Monthly Archives: April 2014


Get Smarter: How to Design Your Life For Continuous Cognitive Enhancement

Is it possible to increase your intelligence? Absolutely. Do you need technology or cognitive enhancers to accomplish this? Absolutely not. Science shows us that the key to cognitive improvement is keeping your brain active and challenged, while making learning intrinsically rewarding. In this presentation, I will discuss my Five Principles of Cognitive Enhancement, which is a paradigm I developed over 10 years as a behavioral therapist, teaching children how to reach their maximum cognitive potential. I’ll explain why fluid intelligence is important and how it can be improved, by designing a lifestyle for constant, motivating, and rewarding learning experiences. Increasing intelligence takes work, but it is simpler than you may think–and anyone can get smarter, no matter where you start from.

From GSummit 2012, in San Francisco.


Walking the Line Between Good and Evil: The Common Thread of Heroes and Villains

scientific-american-logo From March 31, 2011

Mythology, science fiction and comic books are chock full of stories of heroes and their battles against the ills of society—the eternal struggle between good and evil. We are meant to view these two main characters—the Hero and the Villain—as opposites on the spectrum of ethics and morality. But are they really so different when you look at their individual traits and behaviors?

Contrary to popular belief, right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical—are not always on opposite ends of the spectrum of good and evil. In addition, the people who fight for the cause on either side may not always look or act like the one you would expect. Science may finally give some support to the old saying: There is a fine line between good and evil.

What is Heroism?

In the days following the devastating earthquake in Japan, word quickly spread about heroism displayed across the region—from the 50 brave nuclear workers, “The Fukushima 50” who stayed behind after evacuation in a valiant attempt to prevent further disaster, to a man who donned scuba gear and went into the tsunami to rescue his wife and mother, as well as other (sometimes a bit tall) tales of men and women who fearlessly put themselves on the line to help others in the midst of that tragedy.

Would we consider all of these people heroes, or were these just ordinary men and women who rose to the occasion? Is there something else that plays a role—a specific personality type—that makes people more likely to engage in very heroic acts?

While in the case of Japan it is likely a combination of factors, such as culture and situational rise to heroism, there is a specific personality type that is more likely to engage in extremely heroic behavior. Interestingly, this type of person is also very likely to be the kind of impulsive, argumentative person that readily breaks rules, acts impulsively, challenges authority—but all for the sake of good. These extreme heroes do not fit the image of the kind, peaceful, non-aggressive hero, like the Dalai Lama—in fact, they may not always be the most pleasant people to be around; they tend to be the ones who always stir up trouble or rock the boat, the whistleblowers. But they are the most important types of heroes to support, because they have the highest potential to do extremely good works.

Am I saying that the world’s greatest heroes are also some of the most hard-headed, rebellious, not-necessarily-law-abiding rule-breakers by nature? Yes, I am. Not only that, there may be a genetic link between these extreme heroes and those least expected to act heroically—the Sociopath. This person is called the Extreme Altruist, or X-Altruist.

Heroism to the Extreme

A hero is someone who goes out of their way to help others at the expense of their own safety and well-being. This could mean getting fired from a job, arrested, injured, or even facing death. More than just an altruist, who has selfless concern for the welfare of others, a hero takes action—usually bold action.

Right now I prefer to use the term “Extreme Altruist”, or X-Altruist, rather than “Hero”, because a person can rate very high on a scale of altruism without ever engaging in a heroic act; I am speaking here of the personality type, not necessarily the actions committed by the person. The X-Altruist is the most extreme type of hero; the one who takes the highest risks, with a lot to lose, putting their safety and welfare on the line—and does it time and time again. To an X-Altruist, heroism is a way of life, a daily state of being, a temperament.

prometheusLooking at mythology, Prometheus is the ultimate X-Altruist—stealing fire from the all-powerful Zeus to give to mankind—a true act of rebellious heroism that earned him a lifetime of torture: chained to a rock as an eagle repeatedly ate his liver over and over, for all of eternity. It takes a certain kind of fearlessness, driven sense of purpose, and unnaturally high empathy for the plight of others to live your life this way—and do it without hesitation.

X-Altruists and Sociopaths: A Genetic Link?

A few years ago, I wrote an article titled, “Addicted to Being Good? The Psychopathology of Heroism“, in which I first discussed the potential genetic link between Sociopaths and Heroes, or X-Altruists. In theory, their genetic make-up is very similar—same basic group of extreme traits in each personality—with a few important exceptions, one being expressed empathy. This notion was hinted at in 1995 by Behavior Geneticist David Thoreson Lykken [1] in his book, The Antisocial Personalities, when he said, “the hero and the psychopath may be twigs on the same genetic branch.” It is very possible that two members of the same family—even brothers in a shared home environment—could end up as seemingly polar opposites; one doing extreme good: the X-Altruist, the other doing extreme bad: the Sociopath.

The difference between the sibling with X-Altruism and the one with Sociopathy could come down to the presence or absence of a few crucial regulatory mechanisms that affect expressed empathy.

Lykken claimed that the ability to feel and express empathy was the main feature that defined psychopaths from heroes. He defines a psychopath as different from a sociopath, in the sense that psychopaths are born with a “defect” that disallows them to feel empathy, and sociopaths are a product of ill-rearing or a result of extreme negative trauma. The environmental misfortune then triggers impulsive hostility and the closing off from emotions, thus experiencing zero guilt or remorse for one’s actions. Essentially, Lykken claims one is genetic (psychopathy) and one is primarily the result of environmental experience (sociopathy), but they are both under the umbrella of Antisocial Personality Disorder. This point regarding etiology is debatable, and I won’t be getting into that here, but it is relevant to mention.

