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Ask HN: Ways to increase mental sharpness or intelligence?
78 points by hotshot on Aug 16, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

Writing, absolutely.

Challenge yourself over a variety of cognitive functionality. Challenge yourself in ways you wouldn't even define as intellectually or mentally sharp. Thinking non-critically, social intelligence, group intelligence, for example.

Challenge yourself with concepts you find impossible or impenetrable to understand. I find when I do this, my desire to understand it increases by what seems like an infinite magnitude. When I have that much passion and motivation behind learning something, I am going to throw everything I've got at it. When I run out of every way I'm used to thinking, I have to force myself to find another way. This can be incredibly painful, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.

It is the kind of learning process that can completely flip the way I perceive everything, because I have realized over and over again, that for every way I had constructed as what I called 'learning', that element which ties them together biases them together. Even now, I realize that I make the assumption that bias is capable of being evaluated in a binary fashion. I don't know what that means, but it's a new thought.

Examine yourself carefully and slowly. It is a fine line to walk, between mental independence, and feeling mentally ill. The further out I go, the longer it seems to take me to come back. But I never know what going that far out is worth. Sometimes I feel lost entirely. Sometimes I feel sharp as knives. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop thinking about how to control my thinking, so I can get back to studying the things I wanted to become proficient in, in the first place.

For the parents out there, more and more research is revealing how influential the first few years of life are to a child's later intelligence. A few tidbits:

* Talk to them. Talk, talk. Narrate everything you do. (No, TV doesn't count). I'm simplifying, but the motto is: the more they hear/converse, the smarter they'll be.)

* Read to them. A lot. They don't need to understand the story.

* Play lots of different things in different places. (A child's brain lights up when they're outdoors.)

* Cut out TV and similar things (no TV before age 2, according to American Academy of Pediatrics).

I don't have citations offhand - these are from my person notes from reading relevant books.

Thanks for those tips. I have 10 month old son, and he's at this stage where you can see how he absorbs stuff. He understands what you say to him some times. for example, he just discovered clapping, and I can make him start clapping just by telling him to, without giving any other cues (normally there's a little clapping song that goes with it).

I'm not trying to brag about my son though. I'm curious about the games we can play. Can you recommend a book/website with some ideas?

hopefully some games that could be fun for both of us to play, or at least give more structure or feedback to me, so I get a sense of progress and keep motivated.

How is this relevant to OP's question? Downvoted.

Ask HN: Ways to increase mental sharpness or intelligence of your child?

Is that better?

The GP supplied some excellent advice regarding how you might help a child to improve these abilities when a person is in the optimal position for learning - which is in the first few years of their life.

Exercise. A short jog around the block is enough to give you a boost.

Sleep. Your body requires rest.

Fruits & vegetables. You don't have to be 'vegan' or 'vegetarian': my motto is the more fruits & vegetables I consume the better. Juicing is a great way to consume large quantities of these foods. People give me the o.0 stare every time I mention that I get 'high' from kale--along with other dark greens and fruit.

Learn about other fields / domains that interest you. Find less technical intro books and find ways that you can apply simple algorithms to compute things or program systems that aid in automating and managing things in that domain. Create a domain specific language (DSL) for assisting in thinking about and computing things in a domain. These things should be interesting to you and potentially beneficial to your life! Start small, stupidly small, and just explore and have fun.

Build a discipline of studying and practicing. Shit takes time, and if you don't put in the time you won't get there. Build the habit of regularly spending deliberate study and practice time. Plan your trajectory and track your progress & velocity and adjust regularly.

Nootropics and other supplements: (ar)modafinil, racetams, artichoke extract & forskolin, choline, amino acids, creatine, etc. I am a believer in no biological 'free lunch', but it can be fun to explore these on your own and form your own beliefs about them.


Exercise, sleep, and diet were going to be my recommendations as well. I exercise most mornings, intensely. I try to get at least 8 hours a night, and sometimes 9.

