Getting Smart Smart Drug Free

We’ve written previously about the benefits of three common smart drugs, and there are a ton more that can help improve cognitive function while also preventing neurodegenerative diseases and enhancing other areas of health. Not everyone is as infatuated with these brain-boosting supplements as we are, though, and there a number of smart drug free ways to improve cognitive function. So, here are some other ways to improve your intelligence without popping pills.

Binaural beats

If you’ve been to an elementary band concert you’ve definitely been exposed to multiple tones at different frequencies. If you listen closely, you will notice that two musicians playing the same instrument but at different frequencies (or pitches, or not in tune) creates a rhythmic pulsation. This phenomenon is known as a binaural beat.

These beats are easily produced on a smaller scale by playing two tones of slightly different frequencies, one in each ear. When these frequencies are below ~1000 Hz and the difference between them is no more than ~30Hz another phenomenon called brainwave entrainment occurs. This is when the brain wave frequencies match the frequency difference between the two tones. For example, if one tone is 450 Hz and the other is 430 Hz the resultant frequency matched by the brain is 20 Hz.

So, how does this make your brain work better, you ask? Well, brain frequency ranges between 1-40 Hz are known to be associated with specific states of consciousness, so by altering your brain’s wave frequencies you can alter your state of consciousness. This means you can use brain wave entrainment to enhance concentration, focus, attention, and much more. The table below lists the wave frequency ranges, the wave type, and the frequency range’s associated states:

Frequency range Wave type Associated state
 30 or 40 Hz Gamma Consciousness, perception
13-30 or 40 Hz Beta Mental processes/cognition, analysis, concentration, arousal
8-13 Hz Alpha Relaxation, tranquility, pre-sleep drowsiness; 10 Hz is associated with increased serotonin production and improved mood
4-8 Hz Theta Dreams, day dreaming, lucid dreaming, meditation, creativity, introspection
4 Hz Delta Deep dreamless sleep, loss of body awareness, trance

For those looking to improve brain function, Beta wave frequencies (13-40 Hz) should do the trick. Binaural beats can also help you relax, help you fall asleep, reduce anxiety, and even provoke lucid dreaming. There are a number of products on the market that come with preset and customizable beats, and there is even a pretty good free binaural beat iphone app.

Study strategies

Whether you’re a student preparing for a test or a professional working on continuing education, there are numerous times when you will need to study specific information in order to recall it later on (i.e., the next day). For most of us, studying is not an enjoyable way to spend our time; thus, it is in our best interest to maximize the amount of information we can retain in a minimum amount of time. This is where study strategies come in handy, and the following list covers some of the best ways to maximize study-time efficiency.

  • Study in the same spot every time. Find a secluded spot in the library or at home and sit in that exact same spot every time you study. Do NOT use that spot for anything else (so don’t pick the couch), that way your brain will associate your study spot with learning.
  • Hold a pen or pencil in your hand while you study. Chances are when you take a test you’re going to have a writing utensil in your hand. Having one in your hand while you study will teach your brain to associate a pen or pencil in your hand with focus and concentration. This will help improve the quality of your study time as well as your test taking performance.
  • Study in short bursts with frequent breaks. One of the best schedules is to read or write for 45 minutes and then take a 15 minute break. Do this three or four times and then take a longer break to get some food, check Facebook and Twitter, or exercise. This will significantly enhance the quality of your study time as well as help delay mental fatigue.
  • Teach somebody. The best way to retain information (and test your own comprehension) is to teach the material to someone else. You can also teach it to your cat, dog, or fish – the who doesn’t matter – what does matter is that you can express the information in a way that makes sense to you and to others.
  • Stay up late, get up late. “This semester I’m going to stay ahead on my school work!” Yeah, sure you are, just like how you’re “Never drinking again!” The majority of students wait until the night before a test to memorize the information. This is far from the optimal strategy, but if it’s what you’re going to do you might as well make the most of it. Since the neural connections necessary to store information are created, for the most part, while you sleep, it makes better sense to stay up late and go over as much information as you can before you go to sleep. That way while you’re sleeping your brain will be at work establishing the networks required to recall the information the next day during your test.

There are a whole bunch of other great strategies out there for learning, retaining, and recalling information. These five techniques, however, are among the simplest, most effective, and easiest to implement, and consequently should go a long way in helping you to maximize your study-time efficiency.

The Mozart Effect

Popularly, the Mozart Effect is the idea that listening to classical music makes you smarter. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and while some introductory research did show that Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major improves spatial-temporal reasoning, this benefit does not generalize to other cognitive tasks, and the improvements are relatively short-lived (i.e., less than an hour). Complimentary research has also shown that any improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning are unique to that particular arrangement, and that other classical pieces do not elicit the same benefit.

In other words, listening to classical music doesn’t make you smarter.

Other research, however, has been a little more promising. For example, listening to music in general (especially music that you like) can increase arousal and mood which can indirectly improve attention and learning. Music might also benefit cognitive function when it is played to infants in utero and in early infancy.

While listening to music might not be of much benefit, creating music – particularly playing an instrument – has shown definitive benefits. Children that are involved in music performance and other fine arts at a young age have a higher IQ and perform better on standardized tests than their non-artistic peers. Learning an instrument later in life is a great form of mental exercise and, besides being fun, can also help prolong mental health.

The idea that listening to classical music can make you smarter was a misinterpretation of the literature and an opportunity for a few people to capitalize on the ignorance of others. On the other hand, if you enjoy classical music listening to it might have some benefit, and it certainly won’t hurt. If you really want to enhance cognition through music, your best bet is to learn to play an instrument, even if that means jumping in on your kids Rock Band jam session. You will probably find, though, that the mental benefits are secondary to the enjoyment you get from this timeless form of creative expression.


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