How to Make Yourself Smarter (With Thinking Tools)

“Just as you cannot do very much carpentry with your bare hands, there is not much thinking you can do with your bare brain”

– Bo Dahlbom and Lars-Erik Janlert


Did you know that since their creation in the early 20th century, IQ tests have been progressively designed to be more difficult?

That’s not some perverse plot by the test’s creators to make people think they’re getting dumber, but rather, something that rose out of necessity; to compensate for the fact that people, in general, seem to be becoming smarter.

You see, the tests are designed such that we can determine a score which reflects the average IQ (defined to be a score of 100) – with deviations on either side of the average indicating higher or lower ‘intelligence’.

And since the test’s inception, the average score has been steadily climbing – forcing the chagrined testers to continually revise the test, so as to maintain a score of 100 as the baseline.

This phenomenon of a human-wide increase in IQ, at least among progressively modernized cultures, is known as the Flynn effect, and it isn’t strictly limited to the narrow domain of IQ tests; our performance across seemingly the full spectrum of standardized academic tests appears to be increasing[1].

So how might we explain this gradual, but inexorable rise in human cleverness?

Well, certainly it cannot be due to our natural evolution into increasingly smart people. We can dismiss this out of hand by noting that there are no selection pressures in our society that would afford intelligent people a reproductive advantage over their dimmer counterparts, at least to such a degree that we can explain the sheer rapidity with which average IQ is increasing – roughly 3 IQ points per decade – which is the blink of an evolutionary eye. So it is unlikely that the cause is genetic*.

But what about epigenetics? Perhaps certain environmental changes could precipitate some alteration in the expression of genes relating to intelligence?

It is quite possible that the increasing robustness of nutrition throughout our contemporary society is better nurturing our previously undernourished brains, and allowing them to realize their full potential.

This is one of the primary theories purporting to explain the Flynn effect, and certainly, it appears to have some merit. The effect has been measured across all age groups, from infancy to adulthood, which is what we might expect if improved nutrition played a part.

Other theories propose that the Flynn effect is explained by some combination of educational, and environmental changes; a trend towards ever more cognitively stimulating and engaging technologies, and improved pedagogical methodologies.

If this is the case, then our intelligence may be more malleable than perhaps was expected – capable of being fundamentally enhanced through stimulation and training.

But the jury is still out; we are not yet certain about the relative contributions of each of these proposed factors to explain the Flynn effect.

The task of disentangling cause and effect for each possible influence is a momentous one, and the purpose of this article is not to make any definitive claims either way.

Yet I do not think it unreasonable to speculate that the effect might be accounted for by some combination of nutritional gains, as well as educational and technological improvements.

Children are increasingly reared with healthy and abundant food, access to games and televisions with stimulating shows, as well as improved educational courses – and, perhaps due to a combination of all of these factors, their brains are continuing to thrive.

Isolating the effect of education on IQ

But we want to focus specifically on the relationship between education and intelligence.

Although there is a strong correlation between the two, it has been almost impossible to ascertain the direction of causality; does the possession of higher intelligence influence the attainment of education, or does the attainment of education influence intelligence? Or alternatively, could both be true, such that there exists some kind of positive feedback loop?

But whether or not it is a combination of the two, we are interested specifically in seeing if education has a positive causal effect on IQ.

Fortunately, a study published in 2011 [2] may be able to shed some light on this very question.

The study exploited an education reform that was instituted in Norway in the 1960s, involving an increase in the minimum compulsory middle school education from a period of 7, to 9 years.

This meant that the experimenters could measure the IQs of Norwegians who were schooled before the reform, and those who were schooled after – thus gauging whether an additional two years of education would have a measurable effect on IQ.

The experiment concluded that indeed, education did have a significant effect, which accounted for approximately one third of the total 3-point-per-decade Flynn effect, for this age group.

The narrowness of IQ tests

Now, while IQ scores are unequivocally predictive of intellectual success across a wide variety of domains, and can thus be said to reflect an underlying ‘general intelligence’ – whatever that means – I don’t think we should be so hasty as to elevate IQ scores as the be-all-and-end-all of intellect.

Sure, someone with an IQ of 50 will hardly be capable of outsmarting an intellectual giant of IQ 200, but let me give you an example of where those of us with modest brains can go toe to toe with the geniuses.

