Brain Health,

#006: Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman on Making Your Brain Smarter

January 19, 2013

In this week’s episode, Jesse talks with Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist and the founder and Chief Director of The Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her new book, Make Your Brain Smarter, shares information based on the latest quantitative studies (including her own research) on how to exercise and strengthen your brain across your life span, starting from any age.  Stick around post-interview to get scared out of your local nail salon during our Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick.

Re-Wiring Our Brains: Are We Doing It Wrong?

Sandra Bond Chapman explains how IQ is a flawed system for measuring real-world intelligence, defined more for the convenience of test-writers than for human thinkers. “The construct of IQ was developed hundreds of years ago…when knowledge wasn’t as quickly accessible as it is today,” says Chapman.

“IQ has done a serious job of putting a lid on our potential. We haven’t even begun to tap our potential of the human.”  Chapman describes how she believes our brains are essentially “wired” to deal with change. Our brain is able to store and recall vast amounts of information — but information storage and retrieval is among the least of its abilities, and one that is sadly the focus of much of the current educational system.  “We are almost re-wiring our brain for the opposite of what’s needed today,” says Chapman.  Despite the omnipresence of computer-based info storage and retrieval systems (and even good old pencil and paper), our learning system emphasizes memorization instead of transformative, creative thinking – something inherently engaging to our brains and an area where humans still excel in ways our computers don’t.

“Phenomenal results” is how Dr. Chapman explains the outcome of testing of her brain training on teenage students, in which students weren’t taught what to learn, but instead a way of learning. The students were followed and their real-world achievements measured four years later, when researchers found 75% were in two or three advanced placement classes and 85% were on track to graduate.  In Dallas, where the testing was done, the average for high school students is 46%.

Making Your Brain Smarter

Have you ever said you felt ‘brain dead?’ Turns out your brain can get stymied from overload. Dr. Chapman describes how information overload can do the opposite of optimizing your brain: brain scans reveal our brains look the same when experiencing information overload as when experiencing boredom. The solution?  Focused, selective attention on one thing at a time – less multitasking, more focus, and ample mental “rest periods” of undirected, daydreaming.

If you’re good at blocking out excess information, you are in a better position to develop your brain.  However, blocking excessive sensory information takes mental energy that could be focused intentionally, so choosing the right work environment can still provide a huge productivity boost.  Her book offers strategies for readers to practice and develop “Strategic Attention” and block off-subject information so your brain can avoid overload. What else can we do for our brain?

“Our brain loves sleep. A lot of our brain activity continues into our resting phase. Your brain will consolidate information when it’s resting,” says Chapman. She describes how our brains almost become more creative when resting and allow for deeper thought and net gains in innovation and insight.  A full night’s sleep helps us think better, as do mid-day naps.

Your Brain: So Much More Than a Storage Device

As gadgets get smarter, are they stealing our smarts?  Jesse asks Dr. Chapman her opinion on whether our newfangled devices which store information are saving our brains too much labor, keeping us from exercising our brains.

“We have got to stop using our brains as this vast storage bin for information retrieval.”  Chapman passionately explains how the brain is capable of so much more, and how it wants to process, examine and transform information at a much higher level. Taxing your brain’s energy for memory and storage is counterproductive in today’s world, when technology can handle this lowest-level “thinking” for us.  She details how a study she conducted revealed how learners using rote memorization didn’t understand concepts, or even retain information, as well as those taught learning techniques based on broader conceptualization and transformative thinking.

“You don’t have to read brain science or learn calculus to get smarter… You can move away from rote thinking and engage your frontal lobes…by transform[ing] information in ways that are meaningful,” Chapman explains.  Make Your Brain Smarter details Chapman’s methods to practice and encourage this kind of thinking, regardless of age, to improve working intelligence continuously throughout a lifetime.

The crux of her brain optimization philosophy?  “Thinking is really the best food for thought,” Chapman concludes.

This Week in Neuroscience: “Exercise, Not Puzzles, May Protect Aging Brain”

According to a study from the University of Edinburgh, a recent series of brain MRIs done on patients born in 1936 found that exercise is the most important factor in protecting the brain as it ages. Those test subjects who had more exercise experienced less brain atrophy and possessed greater volume of grey matter, which are the “thinking brain cells.” It may not even matter which type of exercise one chooses as much as how many total calories overall are being burned.

Read the full article here.

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  1. brandon says:

    Liked this episode. Very insightful. can you talk about the racetam drug family one of these episodes.

  2. brandon says:

    Liked this episode. Very insightful. can you talk about the racetam drug family one of these episodes.

  3. ben says:

    Regarding a different approach to education, there is a great documentary called Class Dismissed. It’s not so much about how memorization or IQ tests are bad, but just a very different approach to teaching in general. I believe Alt-School in the bay area has adopted this format.

    Interestingly, Sam Harris in his most recent podcast with Richard Dawkins mentions that while IQ is not comprehensive, studies have shown it has value, but it’s become politically correct to say IQ is invalid and/or has prejudices (1h6m mark).

    I wish more was said about creativity and intelligence via mind expanding drugs, like psilocybin.. perhaps tbi and mushroom expert Dan Eagle might be a worthy guest!

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