In a lot of ways, your overall intelligence is fairly well established before you ever have anything to do with it. Family genetics, your diet as an infant, vaccinations, illnesses during childhood, your preschool education, even the types of punishment your parents chose to dish out—there are studies linking all these factors and hundreds more to your eventual smarts as an adult. But just as you can work hard in the gym and change your diet to overcome bad physical genetics, you can also train your brain to far exceed its initial intellectual potential. “It may not be a muscle, but you can train your brain just like you would your biceps to perform at a significantly higher level,” says neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of the University of California San Francisco, and the creator of brainhq.com, a site designed specifically for getting your brain into better shape.
According to Merzenich, no matter what your age or current intelligence level, that gray matter in your skull is constantly changing and evolving. Put a little work into it, he says, and your IQ, visual acuity, and ability to manage and process data (i.e., the stuff that makes you “smart”) can grow and improve right along with it. Here are 25 of the most effective ways to get you started on the road to pumped-up intelligence, all backed by reams of the latest data and research proving just how an average guy can improve his overall smarts.
1. Get Laid More
Go out for drinks. Accept that blind date your friend has been trying to push on you. Sign up for OkCupid—whatever it takes to get the job done. Why? When Princeton scientists studied a group of sexually active rats and compared them with rats who were getting it on only a couple of times a month, they found that the more active rats had an increased number of neurons in their brains, especially in the regions responsible for controlling memory. These rats also grew more cells in their brains over the course of the study—and had more connections between those cells—than the more virginal rats. You’re obviously no rat, but researchers believe the finding may hold true in humans as well, thanks to the lower levels of stress hormones and anxiety found in people who have sex more frequently.
2. Pour Yourself A Drink
Yes, too much alcohol isn’t ever going to do your body—or brain— much good. But just as it’s been shown to be good for your heart in smaller doses, alcohol also appears to be good for your brain when consumed responsibly. In a study conducted at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, in Italy, researchers found that 29% of people over the age of 65 who rarely drank during the course of their life experienced some form of mental impairment as they got older, compared with just 19% of people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol.
3. Avoid Sugar Whenever Possible
“What you eat affects how you think,” says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, Ph.D., a professor of neurosurgery at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “And eating a high-fructose diet over the long term may alter your brain’s ability to learn and remember information,” he says. The Chilean researcher found out just how bad too many sweets can be for your brain by studying animals who were given high-sugar diets and comparing them with animals fed a more standard diet. Over time, he says, large amounts of sweets in the brain can impair synaptic activity, disrupting the ability to think clearly. Instead of soda, candy, ice cream, and baked goods, get your sweet fix on MF-approved foods like fresh fruit and Greek yogurt.
4. Keep Your Blood Sugar in Check
Even if you aren’t diabetic, large fluctuations in insulin levels in the body can dull your brain’s response times and inhibit peak performance. Some researchers even speculate that insulin resistance caused by consistently high levels of insulin in the body over time may be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. On the flip side, if insulin levels are low, or the pancreas stops production of the hormone, the memory may suffer as well: A study conducted at Brown University found that insulin-resistant rats were more likely to become disoriented and have trouble finding their way out of a maze. Two ways to keep blood sugar stable: Eat carbs on the low end of the glycemic scale, and avoid both skipping meals and bingeing.