as far as to say that the internet is killing our brains.

He explains:

“We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.”

Sure, “googling” everything is easy and convenient, but we should all remember that the harder way of learning or of knowing things is much healthier to our brains.

Fluid intelligence examples

How do we use fluid intelligence, exactly? It might be hard to distinguish its uses from crystallized intelligence, but it is actually quite distinct.

Here are examples of how your fluid intelligence can be used:

  • Reasoning
  • Logic
  • Problem-solving
  • Identifying patterns
  • Filtering our irrelevant information
  • “Out of the box” thinking

Fluid intelligence is used in problems that don’t necessarily rely on pre-existing knowledge.

5 Things to do to make yourself smarter

You can run off with Andrea Kuszewski’s 5 steps to increase fluid intelligence and you’re good to go.

However, if you’re looking for more specific, simple, (and fun) things to help your brain get smarter, we’ve compiled 5 steps to do it.

1. Exercise

Neuroscience has proved time and time again that physical exercise also trains your brain.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that aerobic exercise helps improve cognitive function, while resistance training enhances memory and executive function.

This is because exercise increases your heart rate, which in turn increases blood flow to your brain, pumping much-needed oxygen to your brain.

The whole process leads to neurogenesis—the production of neurons to certain parts of your brain that control memory and cognitive thinking.

2. Meditation

Mindfulness meditation used to be exclusive to “new age” thinkers.

However, recently, meditation has been making grounds in the field of neuroscience.

A study conducted by Wake Forest University School of Medicine suggests that mindfulness meditation improves cognition, among a plethora of other benefits.

And you don’t even need to jump into a whole lifestyle change to reap its benefits. For as short as 20 minutes of meditation per day, you can experience lower stress and a significant boost in brainpower.

3. Learn a new language.

Another tip from neuroscience: learn a foreign language.

Trying to learn a completely new language is probably the most challenging brain exercise out there. You’ll be navigating a new set of grammatical rules, memorizing new words, combined with practicing, reading, and utilizing.

The whole endeavor literally makes your brain grow.

One study showed that it results in “structural changes in brain regions known to serve language functions.” Particularly, researches found that the cortical thickness and hippocampal areas of the brain increased in volume.

4. Play chess.

Chess is an ancient game. But there’s a reason why it’s still popular in the modern world.

There is perhaps no other game that requires complex brain usage as much as chess. When you play it, you need to tap into your problem-solving skills, concentration, and deduction skills.

These are skills that tap both sides of the brain, strengthening the corpus callosum.

A German study found that chess expert’s and novice’s brains are not only developed on the left side but the right hemisphere as well.

5. Get enough sleep.

We’re all told that we need to get 7 hours of sleep every day.

Yet, we all have trouble following this rule. In fact, 35% of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of sleep per night.

Between managing our jobs, loved ones, hobbies & interests, it’s challenging to manage enough time to sleep.

But getting enough time to rest is crucial, especially if you want to be smarter.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute:

“Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information.

Studies also show that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain. If you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency also has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.”

So the next time you decide to give up an hour of sleep for social media or something unimportant, think about the damage it does to your brain.

Too much crystallized intelligence can inhibit fluid intelligence

Today’s society and education system tend to focus too highly on learned intelligence—rewarding students for memorizing and digesting information or physical prowess rather than creativity and innate intelligence.

However, too much rigorous learning can inhibit fluid intelligence. Many experts believe that fluid intelligence shines through non-academic pursuits, rather than the tests and activities use in modern schools.

According to world-class endurance athlete, coach, and author Christopher Bergland:

“Many experts believe that one of the backlashes of overemphasizing standardized testing as part of ‘no child left behind’ is that young Americans are gaining crystallized intelligence at the expense of their fluid intelligence.

“Fluid intelligence is directly linked to creativity and innovation. The book smarts of crystallized intelligence can only take a person so far in the real world. Depriving children of recess and forcing them to sit still in a chair cramming for a standardized test literally causes their cerebellum to shrink and lowers fluid intelligence.”

It is especially important to nurture the growth of fluid intelligence in today’s modern world. After all, we live in a sedentary world where we don’t need to memorize our routes to work anymore.

Diligently working on our memory and cognitive skills are more crucial than ever.

Fluid and Crystallized Intelligences work together

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Fluid and Crystallized intelligence are very two distinct and specific types of brainpower. However, they often work together.

According to author and educational consultant Kendra Cherry:

“Fluid intelligence along with its counterpart, crystallized intelligence, are both factors of what Cattell referred to as general intelligence.

While fluid intelligence involves our current ability to reason and deal with complex information around us, crystallized intelligence involves learning, knowledge, and skills that are acquired over a lifetime.”

Let’s take skill-learning for an example. You use your fluid intelligence to process lesson manuals and comprehend instructions. But once you retain that knowledge in your long-term memory, you would need crystallized intelligence to act on and use that newfound skill.

Crystallized intelligence can be increased over time. If you’re keen enough, you can acquire and ìncrease crystallized intelligence in a lifetime.

Fluid intelligence is much harder and more complicated to improve. Fluid intelligence is known to decrease by age. In truth, scientists have previously debated whether or not it can be improved at all.

Still, the steps above can help. By increasing your cognitive skills and working on your memory, you can enhance fluid intelligence. Or at the least, stop it from degrading as you age.

***Do you want to be a stronger person? Do you want to stare down your challenges and overcome any obstacles? If so, check out our eBook: The Art of Resilience: A Practical Guide to Mental Toughness.

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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