Consider Isaac Newton – undoubtedly a genius of the highest order – a man who gave us the theory of gravity, laid the foundations of the science of modern optics, invented calculus, and well, the list goes on.

But the first thing to note is that he did not simply pluck his ideas from the void.

His brain, though undoubtedly a brilliant tangle of neural excellence, capable of processing information at sagacious speeds, and in novel ways, was nonetheless furnished primarily with knowledge that came from others; diverse teachings from a compendium of scientific and philosophical books.

To name just a few, there was Kepler’s “optics”, Descartes’ “Géométrie” and “Principia philosophiae”, Oughtred’s “Clavis”, Wallis’ “Arithmetica infinitorum”, Walter Charleton’s compendium of Epicurus and Gassendi, Galileo’s “Dialogo”, Wing and Streete on astronomy, Hooke’s “Micrographia” and again, the list goes on.

No idea is born of nothingness. No matter how computationally complex a brain is, it will never have a good idea, unless it first acquires the knowledge from which to construct that idea.

Isaac Newton would not have contributed a drop of knowledge to the natural sciences had he never read a book.

His ideas, though extraordinary, were the ripe fruits that had sprung from the knowledge of those who had come before him. In fact, Newton himself acknowledged this, saying:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Yet, despite Newton’s virtuosity, the average physics graduate of today could probably run circles around him in almost any discussion of science, or philosophy.

The average physics student knows more, and they can use this superior knowledge to drop intellectual bombs on poor Newton, who would flounder hopelessly amidst onslaughts of logic, his worldview withering under superior arguments, and better alternatives.

Don’t believe me? Let me demonstrate.

Thinking Tool #1

Newton’s IQ, if measured, would very likely have topped the charts. His ability to recognize abstract patterns, and draw from disparate elements of knowledge to assemble generalizations, are very likely manifestations of his genetic predisposition for genius.

But at least as important, if not more so, in determining one’s intellectual prowess, are the thinking tools they possess.

These are conceptual structures that you can incorporate into your mental arsenal, such that you can use them to solve problems that were previously impermeable to you.

To illustrate this idea of ‘thinking tools’, we’ll take a look at a few examples. The first is a tool that Newton did not possess – and one that, most likely, you do: the idea of ‘natural selection’.

The theory of natural selection is a conceptual framework that is probably woven into the very core of your beliefs – augmenting and bolstering other areas of your knowledgebase such that you can wield it in a very useful, and versatile manner.

Without this tool, you would be forced to conclude, for example, that there must be an intelligent designer of life on earth – because how else can you explain the incontrovertible design of a mouth for chewing, or a fin for swimming?

Yet with the tool (along with a helping of biochemistry, and a good dose of physiological knowledge), we are in a position to explain a great deal of the complexity of life.

Newton didn’t have the thinking tool of natural selection, and so his conversation regarding life on earth wouldn’t be very insightful.

Furthermore, he couldn’t even begin to tackle problems that, to us, would be rather trivial.

Suppose you had no prior knowledge of how it is that birds evolved the ability to fly, yet you sought to answer this very question.

Initially, it might seem like a rather vexing problem, but if we draw from our knowledge of biology and natural selection, we can quite happily figure it out.

We would surmise that pre-bird organisms might first have lived in the trees to avoid predation – leaping from tree to tree to locate food, and mates. With all this tree-hopping going on, natural selection would have favoured any mutation that made the hops more effective – perhaps more skin around the arms, to facilitate gliding. Through gradual, minute improvements to these animals’ ability to glide, eventually, they would possess something like the wings we see on modern day birds.

Of course, this might not be true to the specifics of how birds actually evolved – that can only be established beyond doubt with some kind of evidence – the skeletons of intermediate species, for example.

But we know that it must have been something like that. The genetic material of birds cannot have been miraculously arranged such that it produced fully functioning wings in the space of a generation – the change must have been gradual. Hence there must have been benefits to having budding ‘proto-wings’ – such as the ability to glide more smoothly between trees.

All of this deduction comes from a few (relatively) simple rules, all wrapped up within the thinking tool of evolution by natural selection.

