The brain is like any other muscle in your body: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Here are 14 surefire ways to become smarter every day by nourishing your intellect.
For a long time, it was believed that intelligence was set in genetic stone – you were either born smart or you weren’t. Research now tells us that this isn’t the case and that our brains are far more malleable than previously imagined, able to continually remodel itself and adapt to changes in the environment (a concept known as neuroplasticity). As such, we are capable of becoming smarter – or dumber – through the actions we take and the environments we subject ourselves to daily.
While different cultures uphold different understandings of what being ‘smart’ looks like, from quick-wittedness to straight As to emotional awareness, intelligence generally refers to the ability to acquire, retain, and apply knowledge in new or trying situations – all of which can be trained. So without further ado, here are 14 powerful ways to increase your mental horsepower and become smarter every day.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the best ways to supercharge your brainpower is by reading. Indeed, some of the world’s most successful business leaders, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Oprah Winfrey, are also voracious readers, ploughing through up to 50 books a year. It doesn’t matter if you choose fiction or non-fiction, poetry or your local newspaper, the benefits of reading, especially out loud, are the same. These include vocabulary expansion, improved memory and analytical skills, an increased attention span, and lower risk of age-related cognitive decline. Well-read people also have an edge when it comes to relationships, as exposure to a variety of descriptors for navigating complex events and characters (real or not) makes them more capable of holding emotionally intelligent conversations. For that extra challenge, try reading outside your usual genre from time to time – you might just surprise yourself!
Need some book recommendations to get you started? Check our Hive Life’s curation of books to read while killing time at home.
Diversify your day
There’s a lot to be said about the power of routine in cementing smart habits, but maximising your cognitive potential also requires some degree of novelty and unpredictability, lest we become stagnant. ‘Novel’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘outlandish’; rather, it means pushing yourself to do things differently from how you’ve always done them. That might be brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, switching up your playlist, ordering food from a new restaurant, or taking a different route to work. By venturing outside your comfort zone, your brain responds with heightened senses and neuroplasticity, triggering a kind of ‘flow state’ – a state of effortless creativity and complete immersion in an activity.
Eat brain foods
Our brains are energy hogs. Despite making up only 2 per cent of the body’s weight, they consume over 20 per cent of our daily calorie intake – more than any other organ. A picky eater, it demands a constant supply of glucose and fat (specifically, unsaturated ‘good’ fats) to stay in tip-top shape. Your best starting point should involve the heavyweights: avocados, salmon, dark leafy greens, and nuts, such as almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts. Each of these are packed with vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids – essential for staving off ‘brain fog’ and memory loss. Other brain-boosting superfoods to incorporate into your diet include olive oil, dark chocolate, blueberries, beetroot, turmeric, matcha green tea, and coffee.
Have you ever noticed that when you’re hungry, you feel mentally sharper? Contrary to popular belief, skipping breakfast or practising time-restricted eating (intermittent fasting) can actually be good for you as it primes your brain for peak performance – a phenomenon known as ‘empty-stomach intelligence’, which likely helped early hunter-gatherers survive. Put simply, when we are in a fasted state, our bodies switch from glucose to fat cells as an alternative source of fuel. This causes growth hormone levels, including brain protein BDNF, to skyrocket by as much as five-fold, promoting new neural networks and improved memory.
Move your body
The neuroscience is clear: people who exercise regularly have higher IQ scores and are generally more productive than their sedentary counterparts. Whether you’re an athlete, gym rat, or brisk walker, carving out as little as 30 minutes of physical activity a day can do wonders for your brain because it releases ‘feel-good chemicals’ such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins – all of which lead to less stress, sharper focus, and more energy. During exercise, a greater amount of oxygen also reaches your prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control. We recommend putting on a podcast or audiobook to help pass time and make the most of a sweat session!
If you’re feeling like you haven’t exercised in forever, you’re not alone. From pilates to the Nike training app, these 8 best fitness channels and apps will help you get off the couch and into a home workout routine.
Allow yourself to daydream
As it turns out, not all minds that wander are lost. Despite being associated with ‘laziness’, we spend almost 50 per cent of our waking life daydreaming. In fact, researchers maintain that such spontaneous forms of cognition point to a strong working memory (the ability to juggle multiple thoughts at once), and can even spark new insights into problems or tasks by allowing them to ‘marinate’ in our subconscious minds. Giving ourselves permission to disconnect and indulge in a little wishful thinking also offers significant personal rewards, such as self-awareness, creative incubation, improvisation, future planning, and reflective compassion. So instead of beating yourself up the next time you zone out in a meeting, give yourself a pat on the back!
Establish a meditation routine
Of course, always having your head in the clouds won’t do you any favours either. While meditation (and its cousin, mindfulness) has been around since the dawn of time, neuroscientists have only recently started to understand the benefits of it, including increased self-awareness, reduced anxiety, and improved concentration, to name a few. Being able to observe your ‘monkey mind’ without judgement and fully inhabit the present moment, in turn, raises fluid intelligence – the capacity to solve new problems on the spot. It also slows brain activity, ushering in what’s known as the alpha or theta state where creativity is heightened. Luckily, you don’t have to sit cross-legged in a room full of incense for hours to see the results. Just 10-20 minutes of meditation a day – whether guided or silent, through music or mantra – should do the trick.
