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Brain Hacking 101: Simple Steps to Improving Your IQ

Homemade brain stimulation may make you more intelligent. But it’s not smart.

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

I read an article yesterday by Nature reporter David Adam, who claimed to have boosted his IQ using electrical brain stimulation. He connected wet sponges to his scalp, just above the ears, and using a 9-volt battery introduced pulsed charges to his temporal lobe. His goal was to supercharge his brain for a Mensa exam the following week, and it supposedly worked: He’s now a member.

Adam’s experiment is detailed in his new book, The Genius Within, and while I’m a big fan of his, I won’t be applying electrodes to my head any time soon. Not only am I concerned about the homemade nature of the machine’s design, I also know there are simpler ways to improve your IQ. In fact, they’re so simple that most of us fail to follow them because they’re so boring. Following are what I consider “The Big Three,” and though none involve pulsed electricity, they are at least well supported by science.

1. Diet

Research shows that a Mediterranean diet is one of the best for brain health. This involves eating mostly fruits, vegetables, and grains, with regular servings of fish to provide protein. It also means cutting back on red meat and sugar, common features of most Western diets.

In a recent study published by the journal Neurology, hundreds of older adults followed a Mediterranean diet to varying degrees, and also had their brain volumes measured using an MRI. The scientists wanted to know if the diet reduced degeneration, and it did. Not only did the adults who followed the diet more strictly, with more fish and less red meat, show larger brain sizes in terms of grey matter, they also retained more white matter too. This is the part of the brain responsible for connectivity. So, if you want to keep your brain around for a long while, simply eating well is a good first step.

2. Exercise

Everybody knows that a healthy body means a healthy mind, but what kind of exercise is best? It turns out that nearly any exercise has its benefits, but cardiovascular health is especially important. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise improves academic performance in children, raises working memory and attention, and even strengthens the executive functioning of the frontal lobe.

How much exercise is needed? Not much, it seems. According to SharpBrains, an educational firm dedicated to tracking neuroscience research on brain fitness, three sessions a week may be enough, so long as each lasts at least half an hour. The exercise doesn’t even need to be strenuous, but it should be more than simply walking. The exercise won’t just benefit your IQ either, as it also reduces the risk of cognitive impairment in old age.

3. Brain Reserve

Having a deep brain reserve is a lot like buying a computer more powerful than you actually need. Brains get more powerful by staying active, like doing crosswords or learning foreign languages or maybe playing musical instruments. This builds a reserve which can be very important later.

Something interesting happened several years ago when one study seemed to counter this well-established finding. Researchers observed that being cognitively active actually sped up decline following a dementia diagnosis, not slowed it down. While elderly people who were cognitively active showed less loss as they aged, those diagnosed with dementia actually fared worse. How is that?

Well, it turns out that the news was actually good. The decline for diagnosed individuals was only rapid because it took so long to make a diagnosis. In other words, these individuals had been declining for years, but nobody knew it. They had such a reserve that their lives were unaffected, and only in the late stages of the disease did it have a noticeable impact. If there’s a better reason to start learning a foreign language right away, I want to hear it.

Source: stockfour/Shutterstock

If you want to boost your brain, the good news is that the path is clear. If you’re truly dedicated, you may even supplement these strategies by taping some 9-volt batteries to your scalp, but I wouldn’t advise it. There’s a science behind that too, and it’s not as odd as you think. Still, it’s a bit like trying to lose weight by swallowing a tapeworm. Nature hates shortcuts.


Luciano, M., Corley, J., Cox, S., Hernandez, M., Craig, L., Dickie, D., Karama, S., McNeill, G., Bastin, M., Wardlaw, J., and Deary, I. (2017). Mediterranean-type diet and brain structural change from 73 to 76 years in a Scottish cohort, Neurology, 88, 449-455.

Wilson, R., Barnes, L., Aggarwal, N., Boyle, P., Hebert, L., de Leon, C., and Evans, D. (2010). Cognitive activity and the cognitive morbidity of Alzheimer disease, Neurology, 75, 990-996.

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