The point is this: there is more than one path to the dark side of morality, resulting in the manifestation of an Antisocial Personality Disorder. However, the more we learn about the brain and neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change in response to behaviors or conditions we expose ourselves to, the less “inevitable” psychopathy or sociopathy seems as an unchangeable condition. Meaning, empathy can be taught to some degree. The amount of change that can be made to the empathy circuit is more individually determined and based on specific circumstances, but movement in the proper direction is possible.

But there’s more to it than just “empathy or no empathy” that describes the difference between these two personalities—the X-Altruist has a few other handy traits up his sleeve as well, which allows him to have the bold, intense traits of the Sociopath, but with a very different, very beneficial outcome.

So the big questions are:

  • What are the traits that separate Sociopaths and X-Altruists?
  • Can an X-Altruist become a Sociopath, if they faced the right unfortunate conditions? (Can heroes “turn evil”?)
  • Can a Sociopath be rehabilitated and steered into heroism instead? (Can villains be “turned back to the side of good”/heroism?)
  • How can we prevent Sociopathy from emerging in the first place and promote X-Altruism? (How can we ensure we raise as many heroes and as few villains as possible from childhood? Are the genetic factors changeable?)

The Traits of the Sociopath vs the X-Altruist

The two basic personality types, the Sociopath and the X-Altruist, appear very similar when you look at the individual traits, but with some important exceptions:


  • Low impulse control
  • High novelty-seeking needs (desire to experience new things, high need for arousal)
  • Shows no remorse for their actions (lack of conscience, no experienced guilt)
  • Inability or unwillingness to see past own needs in order to understand how another feels (lack of exhibited empathy)
  • Detached emotionally from situations, personal relationships
  • Willing to break rules, defy authority
  • Always acts in the interest of himself, in whatever fashion ultimately serves him best (selfish, self-protective)
  • Extremely fragile or unstable ego, or self-identity
  • Extreme emotional sensitivity


  • Low impulse control
  • High novelty-seeking needs (desire to experience new things, high need for arousal)
  • Little remorse for their actions (while they may feel guilt over causing harm, they would still do the heroic act again “in a heartbeat”)
  • Inability to see past the needs of others and experience/understand their pain (very high exhibited empathy)
  • Able to emotionally detach from situations temporarily when necessary, such as during a crisis; engages in Flexible Detachment
  • Willingness to break rules and defy authority (will redefine what the rule should be)
  • Acts in the best interest of others, or to serve the common good, because it is “the right thing to do” (self-less, puts self in frequent danger during acts of heroism)
  • Very resilient ego, or able to repair quickly after damage or threats to identity (Ego Resilience)
  • Extreme emotional sensitivity

Ego, Empathy, Emotion—Why do they matter?

First, let’s be clear on what I mean by “ego”, and why it’s relevant in discussions of personality and emotional stability. The ego is basically your sense of self. It is your identity, your self-concept, your reality check. Ego strength is “a person’s capacity to maintain his/her own identity despite psychological pain, distress, turmoil and conflict between internal forces as well as the demands of reality.” [2] So the ego is pretty much the glue that holds you together, and ego strength is what you need in order to maintain emotional stability.

Strong ego = good; this means you can roll with things as they come—you handle stress well, you are confident in your abilities, and even major disappointments don’t fracture your self-identity or make you question your value as a person, at least not permanently. Fragile ego = not so good; experiencing stressful situations, disappointments, or even mild criticism causes your whole world to fall apart, destroying your self esteem.

While the expression (or lack) of empathy is seen as the defining feature that separates the X-Altruist from the Sociopath, there are other underlying traits that majorly affect the ability, willingness, or tendency to express empathy, and these are markedly different in X-Altruists as compared to Sociopaths. These are: the ability to engage in Flexible Detachment from emotion or stress, and possessing high Ego Resilience. Flexible Detachment enables the X-Altruist to buffer their ego from intense emotional damage during times of crisis, and high Ego Resilience helps them repair and rebound quickly in the event damage does occur.

The Sociopath lacks these two superpowers, which makes all the difference in the world when you are making a distinction between those who strive for the promotion of good or evil, or their ability to do so effectively. Why are they so important? I’ll answer that question more fully as we look deeper into the personality components of the X-Altruist.

The X-Altruist: A Personality Disorder, or Optimal Gene Expression?

“Some people are subject to a certain delicacy of passion, which makes them extremely sensible to all the accidents of life, and gives them a lively joy upon every prosperous event, as well as a piercing grief, when they meet with misfortunes and adversity. Favours and good offices easily engage their friendship; while the smallest injury provokes their resentment. Any honour or mark of distinction elevates them above measure; but they are as sensibly touched with contempt. People of this character have, no doubt, more lively enjoyments, as well as more pungent sorrows, than men of cool and sedate tempers.” —David Hume, 1742, Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion

Reading this passage by David Hume, written back in 1742, one can imagine he might have been describing the emotional sensitivities of Bipolar Disorder, characterized by displays of mania (elevated or irritable mood) alternating with periods of depression. However, Hume could also have been describing the temperament of the X-Altruist.

To experience such extreme highs and lows is seen as a bad thing—it can be exhausting, or at least mentally taxing to live this way, with no control over how or why, or at what level these feelings come and go. The havoc such intensity could unleash on a person’s life is immense (One look at the celebrity gossip pages could give you all the convincing information you’ll need in that regard). But what if you had the ability to experience all that intensity, the pushing and pulling of joy, motivation, sorrow, elation—but had the ability to control it?

What I’m saying is, one can have expression of extreme traits, even drastic swings between extreme highs and extreme lows—given they are able to exhibit some type of control over them—and still be perfectly functional. Maybe even ideally functional. This is what we see with the X-Altruist.

Don’t get me wrong—X-Altruists are generally not displaying the kinds of huge, self-destructive behavioral swings that are identifiable as Bipolar Disorder. On the contrary, their behaviors are reasonably controlled on a day-to-day basis, but the deep emotions they feel and the drive (compared to the mania-like feeling) to act is quite intense. They feel the intensity, they just don’t act on them in the way someone with Bipolar Disorder would—that’s where their unique and very necessary regulatory traits come in, allowing them to keep that intensity, but harness it and channel it into a mandated mission.