As for diet, well, some folks wouldn't consider mine exemplary, but I learned what works for me, gives me decent energy all day long and keeps my emotions balanced. I know the "right" amount of coffee for me in the morning, the range when I can have 1 - and only one - in the afternoon (no sooner than one hour after lunch, unless I have a big dessert, no later than 3pm), how many beer I can safely have with any meal, etc.

Treat food like an enjoyable tasty drug, learn what works for you.

And, oh, yes: Take up a musical instrument. 6 years ago I started playing guitar. My favourite instrument has been the viola for at least two years now. No previous musical instruction, I learned it myself starting at 46. All it takes is effort and willingness and self-forgiveness and self-acceptance.

write. writing clarifies. it forces you to make fuzzy things concrete.

be mindful of when you are stuck. when a hard problem makes you walk away from it (it isn't easy to realize when you do, it requires practice), write the problem down. write the first small thing that you need to figure out to start figuring out the larger problem.

unfuzzy the fuzziness.

> write. writing clarifies. it forces you to make fuzzy things concrete.

I often find after writing something, I'm taking lots of half-formed thoughts that were keeping my brain occupied and relieving myself of the burden of carrying them around and keeping my thoughts on an issue sorted out. It's kind of liberating and it let's me properly turn my attention to something else and focus properly on it.

Yep. Huge benefit I get from writing is persistence. Human brain is such volatile memory.

First step is to get it all down in some persistent form. Second step is to iterate: organize, clarify, simplify, expand, etc.

This is also why "rubber duck debugging" works.

Once you explore all of the edges while writing/taking things through, you often find what you were overlooking before.

Same for why teaching works to increase the knowledge of the teacher.

I like to write things I'm learning about as if I were teaching someone less experienced than I was.

The BBC has done a documentary about this, though I can't recall the name of it now. The only one that comes up in searches is How Smart Are You but that's not the right one.

If I recall it came down to simply breaking routine. I'm not kidding.

One specific example I recall was they asked people to make a chocolate sandwich (which they claimed was popular somewhere in the UK) in a way they wouldn't normally. If you butter the bread and then pour the chocolate sprinkles on, then try buttering the bread, pouring the sprinkles onto a plate, and mopping up the sprinkles with your buttered bread.

My advice would be: If you always make the same breakfast, try making something else or preparing it in a different way. If you always walk the same route to work, take a different route. If you take the bus, try taking a different combination of buses.

Take a second to ask yourself what your daily routine is, and then find a few things - as many as you're comfortable with - and find a different way to do those tasks.

Edit: I think it was How To Make Better Decisions, which up on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rirW96NM6HM

Memory is one of the most important aspects in intelligence. Personally, I have a lot of knowledge but low recall speed. With a little context, I have no problem though.

Anyways, improving your memory is a big first step in bettering your intelligence. I highly recommend the book "Walking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything."


I'd also recommend The Art of Memory, which is not only an introduction to the classic discipline of method of loci (memory theatres) and a great book dealing with history and art of the Renaissance, it even goes over the text of Ad Herenium, the greek classic that brought us this lost art. It's especially interesting for applications like storytelling (know all stories from your own life with perfect recall) and rhetoric.

Also deeply related to memory and cognition, this time coming from the older yet culture of the Vedas, there are celastrus seeds, aka the intellect tree, perhaps the oldest nootropic of all, and more natural and noticeable than most.

Try PRL-8-53 for a couple of weeks 5mg/day.

I don't think that's a good idea.

Caffeine. Mild hunger. Perhaps exposure to cold.

Maybe modafinil[1], maybe creatine[2]. Of course, there are risks.

[1] http://www.gwern.net/Modafinil

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1691485/pdf/1456... [PDF]

In addition to what people have suggested, play games. Don't play the same game over and over, but try to focus on different games, and try to be brutal on yourself by playing mindfully (thinking hard about what's the best way to do what you're trying to achieve). Once you have reached a level of competency, tear yourself away from the game and pick a new one to master (this is surprisingly difficult). Board games, word games, video games, outdoor games, anything and everything. Try to mix those categories, and mix genres as well as you play (puzzle video games are an exception, have at as many of those in a row as long as they aren't clones, because they have enough variety among themselves).