Get enough shut-eye
In a world where busyness is worn as a badge of honour, it’s easy to overlook nature’s ultimate brain booster: sleep. We all know that a good night’s sleep – seven to nine hours per night for adults – is essential for our mental and physical recovery, and yet Asian countries consistently rank among the most sleep-deprived in the world.
The human brain is made up of approximately 86 billion neurons. When we sleep, our brains rejig the synapses between these neurons, consolidating new memories and strengthening our ability to learn, make decisions, and creatively solve problems. Skimping on sleep, then, can quite literally make us dumber and impairs performance in much the same way as alcohol does. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to force deep sleep, but there are a number of ways you can prime your brain for it. This includes listening to ‘white’ or ‘pink noise’, avoiding screen use at least one hour before bedtime, and ideally setting your room temperature at 16-19°C.
Sorry introverts, but scientific evidence suggests that engaging in social interaction can lead to enhanced brain performance. One study even found that larger social networks had a greater protective effect on cognitive function among elderly women, warding off neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Fresh faces and unfamiliar ideas in a dynamic group setting force us to think on our feet, and ‘exercises’ key cognitive processes like memory, comprehension, and theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states to others). Socialising also presents an opportunity to harness the so-called ‘protégé effect’, where the act of teaching a concept to someone else actually reinforces your understanding and retention of that concept.
Keep smart company
If you pride yourself on always being the smartest person in the room, it’s probably time to reevaluate the rooms you’re entering into. After all, we are “the average of the five people we spend the most time with,” according to motivational speaker Jim Rohn. And while this in no way requires you to swap out existing friends for ‘smarter’ ones, being intentional about the types of behaviours, perspectives, and aspirations you expose yourself to daily goes a long way. Find people (both in-person or online) who consistently raise the bar and push you to set new, loftier expectations of yourself. Try not to let those initial feelings of intimidation or discomfort get you down – rather, use them to discern where you want to grow and in time, their habits will rub off on you.
Chess is a game synonymous with intelligence around the world – and for good reason. Countless studies have shown that those who partake in this intricate battle must use both sides of their brain to get ahead: the right hemisphere for visualising and recognising patterns from past games, and the left hemisphere for weighing up possible responses to those patterns, all while anticipating your opponent’s next move. In that sense, chess offers a great all-round workout for the mind.
If chess isn’t quite your cup of tea, there are other games that can help build cognitive reserve. Sudoku, crossword puzzles, poker, and certain types of video games all rely on memory, concentration, and strategic thinking. The key here is to pursue games that are both complex and novel so that your brain goes from strength to strength continually.
Pick up a new language
No matter how old you are, learning to speak more than one language can have wide-ranging benefits on your brain. For one, it’s been proven to boost grey matter in the ‘executive control’ region associated with memory, multitasking, and sustained attention. Immersing yourself in the ebb and flow of a foreign tongue (its writing system, sound system, vocabulary, grammar rules, etc.) also lends fresh perspective, and builds a higher tolerance of ambiguity and the unknown – a must-have in a world that’s changing at breakneck speed.
As language learning is a multisensory activity, it’s perfectly natural to feel drained at times. Lean into the discomfort but be sure to pace yourself too. Apps like Duolingo and Memrise offer free, bite-sized modules in almost any language – short enough to sneak a lesson or two on your commute home.
Embrace your inner artist
When was the last time you picked up a pencil and drew something for the sake of it? Unless you’re a habitual doodler or artist by trade, the answer is probably secondary school. “I’m not the creative type” is an excuse lots of us fall back on when confronted with anything remotely artsy, because at some point in our childhood, we realised we weren’t ‘good enough’ at it. But maybe we should rethink this belief. For design historian D. B. Dowd, the idea that drawing is ‘a professional skill instead of a personal capacity and tool for learning’ is a gross misunderstanding. At its core, drawing is a form of individual sensemaking that fosters better observation and memory, open-mindedness, and even humility (something we’ll get into later). The best part is, you don’t have to be Van Gogh or da Vinci. Even the crudest of drawings – like a stick figure or that cool ‘S’ everyone used to draw in class – can improve your smarts.
Adopt a lifelong learning mindset
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance,” according to world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, “but the illusion of knowledge.” One way to overcome this is by cultivating intellectual humility – not to be confused with bashfulness or being a pushover. Intellectual humility is about being actively curious about your blind spots, entertaining the possibility you may be wrong, and saying ‘yes’ to growth even after formal education years. Remember, intelligence is not fixed but changeable, so engage in debate, seek out opposing worldviews, look beyond the first page in a Google search, and above all, give yourself room to change your mind – whether that’s about politics or pizza toppings. In doing so, you build resilience and a genuine love of learning, paving the way for explosive intellectual growth.
A recent Politics and International Relations graduate from the University of Warwick, Stephanie has written for TEDxWarwick, LinkedIn and Springwise Intelligence, and worked with global sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future. When she’s not scrambling to meet deadlines, you can find her admiring micro-apartments on Pinterest and doting on her elderly rescue dog, Juliet.