The intentions of the X-Altruist may not always seem to be heroic to the outside observer; they may appear to be a person bucking the system out of stubbornness, selfishness, or greed. But that’s hardly the case. They are driven to act with a self-less purpose, fueled by their abnormally high empathy, striving to “do the right thing”. But I must also mention that the terms “right” and “wrong” are to be taken in the context of the action. The right moral action may not be following the law, which is where the rule-breaking tendency comes in. The X-Altruist is totally fine with breaking rules, as long as the purpose serves the greater social good. Are you beginning to get a mental picture of the X-Altruist? Sort of like Robin Hood. Only more tempermental.

Why is the intensity necessary?

The fact is, in order for the X-Altruist to be so incredibly in-tune with the needs of others and feel compelled to seek justice at every turn, they need that extreme emotional sensitivity. The “depressive” moods are necessary to feel empathy, and the “manic” moods drive the X-Altruist on their mandated mission. Granted, absolute uncontrollable expression of these emotions and moods would be disastrous. But that’s where X-Altruist’s pretty fantastic traits allow for the expression of extreme emotions, while still maintaining relative control over them. On the outside, they appear cool, collected, and purposeful in times of crisis. But on the inside, they are harnessing great energy. In a sense, they can be thought of as an optimally functional Bipolar Personality [3]. The traits that make them optimally functional: Ego Resilience and Flexible Detachment.

Ego Resilience and Flexible Detachment: The Superpowers of the X-Altruist

I’ve mentioned these terms a few times now without fully explaining them, but it was important to first emphasize the extreme emotional sensitivity of the X-Altruist before you could really appreciate the vital importance these traits play in keeping that intensity in check, and what that means for emotional stability.

Imagine a superhero charging into action. Or better yet—just a regular guy (who happens to be an X-Altruist) who steps up in a time of crisis—say a natural disaster— taking control of the situation, saving people’s lives, generally being pretty awesome doing his heroic stuff. What is the one thing you would notice about his demeanor?


The X-Altruist shows no immediate fear. Fear, along with other intense emotions, are of no use in a crisis—emotion disrupts the cognitive pathway, and renders the hero useless. Extreme emotional sensitivity is necessary to get a person to want to act in the first place, but once you are in-progress of your heroic act, fear and emotion is a hindrance. So how does he experience intense emotion, then instantaneously turn it off in order to function at his heroic best, calm and focused? That’s where Flexible Detachment comes in.

Flexible Detachment is the X-Altruist’s shield that protects the ego from harm when entering battle. Detaching emotionally from a situation allows you to focus clearly on goal-directed behavior, without suffering the negative consequences to your ego. In situations of major trauma, it is common for victims to emotionally shut down—it is out of ego preservation. This is why we often find that the Sociopath has been a victim of some sort of abuse and neglect, resulting in emotional detachment. Because of this detachment, they have no ability to feel empathy.

The Sociopath detaches permanently. The X-Altruist is able to detach emotionally when the situation demands it, but is able to immediately reattach emotionally following the crisis situation. That’s why I call this is a superpower. It’s pretty amazing, virtually automatic, and the single most important trait of a hero. Blocking key emotional pathways during times of great stress with Kung Fu precision, Flexible Detachment allows cognition to do its work without interference from the emotional arousal that would otherwise be flooding those sensitive networks, preventing logical thought. But detachment doesn’t last too long—only long enough to let the mind do the cognitive work it needs to. Once the immediate crisis is over, the shields go down, releasing the emotional flow back into the empathy circuit, in contact with the ego, but now at much safer, controlled level. If the X-Altruist can’t temporarily set emotion aside, the intensity would be deadly. But he absolutely needs to reengage with it to maintain his high-empathy personality.

During times of great stress, engaging in Flexible Detachment might be akin to going up against a dozen opponents, with only a sword and a shield to protect you as you make your way through the battle—eventually you will get struck, even if in some small way. It isn’t a perfect system. As skilled as someone may be at compartmentalizing, there are going to be times when you don’t see an emotional strike coming. As sensitive as X-Altruists are, this is extremely painful. The ego is bound to be damaged by this, considering how intensely they feel pain. However, enter Ego Resilience—the second most important superpower.

The X-Altruist’s ego is not made of stone—it is not impenetrable. However, it does seem to have the ability to heal very rapidly following damage. Just as the mythological Prometheus’s liver regenerated itself after being devoured by birds, the X-Altruist’s ego has an almost unfathomable regenerative quality as well, and after years of regeneration and repair, Ego Resilience develops.

Could an X-Altruist “turn evil”?

Whenever you have that much intensity (or power) inside one person, the question always is: Could it be used for evil?

The answer: Probably. But it would take something pretty spectacularly horrendous, hitting at a very vulnerable time, in order to make that happen. But it doesn’t seem impossible. As Harvey Dent famously says in Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

What this means is, an X-Altruist is constantly putting himself in the presence of extreme danger—either physically or emotionally. Do that time and time again, your chances of suffering a crippling blow are greater. So ironically, the greater the hero (performs higher number of heroic actions), the greater chance for suffering a devastating blow—purely based on statistics. Additionally, the more heroic you are, the more likely you are to meet adversaries or people attempting to thwart your mission, thus increasing likelihood of planned malicious attacks.

Every hero has their weakness, and for the X-Altruist, their weakness is also one of their greatest gifts—their power of empathy. Because they have the ability to develop such strong emotional attachments to things and people, they practice and master Flexible Detachment in order to prevent the overload of emotional input, especially of a negative nature, which could cause severe, and possibly permanent damage to their ego if struck at the wrong time.