My understanding is that intelligence is basically the speed and accuracy at which we are able to assess and model a situation and arrive at approaches to solve the problems that are presented. Like all other things, it's a question of being comfortable and getting used to being in situations you haven't been in before to get faster at assessing new ones. In real life, one situation is rarely radically different from the last or next, and so our intelligence isn't exercised as much.

On the other hand, games present a vast variety of circumstances, that if picked from the right pool, are completely different from each other and from what you may have experienced in real life, getting you more comfortable with dealing with fresh situations in a very low-pressure, low-stakes environment. The experience carries over to real life even when the stakes and pressure are higher.

Playing games is also a great stress reliever, and if you aren't getting addicted to a single game, it's unlikely to disrupt your lifestyle in any notable way, it may just eat into a bar night (which does nothing good for your intelligence) a week :)

1. Excercise. The more variety, the better. Excercise supports nuerogenisis. 2. Proper diet. Can't believe how much smarter I became in my 40's when I actually started eating vegetables, seeds, nuts, leafy greens, fish, etc. 3. Sleep 4. Hydration 5. Socialize

Lots of research for all of the above, but experiance is the best teacher.

Easy. Do something that is not obvious for you.

Yes, that means get of the house and stop coding (if you are).

Ballroom dancing, lyrical poetry, busking, popping-and-locking, figure sculpting, going up to strangers and trying to learn something about them, anything.

For bonus points, once you learn skills in the above, immediately start trying to teach them.

Success is one area is not directly transitive. However, the more success you have in multiple areas - the better off you will be. It's all about confidence.

Be open to new things. A closed mind is a terrible thing to see.

This is increasing breadth of knowledge. I'm not sure I agree that if we are going for mental sharpness that breadth of knowledge is the thing we want to train.

I'd look more into things that where the challenge is incrementally increasable and more focused on mental quickness: puzzles, math challenges, that sort of thing.

Unfamiliar situations are where we rely on intelligence rather than previously experienced situations, or physical challenges, or predictable scenarios. Parent's suggestion is increasing exposure to unfamiliar situations, which in turn increases utilization of your intelligence, which is basically exercise for it, like exercising any other body part or talent. Math challenges improve math talent, word games improve linguistic talent, etc. At first they all exercise your intelligence (like every other activity suggested), but after a certain threshold of competence the focus will be on increasing knowledge and familiarity with a specific domain.

This model of intelligence is based on analyzing the upbringing and patterns of time spent by the most intelligent people I have met in my life, and it seems consistent with the parent's suggestions.

Breadth of knowledge increases your mental sharpness just as depth of knowledge though, they both do.

If you only go for depth, you can do a PhD in a super narrow field and it will increase your mental sharpness significantly. However, it won't be easy for you to apply that sharpness in the real world, as it is very specific.

If you want to go for breadth, the best thing for that is definitely a startup, as you have to become really, really good across all disciplines. Having done that for a while now, I start to miss the challenge of depth, such as mathematics and physics, which I would like to do more once that has stabilized. :)

So that's that, hope I could give some insights.

Breadth and depth are not mutually exclusive.

I recommend reading. Set aside an hour every day and read long texts. Reading trains you to retain focus on a single thing for a period of time, which is required to understand a complicated subject or to make a sophisticated argument.

Speicifically what you read should take longer than an hour to complete, else you end up in a literary analogue of compulsively consuming sugary snacks in lieu of proper meals.

I think the key is to constantly challenge yourself and never rest on your laurels. It's like strength training — if it's easy, it doesn't do much for your muscles.

Learn new things, read about new concepts. And always remember, it should be hard. If it's easy, it doesn't do much for your mind.

If you are referring to increasing cognitive capabilities when you say "increase intelligence" then the first question to ask if such a capability is trainable?

