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Understanding Your Inner Genius


Around age six, you may have started hearing the adults around you taking notice of your academic skills and passing judgment on your intelligence, perhaps making comments that influenced your feelings about yourself, affected your problem-solving skills in high school, influenced your course of study in college, and pointed you toward joining a specific career. In fact, studies have shown that by first grade, you would have decided which subjects were likely to be your best—based solely on your gender and the cultural cues you had absorbed. That is just how early we set our ideas about our intelligence and abilities.

Fortunately, recent research reveals a much broader spectrum of intelligence than had been imagined in generations past. This same research has helped in the development of scientifically sound methods of improving your cognition and intelligence throughout your lifespan. In Understanding Your Inner Genius, created in partnership with Scientific American, presenter Laura Helmuth reveals the latest scientific thinking on genius and intelligence—from the making of a genius, to the increase of worldwide IQ scores, and the mysteries of acquired savantism. With Dr. Helmuth as your guide, you’ll explore the groundbreaking work conducted by distinguished psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and educators. With exhilarating myth-busting and more than a bit of controversy, scientific studies point the way to increasing the intellect—no matter what happened in first grade.

Children and Intelligence

An entire industry supports parents who want to spot their babies’ talents and increase their intelligence. The advice is limitless—from suggestions about which months to conceive, to the appropriate times of day to read to your little one in the womb, to exactly which toys to use and how to use them. But not all methods of spotting and nurturing talent are effective. In fact, as you’ll learn in Understanding Your Inner Genius, it is not even clear that parents can “supercharge” their babies to boost long-term abilities.

Among the many scientists you’ll meet in this course is Dr. David Barner, a psychology professor at the University of California and an expert in the development of math education. Dr. Barner wanted to help his own preschooler learn math and love it, so he worked with her every day for months using flash cards, videos, games, and comic books. In the end, while he thoroughly enjoyed the time spent with his daughter, she developed a distaste for math! Her true passion? Reading.

All healthy, able-bodied babies sit and walk in their own time without any parental help. Similarly, we all start learning automatically from the moment we’re born, if not before; our brains are made for it. But it’s also normal for parents to want to help their children in their intellectual development. In this course, you’ll learn the results of scientific studies that point parents in these directions:

  • Encourage Your Child to Try New Tasks. The greater variety of tasks they are exposed to, the easier it will be for them to find their own passion, in addition to learning new skills.
  • Praise Your Child for Persistence and Resilience. If you only praise your child for having the right answer, they can easily assume that the wrong answer means failure. What’s much more important in the long-term is your child’s ability to keep trying different ways to solve problems.
  • Watch Yourself. How do you react when you can’t find your keys, or you’ve misplaced an important invitation? These are important opportunities to show your child that you value persistence and resilience in your own life.

In general, actions always speak louder than words to children. Model for your child that the world always presents great opportunity for learning. Try new skills yourself, and don’t worry about being successful. This will not only encourage intellectual development and a growth mindset in your child, but your own intelligence will also benefit.

Retaining and Improving Your Intelligence

Whether you were class valedictorian or a low performer on standardized tests in school, one of your main concerns as you age will be maintaining your cognition. The news is very encouraging. Not only have scientists identified specific activities you can use to help your brain, but study after study has revealed that the older brain is more plastic than was previously believed and retains a great ability to make new neural connections. As you will see, the familiar adage, “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” is no longer applicable to the way we understand intelligence today.

Learning new skills and working puzzles are both great ways to keep your mind active and have a lot of fun. But scientists warn that many companies market mind-exercising products with strong claims about their effectiveness—claims that have not been backed up by scientific studies.

What does work? Research shows you can best maintain a mental edge as you age through:

  • Physical Exercise. Brain scans after fitness training showed that even relatively short exercise interventions can begin to restore some of the losses in brain volume associated with normal aging. One study found that exercising an hour a day for three days a week increased the volume of the hippocampus—a part of the brain that is crucial for memory—in older adults over the course of a year.
  • Having a Positive Attitude. Individuals who are optimistic are more likely to age successfully, maintaining a sense of well-being and life satisfaction in the face of challenges.
  • Social Engagement. Those who routinely engage with others are more likely to take advantage of opportunities to learn and experience new things.

Intelligence Myths

What we know about development and how we learn changes constantly as research continues in the fields of neuroscience and education. No matter how good our intentions, if we’re basing our teaching methods on fallacies, we’ll never achieve our goals, for ourselves or for our children.

What do we know about the brain and how we learn best? In Understanding Your Inner Genius, you’ll be surprised to discover the myths that many, if not most, of us take as fact:

  • “Left brain” people are rational, and “right brain” people are intuitive and artistic. The truth is that humans use both hemispheres of the brain for all cognitive functions, and brain-imaging studies show no evidence of the right hemisphere as a locus of creativity.
  • Male and female brains differ in ways that dictate learning abilities. There are no meaningful distinctions between male and female brains or intelligence—and the distinctions that do appear are usually due to conditioning rather than innate difference.
  • Some students are visual learners, and some are aural learners. Although the public seems to have accepted this dichotomy, it has never been validated by scientific studies.
  • Acceleration—the practice of skipping grades or compressing the curriculum—is bad for children, hurts them socially, and creates knowledge gaps. Education researchers believe acceleration should be considered much more frequently for students who are advanced relative to their age peers.

If you still believe some of these myths, don’t worry. Understanding Your Inner Genius will introduce you to the new, scientifically valid concepts that take the place of these myths—concepts you can use to your advantage when educating your children, your students, or yourself.

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