Because they have the capacity to feel emotions so intensely, they have the ability to form very deep attachments. This can be to a person, a group, or a cause. Being betrayed by someone or something that they currently hold a deep attachment to can be emotionally devastating.

The X-Altruist’s ego strength is their essential asset that holds all of the extreme traits together, allowing them to express at their fullest and most functional state. Damage their ego, and the whole tower begins to crumble.

Think back to Star Wars: When Anakin Skywalker was both betrayed by the Emperor and lost his wife at the same time, he started down that road of permanent emotional detachment. That kind of traumatic emotional hit, involving people and organizations he was so emotionally embedded with, was just too much of a blow for his ego to withstand. He shut down his empathy circuit, his impulsivity and aggressiveness took over, and Darth Vader emerged.

Now, that’s science fiction, and we want to know if it is possible in real life, but the analogy is still applicable. Suffering a devastating personal loss or betrayal may make someone feel they need to personally detach, just in order to survive. Do this long enough, it becomes difficult to reverse—your brain starts changing as a result of the extended drastic switch in arousal. Having all of the other traits of an X-Altruist, but without the empathy, sends a person down the road to the dark side. The longer you remain, the harder it is to come back.

With that said, it may be possible to return to your former, more empathy-expressing self following deep trauma, but the key there would be gradually reconnecting with people with whom you could form meaningful relationships. Trust is very important, for minimizing the risk of future damage. Deep emotional commitments involving a high level of trust could be a step in the right direction, in order to trigger those empathy circuits once again.

The Sociopath: A Less Hardy X-Altruist?

The fragility and lack of resilience of the ego is probably the biggest liability to the Sociopath, and why he tends to go down the path of evil after a major emotional trauma. He has the impulsivity and novelty-seeking behaviors that make him likely to get into harm’s way, but for him it’s like going into battle naked, getting ambushed, with no way to recover.

The Sociopath may seem tough as nails, but in reality, he is just a broken, closed-off emotionally damaged result of being in the worst possible situation for what he is biologically and neurologically capable of handling. The outward appearance of toughness and strength in an attempt to hide his frail ego makes the situation worse; instead of getting the support he desperately needs to build confidence and strengthen his identity at a young age when intervention is more effective, he appears untouchable and bulletproof, while acting selfish and cruel. Meanwhile, he grows more volatile by the day, in a self-perpetuating cycle of detachment, which leaves him cold and unfeeling towards others.

Unless the risk factors of Sociopathy are identified early, the person with this set of personality traits doesn’t stand too much of a chance of a good outcome if forced into battle. He started out with the foundations to be a potential X-Altruist, but without the superpowers to allow him to survive and manage the intensity, steering him towards good, rather than evil. In a way, the development of Sociopathy following environmental trauma is an adaptation, an automatic psychological survival mechanism that ends up detrimental to the whole world, including the Sociopath.

And that leads us to the question: Can a would-be Sociopath be steered into X-Altruism, thus having potential to be a great hero instead? It may be possible, if they are identified early enough.

How can we prevent X-Altruists from becoming Sociopaths?

Here’s the good news: If we know the main elements in play that distinguish functional X-Altruists from dysfunctional Sociopaths, then we know where we need to target behavioral or psychological training, and what efforts will have the greatest positive impact. So given what we know about the weaknesses of Sociopaths, the traits that prevent them from being fully functional X-Altruists, what are some things that could be targeted? We know resilience is important, as well as a strong ego, or self-concept, and emotion regulation.

So in addition to the obvious effort to avoid extreme psychological trauma, what variables do we know we have some element of control over?

Past and more recent research has told us:

  • Resilience can be trained and strengthened, through successfully dealing with early life stress in a supportive environment.
  • We know empathy can be strengthened, as evidenced through the many, many children on the autism spectrum (who are often characterized as lacking empathy) that have built at least one trusting relationship with another human being. I don’t need to cite any research on this; look around you at the countless live examples.
  • Egos can be strengthened. By getting kids involved in activities that are esteem-building, and give them a sense of self-confidence, accomplishment and courage, you are strengthening their ego.
  • Emotion regulation can be trained. I have mentioned this before here in an article about Chess-boxing, plus other studies have shown gains in emotion regulation using various other techniques, ranging in success. There is a current effort to use emotion regulation training as a preventative measure for mental illness in general, which should tell you something about how crucial it is.

If we know we have some element of control over these things, it does seem possible to create conditions in which we can steer potentially risky kids into a much more advantageous psychological situation. If they have the intense and extreme behavioral traits already, we can help teach them control over them. Think about it as Jedi Training for kids.

How do we encourage X-Altruism?

Which then leads us to this final point: How do we, as a society, encourage X-Altruism and support them on their quest to make a better society? This is probably one of the more important questions that is also the most difficult to answer. By definition, X-Altruists are rule-breakers. But they break rules in order to promote the social good. Is there a way to take these kinds of situations into account when considering our current legal system? How do we separate out the criminals from the heroes?

Some X-Altruists are more obvious about their mission, such as the group that calls themselves the Real Life Superheroes. They make it clear that they are out to create real social change, even if it starts in their own neighborhoods. But most X-Altruists are not so forthcoming with their identities, so it is up to us to be more aware and observant. Even if we don’t support their exact cause, respect that they are doing something bold, brave, and heroic—to create positive change.

One thing we can do as a society is recognize that some rules may be broken, some rules should be broken, and some rules need to be broken. When we see this happening, and it is clearly an X-Altruist on a mandated mission, it needs to be recognized as such. Harsh, punitive punishment for the violation of laws that were broken with the intent of serving a much greater good should, on some level, be tolerated. At the very least, it should be taken into account when deciding on punishment or consequences.

Conformity and standardization serves a purpose, but it isn’t universally applicable, and is context-specific. We should question authority. If no one ever broke a rule and unquestionably followed the given outline, there would never be any advancement in this world. Creativity, by definition, is rule-breaking. However, there needs to be a way to recognize rules that are being broken for the sake of doing social good, and those that are broken for illegal or immoral intent.

