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What Makes You Smarter?


Okay. I’m going to level with you. The title’s a bit of a red herring, a hook, if you will. That provocative rhetoric that gets you to click through and read.

The reason I mention this is that I don’t believe there is something that makes you smarter. At least, not in the way that people are always using the word.

I’m a stickler for language. In part, I have my father to blame for that (seriously, if you were to ever meet my father and inadvertently respond to the question “How are you?” with “Good”, be prepared to be grilled on what good you are doing to the world or be instantly corrected with “You mean, ‘well'”. A friend of mine swears he hears my father’s voice in his head when he makes a grammar mistake), but the larger part comes from my own love of playing with words and the amount of time I have spent either teaching or sub teaching in English classrooms. As a result of this tendency, I take real issue with the way our society uses and describes ‘smart’.

Here’s the usage that’s been bugging me the most over the past five years:

“Studies suggest ________ (insert music/art/phys-ed/etc. here) makes you smarter.”

If you’re still with me through the language pedantry, allow me to explain why I think this is not only inaccurate, but stunningly unhelpful to society as a whole.

Firstly, I would be willing to bet not-inconsiderate sums of money that anyone using this particular connotation of ‘smarter’ disagrees with every other person using this connotation as to what ‘smarter’ actually means. The reasoning behind this is pretty clear-cut: we don’t, as a society, have a consensus definition as to what constitutes ‘intelligence’. Even my replacing of the term ‘smart’ with ‘intelligence’ might have its objectors.

Let’s break that down more explicitly. In using that statement, do you mean that the individual is scoring better on I.Q. tests? That they have improved math performance? That they read at a higher level? Are more likely to complete post-secondary programs of education? Have a higher likelihood of a stable, long-term, and more successful career? Some combination of the above? Or a yet-more-technical definition involving detailed neurological studies?

All of the things I just listed have their individual problems. For example, I.Q. tests are increasingly proven to be less than helpful in determining a broad spectrum of intellectual performance, whereas claiming that math alone is a good indicator of intelligence is a shamefully limiting statement.

On a more personal note, I’d like to tackle the statement I hear a lot of in my field: “Music makes you smarter”. My issue with this has less to do with the intellectual performance indicators therein and more with the bias indicated by the statement.

I have no quibble with the fact that studying music can increase certain intellectual performance indicators, or the fact that training in music can have broad-spectrum influences on other skills. My problem lies in the idea that you should be doing something in service to being perceived as smarter. “Do this activity, not because it is a fulfilling activity, or because it is something you love, but because it has a utilitarian bonus”. In particular, this has been a problem in the fight to keep music education alive and current. “Do music because it helps math.” “Do music because your I.Q. goes up.”

That’s the language and inherent implication aspect of it. Let me finish with a discussion that actually deals with the question I posed as the title of this post. Surprise! An actual answer – decoy red herring as the title. How’s that for subverted expectations?

There is only one factor, and only one, that truly, in all instances, across all studies, and across all societies, that increases a variety of any and all intellectual performance factors, regardless of social background, economic status, and neurological peculiarities. That factor is the person themselves, and their desired to self-improve.

If you work at it, and attempt to apply your brain to the task, then it doesn’t really matter what field you are studying, or what the environment is – your intelligence, your skills, your smartness (ugh, I still don’t like the term) is going to improve. Now, how much it will improve can still be influenced by any number of things. Someone with an excellent teacher scales the ladder faster than a person suffering beneath an oppressive and disinterested instructor. But all humans are capable of learning things and improving their intellectual performance.

There’s a good reason that the people who work hardest are the ones graduating at the top of their class in post-secondary and the ones getting the best jobs, as opposed to those who have excellent natural ability at something. Because they are continually working to gain that intelligence, and all of the research shows that that will stick longer as a result.

There is a dual term for this individual outlook I want to close with. People tend to fall into one of two broad categories when it comes to defining intelligence: incremental or entity theories of intelligence.

People who align more closely with entity theories of intelligence tend to believe that humans have more or less a fixed level of talent. They will use statements like “I have always been dumb at math”, or “When it comes to mechanical problems, I’m just really smart, not for anything else”. As a result, they will subscribe intellectual achievements to factors outside their control and tend to put less effort into deep understanding because they believe themselves and others as either capable or not.

On the other hand, incremental theorists approach from a viewpoint of continual improvement through effort. They tend to make responses like “I worked hard, and I’ve gotten better at it as a result”, or “Well, of course I’m not very good at math – I’ve never really put in the time and effort to understand it”. Intellectual achievement or abilities are ascribed to the person’s desire to change their own brain and efficacy.

So, to conclude, I really wish we would stop having conversations about ‘X’ making us ‘smarter’ in our society, and more conversations about ways that children and adults can better use their efforts in any field to improve themselves and their abilities. I have any number of personal theories on how to accomplish this, but of course, I have a lot left to work on in my own brain, so I’ll leave the heavy lifting to those who’ve put in a lot more time and effort on this subject than I have.

Cheers, and good luck with that sudoku puzzle that’s been killing your brain over the past week. Keep at it!


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