When it comes to measuring intelligence, there are many skills that come into play, from problem solving and skills related to spatial relationships to emotional awareness and memory.
More than 250,000 people have participated in BBC research with Imperial College London
Photo: . / BBC News Brasil
But one thing is clear: intelligence is important. People who do well on intelligence tests tend, on average, to live longer, age better and are more likely to achieve academic and professional success.
The good news is that more and more research indicates that intelligence is not fixed. Until a few years ago, it was believed that we were born with all the brain cells that we would have in life and that they would decline in the fifth decade of life. Now, we know that this is not true.
Technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) allow us to see inside the living brains and see how they work in ways that were not possible a decade ago.
This shed light on what scientists call “neuroplasticity”: the idea that our brains change with the formation of new cells and connections throughout our lives.
In addition, we now know much more about the extent to which these changes are influenced by the world around us and even by the decisions we make in our daily lives.
This presents us with the tempting possibility of having more control over our brain and cognitive abilities than we thought.
That is why it is so important to understand how our intelligence works, what factors affect it and how it can be improved.
With that in mind, in January 2020, the BBC invited the public to participate in an intelligence test developed by scientist Adam Hampshire of Imperial College London.
More than 250,000 people have already answered questions about themselves and then been tested, with activities that sometimes look like games.
“This is a phenomenal number,” says Hampshire. “It is the equivalent of about 125,000 hours of testing, or more than 14 years.”
These numbers provide information on how different types of human intelligence are related to variables such as lifestyle, personality and the use of technology.
The more than 250,000 responses that have arrived – which make this test the largest of its kind – and those that will continue to arrive will contribute to important scientific research, which will help scientists at Imperial College London to understand how our behavior has affected our intelligence.
With the data collected so far, the test has already revealed some unexpected findings. But before telling what they are, it is important to highlight a few points: this is not an IQ test, because scientists are measuring performance on different aspects of intelligence related to specific brain systems; the participants are mostly British.
Study shows how different types of intelligence are related to lifestyle, personality and use of technology
Photo: . / BBC News Brasil
Who is better at solving problems?
When it comes to problem solving skills, we found that those who said they enjoyed eating fruits and vegetables performed better.
Obviously, it is not yet known whether fruits and vegetables make us smarter or whether smarter people simply choose to eat healthy meals.
But the most important factor in problem-solving skills was age. People in their 20s performed better, which worsened dramatically among older participants.
In addition, we found that working memory, spatial intelligence and attention peak at around age 20 and decline thereafter.
It is because, over the years, our brains literally begin to work at an ever slower pace.
Did you know that…
– When it comes to intelligence, brain size doesn’t seem to be a definite factor
– Individuals with more gray matter appear to have slightly higher cognitive ability.
– But research shows that white matter is crucial to accelerate thinking. It houses all connections between areas of the brain.
– These connections are called neural pathways, and each of us has hundreds of millions of them in the brain. If you only put your own, they would travel the world four times.
– They are isolated by a fatty substance called myelin.
Like any machine, the brain will rust over time
Photo: . / BBC News Brasil
All of this was explained to us by Simon Cox, one of the experts at the University of Edinburgh who discovered that one of the characteristics of the brains of intelligent people is the best connections. The processing speed depends on how well isolated these connections are.
As we age, the myelin layer decreases and communication between neurons drops, because signals are not transmitted as smoothly or quickly and there may be interference from neighboring connections, explains Alan Gow, from Heriot-Watt University.
“Another process that we notice is called atrophy, the general shrinking of brain volume as we age.”
Can we avoid brain atrophy?
It is likely that it will. See how the brain mass is different between the two people that appear in the image below. Both are the same age.
Two brains of people of the same age: the brain of the one on the left has further atrophied.
Photo: BBC News Brasil
“It doesn’t seem inevitable: the level of atrophy and damage to the white matter varies from person to person. What we want to understand is that factors in lifestyle or behavior make a difference,” says Gow.
A clue may be hidden precisely in IQ tests. Although they are often criticized, one of their advantages is that they have been carried out for a long time, revealing changes, such as such a significant increase in the IQ of British children since 1938 that it was necessary to recalibrate the tests.
The reason? There is a lot of debate about this, because a lot has changed: today, we have better food and education.
But there is an intriguing detail. Over the course of the 20th century, there was basically an increase in IQ, but at the turn of the 21st century, in many places, the curve has frozen and, in some, started to decline.
A specific study with citizens of Norway shows that they lost 7 IQ points per generation among those born after 1975.
No one yet knows why. What we do know is that there has been a major change in our lifestyle in the past few decades.
What is technology doing to us?
Imperial College scientists are particularly interested in the impact that our growing use of technology has on memory, space skills and other areas of cognition.
People were asked to say what devices they use, what they do with them and how often they do it. Aspects such as internet research, use of social networks and games and online shopping were also analyzed.
To our surprise, there is no clear link between intellectual capacity and the type of technology used or the amount of time spent on it. Except in one area …
The more time people spend playing computer games, the better their scores on spatial working memory tests (their ability to remember where things are, like car keys), attention and verbal reasoning.
In this case, the effective age was not taken into account. Therefore, it is not about young people versus the elderly, but about a very clear link with the game.
The brain is more plastic than previously thought
Photo: . / BBC News Brasil
One of our most surprising discoveries was that games can actually improve one of the main components of intelligence: working memory, our ability to temporarily keep information active for use in different cognitive activities, such as understanding or thinking.