And the second question is if you can find a way to train intelligence (for example by playing a game) the second question is if the gain is transferable to non-related training tasks (i.e if you can take the gain with you and apply it in new situations).

The answer to both questions is not so simple: 1. There are some studies on training of intelligence which suggest it is possible to increase intelligence (they are talking about fluid intelligence) with some kind of a training. One that comes now into my mind is this: "Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory" -http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2008/04/25/0801268105 Another one is this: "Putting brain training to the test" http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v465/n7299/full/nature0...

2. On the other hand a Meta-analysis of studies related to Working Memory (which is one metric of the concept of intelligence) found limited evidence of improvement: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/dev-49-2-270.pdf

So if you believe studies related to the first point then you can use what it is called brain games. And if you take this path I would recommend using N-Back game as it is the most studied.

If you go with point 2, then then the focus is not so much on increasing intelligence, but on let's call it "educating" intelligence - thinking skills. In this category I would recommend (without any scientific evidence behind):

- Learning yourself about Problem Solving Strategies

- Reading (fiction and non-fiction)

- Writing and summarizing

- Reading about Skepticism, Critical Thinking, The Scientific Method or in general Epistemology and trying to use them in your tasks

You could also take a look at this: http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/2009/How_Arts_Training_Improves...

> If you are referring to increasing cognitive capabilities when you say "increase intelligence" then the first question to ask if such a capability is trainable?

That depends on how one defines intelligence. If intelligence is innate ability absent environmental factors, then no. If intelligence is what score you get by taking a test, then yes.

Alfred Binet was once asked what intelligence is. He replied, "It's what my test measures."

Not the best source. The votes are rigged by suppliers with multiple accounts. They shoot down anything that will hurt their business and hype any topic that leads to sales.

Yeah, but you're going to get a certain measure of that anywhere that nootropics (or anything similar) are discussed. You do have to learn to filter through the noise and use your own judgment, but there is some good information there from what I've seen.

That said, I only dabble in the nootropics field... I take l-theanine and that's pretty much it. I've thought about starting piracetam, but haven't gotten any yet. So I don't claim to be an expert on this.

I used to improvise a technique to shake off the sleepies and also alleviate the morning boredom on the tube/subway. Just spot a word on a nearby poster or sign, then look away...and spell the word to yourself backwards. The longer the better. I found it helped to rouse into an alert state, as you have to think about breaking the word into chunks. I also found it helped focusing the "minds eye" to visualise segments that could be picked off in reverse. After fiddling with it for a while, it's the same drill for "drill" and "antidisestablishmentarianism" :-)

In my experience, nothing has helped this more directly than dhyanas (technically these are practices for the mind and is somewhat like meditation, but not exactly). However these are ridiculously difficult and hard to maintain as a daily practice. Currently, as I am aware of, the information on these are not available online and by tradition taught directly. Also I also can not guarantee the teacher you will find would necessarily be a good one.

I learned to use these practices via Babji Kriya Yoga first initiation. (it seems somewhat religious, but actually is not related to any)

Consult the previous thread on Increasing Cognition: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3277457

Someone mentioned nootropics so I'll chime in. I've been taking the nootropic Piracetam for about 3 months now, and I can say there is a definite 'sharpness' or rather what I call 'clarity' in the way I think and function now. I recently took a break from piracetam, but when I started again, I could tell the difference under an hour. Nootropics are worth a try if you are interested in an increased mental sharpness or intelligence.

In addition to the other comments about taking care of yourself, and "soft" nootropics like piracetam, I have personally had excellent results with judicious use of amphetamines and nicotine.

You have to know the risks (cardiovascular, addiction), and treat them with the respect that they deserve (don't overuse, take breaks, etc.), but they can be incredibly useful if used properly (or incredibly dangerous if not).

Exercise your brain in the way you want it to grow.

