Cognitive Intelligence: Your Brain is in Your Hands

cognitive intelligenceCognitive intelligence, often used interchangeably with IQ, is a person’s ability to observe, reason, conclude, adapt and learn. As a result, cognitive intelligence is not necessarily correlated with your high school calculus scores. (Thank God for that.) It’s more a question of how quickly you “get it” and how well you can use the information in your environment. New research shows that the brain remains plastic throughout your life, so contrary to previous thinking, you can actually improve your IQ with appropriate exercises to keep your brain sharp. Much of your cognitive intelligence is a question of making the most of your brain.  And who wouldn’t maximize their brain power, if they knew they could?


Most IQ tests aim to measure things like your language fluency, spatial thinking and your working memory. Up your chances for a good score, by enhancing your working memory. Memory masters are capable of memorizing a deck of cards in under sixty seconds. They do this by employing visual and spatial strategies, like a memory palace, to anchor the cards in their memory. You can learn how to do this too, and doing so will not only ensure you don’t miss your next lunch date with your boss, it ensures your brain stays nimble. There are a variety of resources available to help you do that, including these memory courses:


Intelligence makes use of all the information available in our environment, and you can train yourself to pay more attention to the things that surround you. If you want to be the next Sherlock Holmes, you’ve got to start noticing the tiny details. Stop rushing your children who get distracted by details—that’s what you want to do. Slow down and pay attention to the snails on the leaves of life. Take notes about your surroundings and start journaling about your day. Not only does this help your perspective by appreciating the small miracles of every day, it programs your mind to draw connections between disparate elements. That’s the kind of thing Sir Isaac Newton used to do. If you want to be a genius like him, start acting like one. Question everything. Let your mind make up theories about what you’ve witnessed. Take a page from Seinfeld, and see if you can turn something totally normal into a stand-up comedy routine. Take the mundane minutiae and turn them into something poetic, witty or grand. The world around you is astonishing; pay attention to it.

Brain Training Exercises

Some research suggests that your cognitive intelligence as a child improves your chances for keeping strong, clear thinking as you age. That means it’s never too early (or too late) to work on improving your brain at a cognitive level. If you want to develop your cognitive intelligence at home, there are a few things you can do to give your brain a real workout.

  • Do timed drill sheets with basic arithmetic. These simple problems keep your brain skilled and ready to quickly assess relative value in everyday encounters.
  • Practice with memory games to increase your focus and concentration. Learn to view visual information in spatial way.
  • Take an everyday item and think of as many alternative uses for it as possible. For instance: a shoe could be a flowerpot or a doorstop. List as many as you can in thirty seconds. You get more points for ideas that are more creative. Try this one with your kids too to set them on the road to an imaginative future.
  • Do puzzles like Sudoku, Boggle, and crosswords. All of these are great for mental discipline.
  • Meditate. Meditation is another way to teach your brain how to focus. If you’re feeling like a squirrel on RedBull, consider Mindfulness Meditation, and get on your way to nirvana.

For all of these exercises (except the last one), keep a stopwatch handy. It’s the quick timing and urgency that gets your brain to stress itself and to build connections.

Don’t Overspecialize

The best way to keep your brain plastic is by forcing it to learn new things. It’s easy to get into a rut with the intensity of modern life. Instead you want to channel your inner Da Vinci: design flying machines one day; paint the Mona Lisa the next. Avoid getting bogged down in your own industry. Get outside your area of expertise. If you’re in banking, take a course in art history. If you’re a whiz in writing, get your head around some biology. Lucky for you, these days you probably don’t have to write your emerging eureka insights in a secret code. Whatever you do: never stop learning. Your brain needs you to keep the options wide and varied so it can continue to draw new associations.

Read Fiction

Lots of folks these days think they read enough by browsing the internet. Not so. Reading fiction forces your brain to understand and process linguistic nuances to turn them into a mental image. If you’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones without reading a Song of Ice and Fire, switch off the screens and get into a good book. Fiction gets you out of our linear, ultra-specialized modern world and into a world of imagination. If you can’t remember the last time you got lost in a good book, you owe it to yourself to pick up a modern masterpiece. If you feel like you have a book in you, the process of writing a novel is one of the most challenging and rigorous tasks your brain will ever undertake. Up your chances for success with a writing workshop. And the next time you’re trying to figure out if a blind date is someone you want to be with, ask them what they’re reading. If they don’t have a decent answer, get out of there.

Emotional Intelligence

Once you’ve mastered the logical side of your brain, look into enhancing the equally important Emotional Intelligence that will help you get the most out of your relationships. While cognitive intelligence is based upon your ability to make logical conclusions and to reason, emotional intelligence is based upon your ability to relate to other people. If you’re at the top of your field intellectually, it may be your emotional intelligence that’s holding you back. Check your emotional intuition with a class in building strong relationships.

Not long ago, scientists figured you were born with a brain that would stay the same your whole life. Luckily, we now know your brain remains plastic for your whole life. If you want to learn how to think like the masterminds behind Apple and Google, you can. If you want to think like Da Vinci, you can. You can develop your brain and cognitive abilities with rigorous practice. Now that you know your brain is in your hands, the only question is: what are you going to do about it?