A study published in 2008 found that you can significantly increase your intelligence with training. This finding was a game-changer because before this people thought intelligence was something one was simply born with – a trait determined by genetics. Scientists believed the brain developed during a critical period during childhood and was relatively unchangeable outside that time frame.
The researchers in this study had participants work on a multimodal (audio and visual) memory task (called a dual n-back task) for various lengths of time for one to two weeks. At the end of the study, they wanted to see if participants not only improved at performing that particular task but if subjects scored higher in completely unrelated cognitive tasks. They did.
To clarify, the type of intelligence in discussion isn’t crystallized intelligence, which is the memorization of facts. We’re talking about fluid intelligence, which encompasses one’s capacity to learn new things and retain information, then apply that information to address new problems or challenges. Fluid intelligence is trainable, and the more you train your brain, the more you gain. Additionally, anyone can increase their cognitive abilities regardless of their starting point.
The practical takeaway from this pivotal study isn’t that you should teach your employees how to perform the dual n-back task to increase their cognitive abilities. Rather, you should encourage your employees to seek experiences that resemble two of the main traits of the dual n-back task – novelty and challenge. The application of this study is the importance of seeking new experiences.
Many geniuses in history, such as Albert Einstein, were known for constantly learning new things and being skilled in many areas. With every new activity a person performs, new synaptic connections are created in the brain. This concept is called plasticity and refers to the number of connections between neurons and how long the connections last. There has been a lot of research lately about neural plasticity and its relationship to intelligence. When you seek new experiences, you prime your brain for learning by building these connections. Novelty also activates dopamine, which sparks motivation, stimulates the creation of new neurons and prepares your brain for learning.
In another study, researchers found partaking in novel activities increased the thickness of the cortex (the largest part of the brain) as well as cortical activity in participants. The brain used more energy as each participant performed a new activity and gained thickness after the activity. However, after a certain point they noticed a decline in the energy used by each participant’s brain and its thickness once the activity became routine. The participants’ skills did not decrease, but the brain activity used to perform them did. Their brains became efficient. Once the brain figures out an activity, it gets lazy. It doesn’t need to work hard to perform it well. Efficiency is not what your brain needs for cognitive growth. Once you master something, you need to move on to the next challenge in order for your brain to continue making new connections.
So, how does this apply to the workplace? If your employees take time to train their brains, they can improve their fluid intelligence, and thus their cognitive abilities. As a result, your employees may be better equipped to solve complex problems and deal with challenges they face at work.
Here are some ideas:
- Educate your employees. Teach them the brain-building benefits of seeking novelty in their lives and provide ideas such as trying a new sport, engaging in an adventure, learning an instrument, taking an art class or studying a new language.
- Incentivize novelty. Create a challenge that encourages employees to partake in new experiences. The experience would be a reward in itself, but you could provide an additional incentive, such as a gift card they can use toward a future experience. Employees could submit photos of their new activity to provide proof of participation.
- Organize a new experience for your team. Take a full day or leave work a few hours early for a company-sponsored experience, such as a trip to a museum or an art class.
- Encourage employees to be less efficient every now and then. We’re so pressed for time these days that we’re determined to find a way to perform every task efficiently. Remember, efficiency isn’t the best route for brain development. New and challenging tasks build neural pathways. Encourage employees to flex their creative muscles by doing things the hard way every once and a while (e.g., researching and learning how to make a simple piece of furniture rather than buying it from the store).
- Promote networking to build brain networks. Novelty doesn’t just come in the form of new activities but also new relationships. Encourage employees to network and meet new people. Better yet, host a networking event to link various organizations in your industry.
- Tell employees to keep it moving along. A crucial part of brain-building is keeping things fresh. People may be challenged by a sudoku puzzle initially, but doing sudoku puzzles for the rest of their lives won’t do the trick. Doing the same puzzles repeatedly makes people more proficient at them; they won’t make those people smarter. Commit to sending out new, challenging puzzles to your employees on a weekly basis.
- Introduce your employees to new music. New songs can get new neurons firing. Send out a diverse playlist of new songs at the beginning of each week.
- Host language classes at your worksite. If this isn’t an option, subsidize the cost of online or computer language programs.
- Support new experiences financially. Make it part of your benefits program to provide funds for employees to try new experiences such as martial arts classes or music lessons. Employees can provide receipts for substantiation.
- Warn employees against the desire to be perfect. Once people master skills, they tend to want to stick to things they’re good at. Encourage them to ditch the desire to be perfect and embrace novelty instead. To boost brainpower, it’s more important to do things that prompt growth rather than mastery.
- Encourage after (work) hours adventures. Employees can link up with others seeking adventure and new experiences by checking out sites like Meetup and Gociety.
Motivate your employees to be intentional about seeking novelty. It can promote brain growth and is just plain fun. Exposure to new experiences can offer a new perspective on life, which has many payoffs, both personally and professionally.