And it’s not just the mystery of flight we can solve; we can shed light on how vision evolved, make sense of how intelligence grew, probe the mystery of how sex came about, and hear why it is that humans enjoy music – all with the application of this one thinking tool.

Can you imagine Newton trying to solve these conundrums? His answer, I suspect, would be the same for each: “God did it.”

Who would be considered ‘smarter’ in this discussion then – you, or Newton?

Thinking Tool #2 – Basic Algebra

Many IQ tests feature questions that resemble something like the following:

“John’s age is 20 years old. His age is four times as old as his sister. How old will John be when his age is twice his sister’s age?”

Try to solve this without algebra. You’ll probably find it quite difficult – running through all of the permutations of their respective ages in your head to find where John’s is double that of his sister’s.

A ‘genius’ could probably run through these possibilities in a fraction of a second, immediately spitting out the correct answer.

But even if your brain’s information-processing speed isn’t quite so astounding, you can still nonetheless tackle the problem with ease – provided you are equipped with algebra as a thinking tool.

With algebra, the problem is trivial to solve – just form a couple of algebraic equations and solve them:

Let’s say:

J = Johns current age

S = his sister’s current age

t = years elapsed from now until John is twice his sister’s age

All we need to do is form the following two equations:

  • J=4xS
  • J+t = 2x(S+t)

And then solve for t, adding this onto John’s initial age to find the solution to the problem!

So with algebra, we were able completely characterize the system of the problem, such that we could view it from the outside, and figure out how to solve it – rather than being stuck trudging blindly within it; mechanically running through all the possible solutions, and checking each to find the correct answer.

From this example, we can see how education might be able to improve IQ – by furnishing you with all kinds of these thinking tools – the more of which you possess, the more cognitive freedom you have to solve problems.

Thinking Tools Make You Smarter

One reasonable definition of intelligence might be “a measure of one’s abilities to solve problems”.

Obviously this fails to capture much of the nuance involved in thinking about intelligence in any fine-grained, detailed sense – but it stands as a practical simplification.

Now, what we have shown with the thinking tools outlined above, is that those equipped with them can solve more problems than those that are not – all else being equal.

You can think of a thinking tool as being some additional mental scaffolding, tacked on to the framework you already have in place.

You can  kind of, step onto this new scaffolding – and view things from this new, removed perspective.

With the aid of certain thinking tools, you may no longer be trapped within a particular conceptual system and forced to flounder within it, as we saw in the algebra example:


So then, we’ve seen the value of thinking tools – but how do we acquire more of them?

Well, like Newton – educate yourself. Read books. Seek new knowledge wherever you can find it. Furnish your cognitive structure with as much scaffolding as you possibly can, to give yourself more freedom to move within it.

Specifically, one book I would thoroughly recommend is the one that provided me with the thinking tool of ‘thinking tools’ itself.

This is a book by Daniel Dennett, called “Intuition pumps, and other tools for thinking” in which he outlines his favourite thinking tools – and no doubt you’ll find many of them useful too. [3]

Also, our last article covers some neurobiological concepts that tie in nicely with all this abstract talk about mental scaffolding – hopefully affording you with a glimpse of how better to decorate your knowledge with new thinking tools.

Back to the Flynn Effect

Now it’s just possible that a good chunk of the Flynn effect is due to cognitive add-ons and competences that are being disseminated throughout society, even, in many cases, without our realizing it.

What thinking tools is a child picking up when watching a stimulating cartoon, or playing a new video game?

As we become more exposed to more information, and (hopefully) better information, through the internet, our education systems, conversations, or otherwise – is there any doubt that our arsenal of thinking tools might be expanding, and that this could very well have an influence on IQ?

Yet, even leaving the IQ claim aside, because it not yet backed by sufficiently robust data – I will conclude the article simply by reminding you of the reality of the power of thinking tools.

Whether we’re talking about the tool of algebra, or the theory of natural selection – these tools can make us smarter; they can enable us to solve more and more problems that were previously indissoluble.

Yes, IQ aside, you can get smarter – and given the vast expanse of knowledge (and thinking tools) out there in the world, there probably isn’t a ceiling on just how smart you can get. But it’s up to you to get there.



*’Heterosis’ has been proposed as a genetic basis for the Flynn Effect, though Flynn himself provided arguments as to why this is incorrect.





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