The majority of my patients are over the age of 40 – the age when fluid intelligence starts to decline and crystallized intelligence dominates. Right about now you’re likely thinking, what the heck is fluid and crystallized intelligence? Well, that’s what I’d like to explain to you. If you’re over the age of 40, you can optimize your fluid intelligence, boost brain function and stay younger, longer.
Fluid versus Crystallized Intelligence
Abstract reasoning and solving problems are parts of your intelligence that are ongoing throughout your life. However, psychologists like Raymond Cattell and John Horn say that we’re able to do these things differently when we’re younger and our fluid intelligence, as they’ve named it, dominates. We do this without the benefit of experience or specific education about whatever information we want to process.
Once we get older, however, crystallized intelligence takes over, the Cattell-Horn theory says, and we abstract reason and problem solve more by using prior knowledge, education and experience. Also, the fluid intelligence of our younger years seems to decline past the age of 40 and our crystallized intelligence starts to dominate. However, we can still use both types of intelligence, say, when we have to solve a math problem. You have to use fluid intelligence to figure out the strategy to solve the math problem and then use crystallized intelligence to recall the right math formula needed.
Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks
If fluid intelligence declines past 40 and crystallized intelligence continues to grow throughout the remainder of life, does that mean that we’re incapable of processing new information like we did when we were younger? No, it just means that as we get older, we tend to rely on what we already know as a basis for in-taking new information rather than creating the wheel, so to speak, as when we were younger.
Our fluid intelligence is still there and able to be used – we just don’t use it very much. Kind of like those bikes we used to ride more when we were kids. We still know how to ride them – but our bike riding skills are likely going unused more often now. For many of us, our gathering of new information, learning about it, retaining it, using it, etc can fall into a rut.
Our fluid intelligence skills, like our bike skills, can get more and more rusty as we get older. Our crystallized intelligence takes over and our brains just kind of function on auto-pilot, processing information automatically according to what we already know.
However, recent cognitive research has proven that there are ways to “teach an old dog new tricks”, boosting brain power and memory by stimulating our fluid intelligence capabilities again. The research has shown that fluid intelligence, like any other skill, is trainable, and the more you train, the stronger it gets. According to behavior therapist, Andrea Kuszewski, there are specific ways to stimulate and strengthen your fluid intelligence. Here’s how:
1. Novelty. Set out to learn about something you have no prior knowledge of. This can be as complicated as astronomy or as simple as replacing tile in your bathroom. Open yourself to new experiences of learning. This helps your brain make dopamine, a pleasure chemical, and stimulates the growth of new neuron connections. The upshot is, your brain likes, and thrives on, learning new things.
2. Challenge yourself. In physical exercise, the concept of “muscle confusion” is successful as it constantly challenges the body to respond to new movements, thereby strengthening it. The same is true for your brain and cognitive abilities. Playing “brain games” are great, but once you master them move on to another and master it. Keep challenging your brain to strengthen itself.
3. Think creatively. Use both sides of your brain to make associations to solve a problem or learn something new. Draw input from both conventional and unconventional thinking. In short, don’t rely on your crystallized intelligence to figure it out.
4. Take the Hard Way. We’ve all learned more efficient ways of doing things. However, next time, try doing something a less efficient way to stimulate problem solving and get your brain off auto-pilot. For example, instead of using Map Quest, or your GPS, buy a road map, get a bright red pen, and map out your destination yourself.
5. Socialize. Network or join new groups outside your realm of knowledge to gain different perspectives on the world. Meeting new people and entering their environment stimulates your fluid intelligence/cognitive thinking by getting you out of a rut. It allows you to gain different perspectives from different people and challenge your own thinking.
As I tell my patients, to keep your brain and your memory functioning in a youthful way, it’s important to give it regular ‘exercise’ the same as you do the rest of your body. Challenging your brain to learn and experience new things does the same thing for your cognitive functioning as using different muscle training exercises does for your body – it stimulates brain health and growth. It also stimulates “feel good” dopamine hormones in your brain that helps fight depression, lowers stress and cortisol levels that makes you irritable and short-circuits memory.
Figure out something new to do, or learn, every week, even if it’s just taking a different way to work or going somewhere different for lunch. Allow yourself to meet and experience people with different perspectives that will stimulate your fluid intelligence ability. Your brain will love you for it and I know you’ll feel more energized!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximize your Cognitive Potential, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/03/07/you-can-increase-your-intelligence-5-ways-to-maximize-your-cognitive-potential/
Fluid Intelligence vs. Crystallized Intelligence, http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/a/fluid-crystal.htm