Tips for Building Brain Power

Friday, January 24, 2014

Dan Hurley, journalist and author of Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power (Hudson Street Press, 2013), looks at, and tries out, the latest research that intelligence is not a "given" but can be boosted through training. 

EVENT: Dan Hurley will speak with two leading brain training scientists on Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. at an Empiricist's League gathering in Williamsburg.  The event is free, but reservations are requested.

Hurley used his own brain as a guinea pig for the book. He spoke to hundreds of researchers and spent years traveling around the country in the hopes of get his brain in better shape. Hurley says: “I tried just about everything that there’s scientific evidence for, and seems relatively safe.” Here are four things we learned from his experience.

Four Ways to Make Yourself Smarter

  • Enlist the help of the internet. The brain exercises that helped Hurley the most were “n-back” games he played online. The player is shown a sequence of colors, letters, or objects, and must identify when the thing he or she is being shown matches the object a certain number (“n”) steps ago. 
  • Consider nicotine, but don't smoke. Certain studies suggest that nicotine might help boost brain power – for instance, smokers are half as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease. However Hurley strongly advised against picking up a cigarette in the name of getting smarter, nor did he advise just anyone try wearing a nicotine patch (for the record, he wore a 9mg patch).
  • Meditation for focus, spacing out for "aha!" moments. Mindfulness meditation will help you focus, but it could come at a cost. Hurley says: “It seems to improve test scores if you're trying to take the GRE, it improves working memory, other things like that. But when you’re trying to be super creative and have a 'break though,' mind wandering seems to be more useful.”
  • Nurture, not nature. Humans are not inherently born with a fixed amount of intelligence or IQ.  Instead, intelligence is something anyone can build or improve on. Some encouraging words from Hurley:  “This is not something you’re stuck with just because some psychologist gives you a number, or someone told you something when you were a kid.”

Good luck! 


Dan Hurley

Comments [20]


I have a few suggestions for some of the people leaving comments. The first and foremost is for everyone and is to pay attention to the "Nurture, NOT Nature" point above. What that means is that your intelligence is a function of the actions you take and the experiences you have.

Josh - Keep exercising, it is probably the best thing a person can do for their brain (for reasons well beyond what Amy from Manhattan said), but the effects build up over time. Also, try a mindfulness/breathing meditation for extra focus.

Antonio - That sounds like the Tetris Effect, where you involuntarily visualize and rehearse a new skill, which is another way to say your brain is adapting to the new skill being learned in order to master it.

Paulo/Vinny - Recent research done by scientists has disproven IQ as a serious concept, and replaced it with at least 3 distinct abilities: 1)Short-term memory, 2) Reasoning capacity, and 3) Verbal fluency.

Jan. 28 2014 10:54 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Amy from Manhattan - Mr. Hurley was, at the very beginning of the interview, talking a bit about nicotine, without qualifying it. It was only further on when he explained that he didn't ingest it via cigarettes. I post the question at the beginning, but thanks for your service-y way!

Jan. 24 2014 04:28 PM
Amy from Manhattan

On the effect of exercise, keeping your blood pressure low (or getting it lower) also reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (

thatgirl, Mr. Hurley was talking about very low doses of nicotine, & he didn't get the nicotine by smoking.

Jan. 24 2014 12:09 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Kate - Here's one that's starting up in BK!

Jan. 24 2014 12:04 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Kate - Meditation of all types has been said to be beneficial, if done consistently, twice daily, and for 20 - 30 mins at a time. Its benefits start as soon as you can adapt the twice daily regimen.

There are meetups and all kinds of access to studying various techniques around the city. I did TM years back, after studying other meditation "isms," and it has stayed with me since.

Jan. 24 2014 11:59 AM
fuva from harlemworld

IQ is absolutely a function of experience -- the experience, for instance, of being lucky enough to stumble upon something that interests and in turn cognitively stimulates you -- as illustrated by the guest's Spidey story...Also, being lucky enough to be taught in the way that you learn, etc.

Jan. 24 2014 11:59 AM
John from Both Bergen

Study: Believing You’ve Slept Well, Even if You Haven’t, Improves Performance

Jan. 24 2014 11:59 AM

There is a difference between smart and intelligence. I taught college freshmen Bio that had earned As in their urban school, but had very very low SAT scores. The kids received extra support in writing and math in their first year. Several ended up continuing their science major - one even as a double Bio/Chem major. Bottom line: they were seriously undereducated in high school, and appeared not to be smart. But indeed they were.

Jan. 24 2014 11:58 AM

I think the problem with "IQ" is that it reduces all cognitive strengths to a single metric. Chimps have better memories than humans (or literate humans at least), but they're obviously weaker in a number of other cognitive abilities.

Jan. 24 2014 11:58 AM
Scott from Brooklyn

As a teaching-artist I break down Smart as What someone Knows, Understands and is Able to do

Jan. 24 2014 11:58 AM

I remember an entry by my great-grandfather in his October 1858 diary: "Attended a seance last night. Humbug."

Jan. 24 2014 11:55 AM
Kate from Brooklyn, NY


I'm taking the LSAT in two weeks and have felt that running, bikram yoga, and beta blockers have helped me the most in de-stressing for practice exams. I have considered trying mediation and breathing exercises as well. How long do they generally take to be effective and do you recommend any specific techniques? Is it worth it with just a few weeks until my test?

Thank you!

Jan. 24 2014 11:54 AM
antonio from baySIde

I have ADD and I have been trying to learn programming; JavaScript. I come from a graphic design field, I have an 'art' brain, lately things have been coalescing rapidly all of a sudden...
Do you know why that's happening? Any tips?

Jan. 24 2014 11:54 AM
Jennifer from Summit, NJ

I must say, after listening to the mind exercises you describe, I highly recommend picking up Bridge - the card game, instead. Rigorous study and pursuit of the game involves much of the same skills you describe - memorizing patterns of cards, visualizing placement, etc. And I can recommend it to be MUCH more enjoyable - even addictive!

Jan. 24 2014 11:54 AM
Kirsten Magnani from Queens

What is the role of sleep?

Jan. 24 2014 11:54 AM
Josh from New York, NY


I'm a 42 y.o. adult w/ ADD and dyslexia, and constantly struggle with focus - esp. with managing time, getting tasks done, and concentrating when reading. I've tried also different kinds of therapy, and I used to take Wellbutrin and listen to books on tape while reading books. I'm trying to find different solutions, and I've gotten into a serious exercise regimen (CrossFit), but am wondering if there's anything further your guest would suggest. I'm desperate for your guests suggestions.

Thank you so much...

Jan. 24 2014 11:50 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I think playing videogames is good for seniors. There should be more discussions about video games in the mainstream media.

Jan. 24 2014 11:50 AM
m from brooklyn

Research shows that these exercises make you only better at doing the exercises. Doesn't make you better at anything else:

"In each of the studies, candidates were given brain exercises to do for a set period of time. Each performance increase, though, was found to be specific only to the task that created the result - in other words doing the exercises made you better at doing the exercises. The analysis found no evidence that there was a transfer of advantage to any other area of mental activity."

Jan. 24 2014 11:48 AM
thatgirl from manhattan

So the association they've oft made between cigarettes and brain plaque and lesions isn't true?

Jan. 24 2014 11:47 AM
Robert from NYC

Kinda makes me wish I had a brain! I could sure use this, I want to be brilliant intellectually.

Jan. 24 2014 11:45 AM

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