At any given point in time, there is a significant portion of the population fighting against conformity, refusing to get shoved into a box, breaking rules in order to advance civilization—but what if they all stopped? What if every single person stopped bucking the system, stopped challenging convention, and marched obediently to take their expected place in society?

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Note: A man named Tea Krulos, whom I met after writing the first article on this subject, has been writing a book about the Real Life Superheroes and their quest to create a better society through acts of heroism. He has a blog where he updates progress on the book and features different “real superheroes” each week. The name of the blog is Heroes in the Night.

Update: The book by Tea Krulos, Heroes in the Night: Inside the Real Life Superhero Movement, is now published. You can find it here.


[1] Lykken suggested the genetic link was between psychopaths and heroes, not sociopaths; he saw them as two distinct groups. I am not defending nor arguing against his position, only pointing out the distinction.

[2] Definition taken from

[3] Note I used the term “Personality” and not “Disorder”; this implies functionality of the traits.


Dietrich, A., & Audiffren, M. (2011). The reticular-activating hypofrontality (RAH) model of acute excerciseNeuroscience and Biobehavioral reviews.

Iris B. Mauss, C. L. (2007). Automatic emotion regulation during anger provocation.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 698-711.

Katz, M. (2009). Prefrontal Plasticity and Stress Inoculation-Induced Resilience.Developmental Neuroscience.

Kring, A. M. (2010). The future of Emotion Research in the Study of PsychopathologyEmotion Review, 225-228.

Lykken, D. T. (1995). The Antisocial Personalities. Psychology Press.

Salcedo-Albaran, E., Kuszewski, A., De Leon-Beltran, I., & and Garay, L. J. (2009).Rule-Breaking from creativity to illegality: A transdiscilplinary inquiryMETODO.

Image credit: Prometheus, Scott Eaton, at Wikimedia Commons.


You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential


scientific-american-logoFrom  March 7th, 2011

“One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” —Albert Einstein

While Einstein was not a neuroscientist, he sure knew what he was talking about in regards to the human capacity to achieve. He knew intuitively what we can now show with data—what it takes to function at your cognitive best. In essence: What doesn’t kill you makes you smarter.

Not so many years ago, I was told by a professor of mine that you didn’t have much control over your intelligence. It was genetic—determined at birth. He explained that efforts made to raise the intelligence of children (through programs like Head Start, for example) had limited success while they were in practice, and furthermore, once the “training” stopped, they went right back to their previously low cognitive levels. Indeed, the data did show that [pdf], and he (along with many other intelligence researchers) concluded that intelligence could not be improved—at least not to create a lasting change.

Well, I disagreed.

You see, before that point in my studies, I had begun working as a Behavior Therapist, training young children on the autism spectrum. These kids had a range of cognitive disabilities—my job was to train them in any and all areas that were deficient, to get them as close to functioning at the same level of their peers as possible. Therapy utilized a variety of methods, or Multimodal Teaching (using as many modes of input as possible), in order to make this happen.

One of my first clients was a little boy w/ PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Delays-Not Otherwise Specified), a mild form of autism. When we began therapy, his IQ was tested and scored in the low 80s—which is considered borderline mental retardation. After I worked with him for about three years— one on one, teaching in areas such as communication, reading, math, social functioning, play skills, leisure activities—using multimodal techniques [pdf] —he was retested. His IQ score was well over 100 (with 100 considered “average”, as compared to the general population). That’s a 20 point increase, more than one standard deviation improvement, by a child with an autism spectrum disorder!

He wasn’t the only child I saw make vast improvements in the years I’ve been a therapist, either. I’ve been fortunate enough to see many children grow by leaps and bounds—not by magic, and not even by taking medication, and there’s data to show proof of their gains. I thought—if these kids with severe learning impediments could make such amazing progress, with that progress carrying over into every aspect of their cognitive functioning—why can’t an average person make those kinds of gains as well? Or even more gains, considering they don’t have the additional challenge of an autism spectrum disorder?

Although the data from those early studies showed dismal results, I wasn’t discouraged. I still believed it was possible to significantly increase your cognitive functioning, given the proper training—since I had seen it with my own eyes through my work as a therapist.

Then in 2008, a very exciting study was published, Improving Fluid Intelligence with Training on Working Memory, by Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, and Perrig. This study was pretty much a game-changer for those doing research on this topic. They showed for the first time, that it might actually be possible to increase your intelligence to a significant degree through training. What did they do different?

The subjects in Jaeggi’s study were trained on an intensive, multimodal (visual and auditory input) working memory task (the dual-n-back) [1] for variable lengths of time, for either one or two weeks, depending on the group. Following this training, they were tested to see how much they improved. As one would expect, after training, their scores on that task got better. But they went a step further. They wanted to see if those gains on the training task could transfer to an increase in skill on a completely different test of cognitive ability, which would indicate an increase in overall cognitive ability. What did they find?

Following training of working memory using the dual n-back test, the subjects were indeed able to transfer those gains to a significant improvement in their score on a completely unrelated cognitive task. This was a super-big deal.

Here’s the graph of their results, and you can read about the entire study here.



What is “Intelligence”?

First of all, let me explain what I mean when I say the word “intelligence”. To be clear, I’m not just talking about increasing the volume of facts or bits of knowledge you can accumulate, or what is referred to as crystallized intelligence—this isn’t fluency or memorization training—it’s almost the opposite, actually. I’m talking about increasing your fluid intelligence, or your capacity to learn new information, retain it, then use that new knowledge as a foundation to solve the next problem, or learn the next new skill, and so on.

Now, while working memory is not synonymous with intelligence, working memorycorrelates with intelligence to a large degree. In order to generate successfully intelligent output, a good working memory is pretty important. So to make the most of your intelligence, improving your working memory will help this significantly—like using the very best and latest parts to help a machine to perform at its peak.

