Boost Your IQ and EQ in 3 Easy steps
Use your brain’s natural strength in an unnaturally efficient way.
Posted Jul 29, 2018
A story about the power of storytelling
On sailboats, the “king of knots”, employed since antiquity to secure the forward edge of a sail to the bow is called the bowline (from bow line). The knot is simple—to old salts at least—but not so easy to tie for those, (like me) whose spatial skills are not what we’d like them to be.
Frustrated at my difficulty remembering how to tie the “king of knots” for his 21 foot Windrose sailboat as we prepared to sail from the Dana Point marina, my father, an exacting and precise man with a photographic memory— who never needed a mnemonic —gave up on teaching me a bowline the “right way” and taught me the ancient mnemonic for the bowline.
Deftly forming a simple loop of one end of the line with his left hand, he snaked the other end of the line up though the loop, around the stem of the loop and back into the loop (see below) saying, “Picture this in your head, son: A hungry rabbit emerged from its hole to look for food, sniffed his way around the tree, and finding the weather too cold, quickly scampered back into the hole.”
Handing me the finished knot, my father added, “If you forget the rabbit hole method, it could still come back to you if you remember the moral of the rabbit’s story.”
“What moral, dad? It’s just about a dumb knot!”
Pausing to extract his pipe from his tattered old army jacket and fill it with tobacco before lighting up and taking a puff, my father squinted at me through a thick cloud of pipe smoke. He said, “First, it’s not a dumb knot. It’s a reliable way the tie two lines together.”
“You mean if I had to escape from the third floor of a jail that’s how I should tie bed sheets together?”
Biting down on the pipe’s stem, my father said through his teeth. “Smart ass. Now tell me the moral of the rabbit story.”
I thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t know. If you let a little cold weather stop you, you’ll go to bed cold and hungry?”
“Close enough. Now go aft and help me push out of the slip.”
Struggling up to that point, afterwards I never once forgot how to tie a bowline because my father had gotten me to abandon my sketchy spatial brain and embrace the far more potent story-telling part of my brain to learn something new.
This story illustrates how we can learn better by adopting three simple steps.
- Transform the information you want to learn into a story
- Make the story as visual as possible
- Find a moral to your new story to give it importance
We employ these three steps when we absolutely, positively need children to remember crucial rules of life, by showing kids picture stories instead of just cutting to the bottom line.
For instance, parents often use picture books, like Aesop’s fables to get a point across to their children.
This plate from “The boy who cried wolf” is the last of a series of three illustrations, in which a boy twice raises a false alarm to get attention, then suffers the consequences when a real wolf shows up.
If parents just told their kids “never raise a false alarm” most kids would just roll their eyes and toss the advice into the mental trash can along with all of the other “dumb” things parents say. But the picture from Aesop’s fables is hard for kids to get out of their heads, and the compelling story is not one that’s likely to wind up in a mental trashcan.
The way we naturally use stories to teach important life lessons also suggests why stories are so important in our lives (the global market for stories in movies, books, magazines, music with lyrics and the web, is about $2 trillion dollars per year). Remember when you were a kid hearing the phrase “So the moral of this story is…?” It seems that stories have to have a moral—a useful point if you will—or they’re not really interesting or useful stories at all.
In Hollywood, the storytelling capital of the world, many movie plots—especially action thrillers- tell the story of an outsider who makes a long journey in via selfless heroism, the moral of the story being “the best way to be admired and accepted is to, give, not take.”
In the original Star Wars, for instance, Luke Skywalker at first refuses a call for help because he’s consumed with his own problems. But when Luke ultimately choses to take on the evil empire for the greater good, he embarks on the road to heroism.
Neuroscientist Michael Gazzanigga of U.C. Santa Barbara, asserts that the storytelling region of our brain that makes sense of sagas like Star Wars, lies in the left hemisphere (the left lateral prefrontal cortex). According to Dr. Gazzanigga, this “left brain interpreter” unconsciously and automatically weaves stories together on the fly to help us make sense of what’s going on around us (e.g. establishing cause and effect) and to create the illusion that the many, disjointed, unconscious parts of our brains that are busy doing their own thing—perceiving, emoting, deciding, breathing etc.—are actually just parts of a unified self that our conscious brain erroneously thinks of as “self.”
Just why our brains automatically do this is a story for another day. Suffice it to say, our brains are gifted storytellers, because they constantly tell us stories while we’re awake, and even while we’re asleep (dreams).
Boost your IQ using the storytelling part of your brain.
The bowline knot story taught me two important lessons: 1) how to tie the “king of knots” and 2) that I can learn and think better by decomposing problems into stories.