A balanced lifestyle appropriate to your body and its natural tendencies. This can be "subtractive" (cut out something) as well as "additive". Not all time should be productive time; idleness helps bring out confidence in your bigger ideas.


in that order.

note that it is also good to stop drugs that reduce intelligence before you try nootropics, i.e. no benzodiazepines, no chronic pot use, easy on the alcohol, etc. People who are tempted to try nootropics often believe in "better living through chemistry" and are already taking a lot of different things.

In my life, I swap exercise and nutrition in terms of importance — at least anecdotally for me dietary intake is where I've seen the rubber meet the road; especially in the context of cognitive function. Though thats with a bias towards nutritional ketosis.

I've yet to experiment seriously with nootropics, but from what I know about it on the periphery, it seems to be a promising industry. Though Modafinil terrifies me.

Exercise and cutting out carbs is good for avoiding inflammation. I don't use nootropics yet either, keeping the others in line takes a lot of work.

And while at it: how to measure changes on the way? When using IQ tests or simple logic games you are getting better at the task with each measurement...


Never skip over the definition of a word with which you are unfamiliar. For example, acuity.

Sleep well.

Maybe this will sound like trolling, but it isn't: don't be stupid.

One method to enhance fluid intelligence is to regularly play dual N back. Say 30 minutes a day.


I have been experimenting for about 5 years now with nootropics. Unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation on the internet as is the case with most supplements. Suppliers hype their products in forums and reddit.

Nootropics are really drugs not supplements, and although unregulated for the most part should be used with caution (experiment with small doses at first and never mix or 'stack'). The original nootropic was a compound called Piracetam which showed to improve cognitive function in mice. A number of similar 'racetam' products are on the market now with miraculous claims and fake reviews. There are two newer compounds significantly more potent than the rest - Pramiracetam and Noopept. Aside from those two almost every other racetam including piracetam doesn't work, and requires you ingest something like 5 grams to get any effect at all. The more potent racetams give you about 4 hours of slightly enhanced clarity, but honestly its nothing special. Use any racetam for more than a week and you get the most severe burnout its awful. I'm telling you these things because if there is one piece of advise I would give to a newbie in nootropics its to avoid the racetam family. Its a racket.

However, there are some nootropics that do work. PRL-8-53 is a memory enhancement drug, taken daily at 5mg. Its effects are accumulative, and it definitely works.

NSI-189 was originally marked for application as a anti depressant but has shown to increase density in the hippocampus by 20% in mice and to a lesser but significant degree in humans. It does provide a true benefit, but should be avoided by anyone with existing 'issues'.

Semax is definitely worth a mention, check that out too.

Other riskier nootropics I have been experimenting with are dihexa and estraidol. You will need to do a lot of research before experimenting. Those can easily hurt you.

Remember the mechanisms of nootropics are often not fully understood. Micro doses are the way. The idea is to get a long term permanent cognitive benefit rather than a fix.

Then there are the stimulants for the short term. Avoid caffeine, avoid adderall / dexedrine or any amphetamine solution. Those are yesterdays drugs. What you want is modafinil. Simple as that. Creatine is also a good pick me up.

All of the above can be ordered easily online. The best place to go (I don't work for them) is a Chinese supplier called XI'AN YIYANG BIO-TECH Co. They ship every type of nootropic and stimulant at a fraction of US middlemen who just import from China and triple the cost.

Finally avoid alcohol. That will drop your IQ like a brick.

I'm skeptical about nootropics. The "nootropics of yesterday" weren't good, and I think the same will be shown of today's. Exercise and good diet are better, and there is no danger.

The danger is losing a competitive edge, and the poverty that comes from that. But perhaps its wise to be conservative for now.

What I see is where the last generation of drugs had the shotgun approach and a lot of side effects, the newer drugs are more targeted, effecting more specific areas of the brain exclusively, and are also a lot more potent.

In my recent experiments PRL-8-53 and estradiol stood out as making changes to my thinking that were well outside the capability of even the best diet and a rigorous exercise routine, and I have tried that approach.

Really like this answer, informative and entertaining to read.

Estraidol is a hormone. Don't mess with the hormones.

I am surprised more people aren't mentioning meditation. That's a shame.

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