The take-home points from this research? This study is relevant because they discovered:

1. Fluid intelligence is trainable.

2. The training and subsequent gains are dose-dependent—meaning, the more you train, the more you gain.

3. Anyone can increase their cognitive ability, no matter what your starting point is.

4. The effect can be gained by training on tasks that don’t resemble the test questions.


How Can I Put This Research To Practical Use For My Own Benefit?

There is a reason why the dual n-back task was so successful at increasing cognitive ability. It involves dividing your attention between competing stimuli, multimodal in fashion (one visual, one auditory). It requires you to focus on specific details while ignoring irrelevant information, which helps to improve your working memory over time, gradually increasing your ability to multi-task the information effectively. In addition, the stimulus was constantly switched, so there was never a “training to the test questions” phenomenon—it was always different. If you’ve never taken the dual n-back test, let me tell you this: It’s wicked hard. I’m not surprised there was so much cognitive gain from practicing this activity.

But let’s think practically.

Eventually, you will run out of cards in the deck or sounds in the array (the experiment lasted 2 weeks), so it isn’t practical to think that if you want to continually increase your brain power over the course of your lifetime, that the dual n-back alone will do the trick. Also, you’ll get bored with it and stop doing it. I know I would. Not to mention the time it takes to train in this activity—we all have busy lives! So we need to think of how to simulate the same types of heavy-duty brain thrashing—using multimodal methods—that can be applied to your normal life, while still maintaining the maximum benefits, in order to get the cognitive growth.

So—taking all of this into account, I have come up with five primary elements involved in increasing your fluid intelligence, or cognitive ability. Like I said, it would be impractical to constantly practice the dual n-back task or variations thereof every day for the rest of your life to reap cognitive benefits. But it isn’t impractical to adopt lifestyle changes that will have the same—and even greater cognitive benefits. These can be implemented every day, to get you the benefits of intense entire-brain training, and should transfer to gains in overall cognitive functioning as well.

These five primary principles are:

1. Seek Novelty

2. Challenge Yourself

3. Think Creatively

4. Do Things The Hard Way

5. Network

fluid intelligence








Any one of these things by itself is great, but if you really want to function at your absolute cognitive best, you should do all five, and as often as possible. In fact, I live my life by these five principles. If you adopt these as fundamental guidelines, I guarantee you will be performing at your peak ability, surpassing even what you believe you are capable of—all without artificial enhancement. Best part: Science supports these principles by way of data!


1. Seek Novelty

It is no coincidence that geniuses like Einstein were skilled in multiple areas, or polymaths, as we like to refer to them. Geniuses are constantly seeking out novel activities, learning a new domain. It’s their personality.

There is only one trait out of the “Big Five” from the Five Factor Model of personality (Acronym: OCEAN, or Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) that correlates with IQ, and it is the trait of Openness to new experience. People who rate high on Openness are constantly seeking new information, new activities to engage in, new things to learn—new experiences in general [2].

When you seek novelty, several things are going on. First of all, you are creating new synaptic connections with every new activity you engage in. These connections build on each other, increasing your neural activity, creating more connections to build on other connections—learning is taking place.

An area of interest in recent research [pdf] is neural plasticity as a factor in individual differences in intelligence. Plasticity is referring to the number of connections made between neurons, how that affects subsequent connections, and how long-lasting those connections are. Basically, it means how much new information you are able to take in, and if you are able to retain it, making lasting changes to your brain. Constantly exposing yourself to new things helps puts your brain in a primed state for learning.

Novelty also triggers dopamine (I have mentioned this before in other posts), which not only kicks motivation into high gear, but it stimulates neurogenesis—the creation of new neurons—and prepares your brain for learning. All you need to do is feed the hunger.

Excellent learning condition =

Novel Activity—>triggers dopamine—>creates a higher motivational state—>which fuels engagement and primes neurons—>neurogenesis can take place + increase in synaptic plasticity (increase in new neural connections, or learning).

As a follow-up of the Jaeggi study, researchers in Sweden [pdf] found that after 14 hours of training working memory over 5 weeks’ time, there was an increase ofdopamine D1 binding potential in the prefrontal and parietal areas of the brain. This particular dopamine receptor, the D1 type, is associated with neural growth and development, among other things. This increase in plasticity, allowing greater binding of this receptor, is a very good thing for maximizing cognitive functioning.

Take home point: Be an “Einstein”. Always look to new activities to engage your mind—expand your cognitive horizons. Learn an instrument. Take an art class. Go to a museum. Read about a new area of science. Be a knowledge junkie.

sciam_challenge 2. Challenge Yourself

There are absolutely oodles of terrible things written and promoted on how to “train your brain” to “get smarter”. When I speak of “brain training games”, I’m referring to the memorization and fluency-type games, intended to increase your speed of processing, etc, such as Sudoku, that they tell you to do in your “idle time” (complete oxymoron, regarding increasing cognition). I’m going to shatter some of that stuff you’ve previously heard about brain training games. Here goes: They don’t work. Individual brain training games don’t make you smarter—they make you more proficient at the brain training games.

Now, they do serve a purpose, but it is short-lived. The key to getting something out of those types of cognitive activities sort of relates to the first principle of seeking novelty. Once you master one of those cognitive activities in the brain-training game, you need to move on to the next challenging activity. Figure out how to play Sudoku? Great! Now move along to the next type of challenging game. There is research that supports this logic.

A few years ago, scientist Richard Haier wanted to see if you could increase your cognitive ability by intensely training on novel mental activities for a period of several weeks. They used the video game Tetris as the novel activity, and used people who had never played the game before as subjects (I know—can you believe they exist?!). What they found, was that after training for several weeks on the game Tetris, the subjects experienced an increase in cortical thickness, as well as an increase in cortical activity, as evidenced by the increase in how much glucose was used in that area of the brain. Basically, the brain used more energy during those training times, and bulked up in thickness—which means more neural connections, or new learned expertise—after this intense training. And they became experts at Tetris. Cool, right?