“Anyone who has gone somewhere to do something and has forgotten what it was like on arrival knows what we are talking about,” says Louise Nicholls of Strathclyde University.
People who play on the computer achieved better results on these tests than those who train mentally, indicating that these games can be a more valuable hobby for those who wish to improve their cognitive skills.
It should be noted that controlled studies on the positive relationship between the amount of gambling and this aspect of intelligence have produced results consistent with those of the BBC, says Nicholls. But does it matter what the game is?
“The most reliable results speak especially of action video games, those that involve navigating different environments, finding visual targets and making quick decisions. But even space puzzle games, like Tetris, are beneficial,” says the expert.
“However, we need to do more research to find out, for example, what is the ideal number of hours of play, because sometimes the hobby affects hours of sleep and exercise and is no longer a benefit.”
There is another strong (and disturbing) link between those who use the internet excessively and obsessively and those who feel anxious and stressed. This was particularly noticeable among younger people.
So far, it is one of the clearest evidences that the excessive use of technology can have a negative impact on mental health.
Although this link has never been identified on such a large scale, “there is a lot of research indicating that excessive use of the internet is associated with mental health problems, especially in adolescents and young people,” says Lee Smith, of Anglia Ruskin University.
“This is partly because social networks sometimes encourage comparisons with impossible goals. Furthermore, they allow us to quantify our social success. These two things may be increasing stress levels.”
Therefore, spending less time on social media is better for mental health.
Bad news for the lazy
There is intriguing evidence for something else we can do to maximize our brain power. Apparently, good physical conditioning is good for the brain.
At the University of South Wales, Stroop tests are applied before, during and after people exercise. These tests measure how long it takes our brain to process a discrepancy in the information.
It’s simpler than it looks: when volunteers pedal an exercise bike, they see the words appear on the screen.
They are colorful names, but they are in another color – the word “blue”, written in red letters; they need to press a color button that says the word.
Even though the word is written in pink, you need to answer ‘blue’
Photo: BBC News Brasil
“We found that cognitive function improves while you exercise,” says Damien Bailey. “As more blood reaches the brain – more fuel: oxygen and glucose – there is more support for several areas of cognitive function.”
This happens thanks to a trick of our body. Exercise increases the levels of nitrogen oxide in the blood, which relaxes the vessels and facilitates blood flow.
In addition, exercise helps the brain by increasing the amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or FNDC, which is a type of fertilizer for neurons.
“If you are producing and developing more cells and brain connections, decision making, memory, reasoning … everything improves.”
According to research by the University of South Wales, the more you exercise the better your performance will be, and even a simple brisk walk doubles the amount of these chemicals in your brain.
How does gender affect us?
One of the tests looked at people’s ability to read emotions correctly on several faces. We found that those who got better results have brothers and / or sisters and also those who share their lives with cats and / or dogs.
Although there is no general difference in intelligence between the sexes, when it comes to our emotional intelligence, women have achieved better results than men and those who do not identify with binary genders.
In the tests of spatial capacity and problem solving, men obtained better scores than women and non-binary ones.
It must be emphasized that the differences were small, and there is much debate about whether this is due to nature or to creation.
A recent analysis of many different studies found that differences in spatial capacity tend to appear when we enter school age, suggesting that this is largely the result of social pressure and its impact on things like toy selection.
Several studies show that stereotypes clearly continue to exist and that they can have a significant effect on certain intelligence tests.
Can anything be done to combat these effects? “There is a very good study in which they took a group of girls whose space skills were not so good and encouraged them to play Tetris intensely for three months,” says neuroscientist Gina Rippon.
“The parts of the brain that support spatial performance have changed subtly. So it was possible to demonstrate how a specific part and function of the brain can respond to training and change behaviors.”
And what happens as we age?
The people who scored the best in verbal intelligence were the ones who read the most. Those who eat more fruits and vegetables also had good results. This was one of the cognitive skills most affected by lifestyle.
And the most interesting thing was how verbal skills vary with age. While all other cognitive skills decreased with age, verbal ability increased, peaking between 70 and 80 years old.
This was an interesting discovery, because previous studies pointed out that the peak was reached between 50 and 60 years and then declined.
“Verbal ability is an example of crystallized intelligence,” explains Smith. “These are skills that we accumulate through learning and experience and that we continue to develop and can retain until old age.”
In Scotland, a survey gave an idea of this. In 1947, children aged 10 and 11 from across the country took an intelligence test.
Decades later, scientists at the University of Edinburgh looked for those children, now 70, to retake the same test, with the idea of analyzing the results and looking for the keys to successful aging.
A group of children who took an intelligence test in 1947 took it again decades later
Photo: BBC News Brasil
Researcher Ian Dearry compared the results. To understand why some people’s brains aged better than others, he subjected them to other tests, including genetic profiles and detailed questionnaires about their lifestyles.
“There is a small contribution from certain genetic factors, but the biggest factor is lifestyle,” says Dearry.
His research showed that those who were consistently physically and mentally active had better reasoning skills. This is also true for anyone who has learned another language.
“There is certainly growing evidence that learning or getting involved in something new helps to reinforce or create new connections. In fact, learning another language at any age can be beneficial,” says Gow.
After analyzing so many studies, what would be your main advice for keeping your brain young?
“Physical activity is what seems to be consistently the most beneficial, but we must not forget the social connections: not being alone is important for mental health.”
Before closing, it is worth remembering that there are things that this type of test cannot measure, such as personality. And the most important personality trait in this context is dedication. Studies indicate that it can compensate for any deficiency. So, exercise while playing Russian video games on your computer!
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