In other words, a story taught me both what to think and how to think better, arguably a good definition of IQ.
Learning new material through storytelling is usually better than alternative methods, such as rote memorization, because it exploits an automatic “left brain interpreter” that operates 24/7.
Think about it: the things you do with the greatest skill, are those that you’ve done so many times you do them automatically, without conscious thought. So if you learn through storytelling, you’ll simply be exercising an extremely well exercised brain muscle.
So, here’s how to use the three step method to remember information effortlessly—more or less forever—while at the same time helping you solve problems better in the future.
Our brains are most familiar with stories of the form: character A sets out to satisfy need B, encounters obstacle C then engages in behavior D that either satisfies need A, or doesn’t, depending upon the wisdom of the behavior. That behavior C either works or doesn’t work constitutes the moral of the story (e.g. the rabbit-hole parable telling us we’ll go wanting if we give up too easily).
Thus, if we picture a story woven around the ten random words in which a character sets out to meet a need, encounters an obstacle, and engages in a behavior to overcome the obstacle we’ll exploit very muscular neural story telling circuits to help us. And, by giving the story a moral, we’ll make the information meaningful and important, greatly increasing the odds we’ll remember it while perhaps adding a little wisdom.
This list of randomly generated words provides an example.
smile, cobweb, arch, comb, garden, ink, cord. beam, feet, wilderness
A story that incorporates all 10 words into a coherent narrative, along with a moral is….
…A woman was exploring what she thought was a large garden, but soon realized she was lost in a wilderness forest and needed to find her way home. She tried to orient herself by looking at the direction of the sun from a beam of light coming through an arch of trees. But after traveling 1000 feet in the direction she thought would take her home, she noticed a cobweb she had seen before and realized she was traveling in a circle. So, to keep on a straight path, she used a tooth of her comb to unravel a long cord she was carrying into many pieces of string which she tied together (using a bowline) and left on the ground behind her as she walked, so that she could make sure she was walking in a straight line by looking back at the string. This strategy worked and got her out of the forest, making her smile. When she returned home, she dipped her quill pen in ink, and wrote about the adventure in her diary.
The moral of the story is that you can surmount obstacles by using everyday objects in ways they weren’t intended.
Now exercise your own storytelling muscle using these random nouns.
doctor, berry, volleyball, feather, wall, bears, seed, trains, beans, lock
As you craft your story, conjure up vivid images of each word, along with the setting of your story. As described in my last post, visualization will add the unsurpassed power of your visual brain—with it vast array of visual memory circuits-- to that of your storytelling brain. Notice how easily, when you’re finished creating the story, it is to recall the story and the words woven into it, especially when you remind yourself of the “moral” of your story, which gives it both importance and meaning.
Boost your EQ too
Remembering more information, while extracting useful insights about solving future problems will improve what we loosely call IQ.
But the three-step storytelling technique can also turbocharge our Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
According to Daniel Goleman, who coined the term EQ, two critical facets of EQ are understanding ourselves on the one hand, and knowing how to control ourselves on the other.
Because significant life events that occur in our childhood can shape who we are as adults, telling ourselves stories about early childhood—and deriving morals for those stories-- can help us understand ourselves better.
I recently did this by conjuring up images of being beaten up at school for the first time. “When I was 7 and sought to fit in at school some classmates saw my clumsy attempts to belong as clueless and bullied me for it.” Thinking back, the “moral” of that story (for me, at least) was that trying to fit in brings pain and humiliation.
Making this “moral” explicit, helped me understand for the first time why, even now I don’t join social clubs or associations—or try to fit in to groups.
Now try this yourself, framing a visual story around what happened to you early in life when you set out to meet an emotional need. What obstacles did you encounter and what happened when you tried to overcome them? What “moral” did you take way from the experience (whether adaptive or maladaptive) and how did that lesson shape who you are today?
Telling yourself stories can also sometimes improve your self-control. I’m not usually the best listener, but when I became a therapist and really needed to listen, I asked my clinical supervisor the best way to control my urges to ask too many questions and to make frequent “brilliant” observations. He suggested, “Picture yourself [notice the visualization as with storytelling for memorization] as a wise Buddhist monk on a mountain top, listening to a knowledge-seeker who’s traveled thousands of miles to get enlightenment. Wise Buddhist monks are men of few, but well chosen words.”
This story worked! For 45 minutes, at least, I became a much less talkative person simply because I told myself that serene mountaintop monks-- like me-- didn’t interrupt.
The moral of the story
You can quickly enrich your mind, and your heart by telling them stories.