Here’s the thing: After that initial explosion of cognitive growth, they noticed adecline in both cortical thickness, as well as the amount of glucose used during that task. However, they remained just as good at Tetris; their skill did not decrease. The brain scans showed less brain activity during the game-playing, instead of more, as in the previous days. Why the drop? Their brains got more efficient. Once their brain figured out how to play Tetris, and got really good at it, it got lazy. It didn’t need to work as hard in order to play the game well, so the cognitive energy and the glucose went somewhere else instead.

Efficiency is not your friend when it comes to cognitive growth. In order to keep your brain making new connections and keeping them active, you need to keep moving on to another challenging activity as soon as you reach the point of masteryin the one you are engaging in. You want to be in a constant state of slight discomfort, struggling to barely achieve whatever it is you are trying to do, as Einstein alluded to in his quote. This keeps your brain on its toes, so to speak. We’ll come back to this point later on.


Csciam_creative 3. Think Creatively

When I say thinking creatively will help you achieve neural growth, I am not talking about painting a picture, or doing something artsy, like we discussed in the first principle, Seeking Novelty. When I speak of creative thinking, I am talking about creative cognition itself, and what that means as far as the process going on in your brain.

Contrary to popular belief, creative thinking does not equal “thinking with the right side of your brain”. It involves recruitment from both halves of your brain, not just the right. Creative cognition involves divergent thinking (a wide range of topics/subjects), making remote associations between ideas, switching back and forth between conventional and unconventional thinking (cognitive flexibility), and generating original, novel ideas that are also appropriate to the activity you are doing. In order to do this well, you need both right and left hemispheres working in conjunction with each other.

Several years ago, Dr Robert Sternberg, former Dean at Tufts University, opened thePACE (Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise) Center, in Boston. Sternberg has been on a quest to not only understand the fundamental concept of intelligence, but also to find ways in which any one person can maximize his or her intelligence through training, and especially, through teaching in schools.

Here Sternberg describes the goals of the PACE Center, which was started at Yale:

“The basic idea of the center is that abilities are not fixed but rather flexible, that they’re modifiable, and that anyone can transform their abilities into competencies, and their competencies into expertise,” Sternberg explains. “We’re especially interested in how we can help people essentially modify their abilities so that they can be better able to face the tasks and situations they’re going to confront in life.”

As part of a research study, The Rainbow Project [pdf], he created not only innovative methods of creative teaching in the classroom, but generated assessment procedures that tested the students in ways that got them to think about the problems in creative and practical ways, as well as analytical, instead of just memorizing facts.

Sternberg explains,

“In the Rainbow Project we created assessments of creative and practical as well as analytical abilities. A creative test might be: ‘Here’s a cartoon. Caption it.’ A practical problem might be a movie of a student going into a party, looking around, not knowing anyone, and obviously feeling uncomfortable. What should the student do?”

He wanted to find out if by teaching students to think creatively (and practically)about a problem, as well as for memory, he could get them to (i) Learn more about the topic, (ii) Have more fun learning, and (iii) Transfer that knowledge gained to other areas of academic performance. He wanted to see if by varying the teaching and assessment methods, he could prevent “teaching to the test” and get the students to actually learn more in general. He collected data on this, and boy, did he get great results.

In a nutshell? On average, the students in the test group (the ones taught using creative methods) received higher final grades in the college course than the control group (taught with traditional methods and assessments). But—just to make things fair— he also gave the test group the very same analytical-type exam that the regular students got (a multiple choice test), and they scored higher on that test as well. That means they were able to transfer the knowledge they gained using creative, multimodal teaching methods, and score higher on a completely different cognitive test of achievement on that same material. Sound familiar?

sciam_hardway4. Do Things the Hard Way

I mentioned earlier that efficiency is not your friend if you are trying to increase your intelligence. Unfortunately, many things in life are centered on trying to make everything more efficient. This is so we can do more things, in a shorter amount of time, expending the least amount of physical and mental energy possible. However, this isn’t doing your brain any favors.

Take one object of modern convenience, GPS. GPS is an amazing invention. I am one of those people GPS was invented for. My sense of direction is terrible. I get lost all the time. So when GPS came along, I was thanking my lucky stars. But you know what? After using GPS for a short time, I found that my sense of direction was worse. If I failed to have it with me, I was even more lost than before. So when I moved to Boston—the city that horror movies and nightmares about getting lost are modeled after—I stopped using GPS.

I won’t lie—it was painful as hell. I had a new job which involved traveling all over the burbs of Boston, and I got lost every single day for at least 4 weeks. I got lost so much, I thought I was going to lose my job due to chronic lateness (I even got written up for it). But—in time, I started learning my way around, due to the sheer amount of practice I was getting at navigation using only my brain and a map. I began to actually get a sense of where things in Boston were, using logic and memory, not GPS. I can still remember how proud I was the day a friend was in town visiting, and I was able to effectively find his hotel downtown with only a name and a location description to go on—not even an address. It was like I had graduated from navigational awareness school.

Technology does a lot to make things in life easier, faster, more efficient, but sometimes our cognitive skills can suffer as a result of these shortcuts, and hurt us in the long run. Now, before everyone starts screaming and emailing my transhumanist friends to say that I’ve sinned by trashing tech—that’s not what I’m doing.

Look at it this way: Driving to work takes less physical energy, saves time, and it’s probably more convenient and pleasant than walking. Not a big deal. But if you drove everywhere you went, or spent your life on a Segway, even to go very short distances, you aren’t going to be expending any physical energy. Over time, your muscles will atrophy, your physical state will weaken, and you’ll probably gain weight. Your overall health will probably decline as a result.

