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Making Yourself Smarter

Maybe “smarter” isn’t the right word. We think of a smart kid as mentally alert, a quick learner with a good memory. But smart, as any parent of one will tell you, is a far cry from wise or insightful.

As we progress from childhood, we do get actually smarter. Researchers tell us that at about age 22, we peak at mental skills such as memory and grasping new concepts. Of course, when we’re 22 we also think we’re immortal and thus don’t give much thought to passing our peak moment. It’s when we’re older that we wonder about waning skills. Though you hate to say it aloud (figuring the universe will curse you for doing so), many of the older adults in your lives just don’t seem as smart as they once were. Since you hope you’ll be blessed with a healthy longevity, as you watch your parent struggling with an iPad, the phrase “cognitive decline” starts worming itself into your brain.

You think, “Maybe I should take supplements. I see the ones for memory. Maybe I should…” Since I’m really no different, I take a few myself. But one problem with memory supplements is if your memory is already in pretty good shape, you may not notice any improvement. So you hope, as I do, that you’re practicing what’s often called CYA healthcare.

Insightful vs rigid, nuance vs the obvious
Let’s move away from words like “smart” and “memory” and ponder wisdom and insightfulness. Insightful people are really good at listening to different points of view, and not at all threatened by them. They don’t need fixed answers, they don’t need closure. They’re comfortable with ambiguity and enjoy mulling over alternative perspectives. On the other hand, people who lack insight require an answer to every situation, and that answer needs to fit into their lifelong reality system.

You know the two types I’m referring to. The person threatened by a point of view other than her own gets locked into longstanding and unassailable thought processes. Responses become predictable. Regardless the topic–personal, political, medical, religious–it’s like a rivet has been inserted into their necks and they can only look straight ahead, unable to turn even slightly and perceive anything else.

The insightful, no-closure-needed person will, on the other hand, listen thoughtfully and, with fingertips pressed lightly together (the universal gesture of thoughtfulness), nod and say something like, “I see your point of view.”

An insightful person is open to nuance; a rigid person is limited to the obvious.

As desirable as “enhanced insightfulness” may be, WholeHealth Chicago has no nutritional supplement for it in our apothecary. However, a recent study conducted by psychologists from the University of Toronto showed a relatively easy way to enhance insightfulness and ease your discomfort with ambiguous information. And the cost is next to nothing.

All you need to do is read short stories
But not just any short stories. Not the genre Western, horror, romance sort, but rather the literary ones you remember from college: William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Anton Chekov, or newer ones like Raymond Carver and John Cheever. There are a lot of great short stories out there.

For the study, researchers administered psychological tests to 100 students, measuring their degree of discomfort in ambiguous situations. They use the phrase “need for cognitive closure,” explaining that someone with a high need was a person who was uncomfortable not knowing exactly what an answer to an imaginary situation might be. Such high-need questions might include:

  • Do you agree with the statement “I don’t like situations that are uncertain” ?
  • Do you dislike questions that can be answered in many different ways?

During the initial scoring, they noticed that students who classified themselves as frequent fiction readers generally had less need for closure than those who categorized themselves as rare fiction readers.

They then gave a list of eight short stories to half the students and eight non-fiction essays to the other half. Each group was instructed to choose a story or essay and read it. Parenthetically (and I don’t want to embarrass you on this but I know it’s been a long time since most of you have written an essay), an essay is nothing more than one person’s point of view on a given subject. In writing an essay, you need to express your ideas clearly. Your essay needs a conclusion, a “closure.” No ambiguity here.

After completing their reading assignments, the students repeated the test. And what the researchers discovered was that in the story-reading group, the complex and often ambiguous situations within a story actually had opened new brain circuitry. This group no longer felt as uncomfortable with open-ended life situations as they did before reading the story. The essay-reading group was unchanged.

You can see the original article here, and the table shows the short stories and essays the researchers selected. If you’re wondering where to find literary short stories, just get a hold of one of the anthologies used in college literature classes. I was surprised to learn the three Douglas Angus anthologies listed here have had more than 100 printings since they were first released in the late 1950s. The fact that amazon has multiple copies for one cent each hints at what college students do with their copies once the course is over.

Why the short story?
You might be asking yourself, “What is it about a short story that differentiates it from other forms of reading, like essays, newspapers, magazines, and all the articles on the internet?” (Actually, literary novels would certainly have produced the same results as the short stories, but the latter condense complex psychological events into a few pages.)

Maja Djikic, PhD, the lead psychologist in this study, says the thought processes we use when reading fiction don’t require decision making. The reader unconsciously imitates the thinking styles of the characters, some of whom she may even personally dislike. This combined effect of needing no conclusions–no closure–while simultaneously entering the mind of someone else opens up new channels in the brain. As an example, entering the mind of a character we may otherwise detest we unconsciously learn there are points of view other than our own.

Djikic acknowledged there was no way to determine the lasting effects on the brain of reading one short story, but she felt that the brains of frequent readers get re-programmed into an insightfulness that non-readers, with their need for cognitive closure, simply don’t have.

Coincidentally, an article on a similar topic was published just last week in the medical journal Neurology. With all the fear people have of age-related cognitive decline, it’s worth noting that researchers tracking about 300 older adults found a dramatic reduction in brain deterioration among regular readers. Just like a regular workout will keep your muscles strong and cardiovascular system humming, cracking a book seems to keep your brain circuitry happily and healthfully buzzing.

Go read—it’s summer!

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD




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