Your brain needs exercise as well. If you stop using your problem-solving skills, your spatial skills, your logical skills, your cognitive skills—how do you expect your brain to stay in top shape—never mind improve? Think about modern conveniences that are helpful, but when relied on too much, can hurt your skill in that domain. Translation software: amazing, but my multilingual skills have declined since I started using it more. I’ve now forced myself to struggle through translations before I look up the correct format. Same goes for spell-check and autocorrect. In fact, I think autocorrect was one of the worst things ever invented for the advancement of cognition. You know the computer will catch your mistakes, so you plug along, not even thinking about how to spell any more. As a result of years of relying on autocorrect and spell-check, as a nation, are we worse spellers? (I would love someone to do a study on this.)

There are times when using technology is warranted and necessary. But there are times when it’s better to say no to shortcuts and use your brain, as long as you can afford the luxury of time and energy. Walking to work every so often or taking the stairs instead of the elevator a few times a week is recommended to stay in good physical shape. Don’t you want your brain to be fit as well? Lay off the GPS once in a while, and do your spatial and problem-solving skills a favor. Keep it handy, but try navigating naked first. Your brain will thank you.

sciam_network5. Network

And that brings us to the last element to maximize your cognitive potential: Networking. What’s great about this last objective is that if you are doing the other four things, you are probably already doing this as well. If not, start. Immediately.


By networking with other people—either through social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or in face-to-face interactions—you are exposing yourself to the kinds of situations that are going to make objectives 1-4 much easier to achieve. By exposing yourself to new people, ideas, and environments, you are opening yourself up to new opportunities for cognitive growth. Being in the presence of other people who may be outside of your immediate field gives you opportunities to see problems from a new perspective, or offer insight in ways that you had never thought of before. Learning is all about exposing yourself to new things and taking in that information in ways that are meaningful and unique—networking with other people is a great way to make that happen. I’m not even going to get into the social benefits and emotional well-being that is derived from networking as a factor here, but that is just an added perk.

Steven Johnson, author who wrote the book “Where Good Ideas Come From”, discusses the importance of groups and networks for the advancement of ideas. If you are looking for ways to seek out novel situations, ideas, environments, and perspectives, then networking is the answer. It would be pretty tough to implement this “Get Smarter” regiment without making networking a primary component. Greatest thing about networking: Everyone involved benefits. Collective intelligence for the win!

And I have one more thing to mention…

Remember back to the beginning of this article where I told the story about my clients with autism spectrum disorders? Let’s think about that for a moment, in light of everything else we discussed about how to increase your fluid intelligence. Why were those children able to achieve at such a high level? It was not by chance or miracle—it was because we incorporated all of these learning principles into their therapy program. While most other therapy providers were stuck in the “Errorless Learning” paradigm and barely-modified “Lovaas Techniques” of Applied Behavior Analysis, we adopted and fully embraced a multimodal approach to teaching. We made the kids struggle to learn, we used the most creative ways we could think of, and we challenged them beyond what they seemed capable of—we set the bar very high. But you know what? They surpassed that bar time and time again, and made me truly believe that amazing things are possible if you have enough will and courage and perseverance to set yourself on that path and stick with it. If those kids with disabilities can live this lifestyle of constantly maximizing their cognitive potential, then so can you.

And I have a departing question for you to ponder as well: If we have all of this supporting data, showing that these teaching methods and ways of approaching learning can have such a profound positive effect on cognitive growth, why aren’t more therapy programs or school systems adopting some of these techniques? I’d love to see this as the standard in teaching, not the exception. Let’s try something novel and shake up the education system a little bit, shall we? We’d raise the collective IQ something fierce.

Intelligence isn’t just about how many levels of math courses you’ve taken, how fast you can solve an algorithm, or how many vocabulary words you know that are over 6 characters. It’s about being able to approach a new problem, recognize its important components, and solve it—then take that knowledge gained and put it towards solving the next, more complex problem. It’s about innovation and imagination, and about being able to put that to use to make the world a better place. This is the kind of intelligence that is valuable, and this is the type of intelligence we should be striving for and encouraging.

This article is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Humanity + Summit at Harvard University in June 2010.

[1.] The dual n-back test, while lumped into the “brain training” genre, is not your typical brain training game. It is specific and complicated, uses multiple modes of stimuli, and not the type I’m referring to when I say “brain training games”.

[2.] “Openness” or novelty-seeking is not the same as thrill-seeking behavior. The motivation for the former is driven by dopamine, and associated with curiosity—the latter by adrenaline, and typically associated with more dangerous activities.

Works Cited:

Garlick, D. (2002). Understanding the Nature of the General Factor of Intelligence: The Role of Individual Differences in Neural Plasticity as an Explanatory MechanismPsychological Review, 109, no.1 , 116-136.

Haier, R. E. (2007). The Parieto-Frontal Integration Theory (P-FIT) of Intelligence: Converging Neuroinaging EvidenceBehavioral and Brain Sciences, 135-187.

Haier, R. J. (1993). Cerebral glucose metabolism and intelligence. In P. A. Vernon,Biological approaches to the study of human intelligence (pp. 317-373). Norwood, N. J.: Ablex.

Susanne M. Jaeggi, M. B. (2008). Improving Fluid intelligence With Training on Working MemoryProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0801268105

Ramey, C. T. (1998). Early Intervention and Early ExperienceAmerican Psychologist, 109-120.

Sternberg, R. (2008). Increasing Fluid Intelligence is Possible After All. PNAS, 105, no. 19 , 6791- 6792.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Implicit Theories of Intelligence, Creativity, and Wisdom.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49 , 607-627.

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). The Theory of Sucessful IntelligenceReview of General Psychology, 3 , 292-316.

Weinberg, R. (1989). Intelligence and IQAmerican Psychologist, 98-104.

Image Credits: Andrea Kuszewski



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