Weird ways science says you can make yourself smarter

We all wish we had some secret to make us smarter. Well, science has been busy unearthing these secrets for us with crazy studies we'd never dream to try. You may already be amping up your brain without even realizing it!

Napping

We all need proper sleep in order to function during the day, but it also has a profound effect on how we learn. A good night's sleep helps us store all the knowledge that we've taken in that day in the brain bank, but one study found that getting some sleep before you learn can also have a major impact.

A professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley had volunteers take a 100-minute nap before taking a memorization test. The nappers ended up scoring an average of 20 percent higher on the memory test than those that didn't sleep beforehand. Co-author of the study Matthew Walker said , "Sleep is doing something very active for things like learning and memory. I think for us as a society to stop thinking of sleep as a luxury rather than a biological necessity is going to be wise." Tell that to your professor next time he catches you napping — they'll understand.

Playing video games

When many people think of video gamers, the first thing that comes to mind is some dullard couch potato dwelling in their parents' basement, but it turns out playing video games can lead to some of the opposite effects, especially in growing children. New research suggests playing video games can "strengthen a range of cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception." This has been shown to be especially true in those "heinous" shooter games like Halo or Call of Duty. It's been found that playing shooter games has shown to improve a "player's capacity to think about objects in three dimensions, just as well as academic courses to enhance these same skills." This particular kind of enhanced thinking wasn't found with playing other types of video games, like puzzles or RPG's, though those have their own kind of benefits. Strategic video games like these, for example, helped improve problem solving and school grades in adolescents.

Creativity was also greatly enhanced by playing any kind of video game, however this boost in creativity was not found when children used other forms of technology, such as computers or cell phones. However, those kinds of games can still have a profound effect on mood and sociability. "Simple games that are easy to access and can be played quickly, such as Angry Birds, can improve players' moods, promote relaxation, and ward off anxiety," the study said.

And of course, games naturally give people the tools to learn resilience in the face of failure, as well as communication and cooperation skills. So how long will it be until we start seeing more video games in the classroom?

Chewing gum

Schools may want to reconsider their strict "no gum" policies after reading this. According to a study at St. Lawrence University, chewing gum can increase your cognitive abilities, at least for a short burst of time. The scientists divided up their 159 volunteers into a group of gum chewers and non-chewers, and had them solve a series of tests. These tests ranged from difficult logic problems to repeating numbers backwards. As it turns out, the chewers beat out the non-chewers as a whole in five out of the six tests. The one test they lost out on was the verbal fluency test, where they were asked to name as many words as they could from the lexical families. Maybe a mouthful of Stride garbled their vocab.

Ultimately, this enhanced brain power for the gum chewers proved short-lived, as the improvements only lasted during the first 20 minutes of testing. This comes down to a process called "mastication-induced arousal," which is a mouthful itself. It's not just gum that creates this effect — chewing (the non-fancy word for mastication) anything acts as a boost to the brain, "waking us up and allowing better focus to a task at hand."

Researchers suggest that the reason for the fall off in brain power may be caused by "interference effects due to a sharing of resources by cognitive and masticatory processes." Hopefully this study gets some more spotlight, so students can stop having to sneak each other gum like a schedule 1 drug. What's a few sticky desks in exchange for higher test grades?

Riding motorcycles

Motorcycles may be more dangerous for your body than driving a regular car, but it turns out they've got major benefits for your brain. Ryuta Kawashima, the creator of Nintendo's Brain Age, conducted a small study in partnership with Yamaha Japan and Tohoku University to take a look at the effects of motorcycle riding on middle-aged men. The end result was that "in a convenient and easy environment, the human mind and body get used to setting the hurdle low. Our final conclusion is that riding motorcycles can lead to smart aging." Providing you don't crash and land on your skull, obviously.

Kawashima took 22 men in their 40s and 50s, who had motorcycle licenses but hadn't ridden for at least a decade. He had half ride a motorcycle everyday for two months, while the other half were not allowed to. All the men were given a series of tests before and after the two months — as a result, "the group that rode motorbikes posted higher marks in cognitive function tests," Kawashima said. In fact, the group that didn't ride for 2 months had a marginal decrease in their scores. Meanwhile, the motorcycle riders reported that they were making fewer mistakes at work and were feeling happier in general.

Kawashima concluded that, because riding a motorcycle takes a very high level of alertness and rapid problem-solving. "the driver's brain gets activated by riding motorbikes." He also included that "mental care is a very big issue in modern society. I think we made an interesting stir here as data showed you can improve your mental condition simply using motorbikes to commute." You heard it here, straight from the Brain Age master himself: start looking into some Kawasakis or Harleys for your aging loved ones to keep their brains at full speed.

Drinking alcohol

While we're sure that alcohol has lead to plenty more dumb decisions than smart ones, it seems having a few drinks can induce more beneficial effects than winding up naked in a tree the next morning.

A study from a team of University of Illinois psychologists, including co-author Jennifer Wiley, tested 40 social drinkers, having half watch an animated movie while drinking enough vodkas with cranberry to get their blood alcohol level to 0.075, just under the legal limit of 0.08. The other, less fortunate half, watched the same movie without the drinks. After the screening, they all took on problem-solving brain teasers, such as looking at a group of words and finding a fourth word that would fit with the group. Some examples were to find what fit with "peach, arm and tar," or "blue, cottage, and Swiss." We'll save you the trip to the bar and tell you the answers: pit and cheese.

The end result was surprising to say the least: the group of drinkers averaged nine correct answers, while the sober crowd only averaged six. It even took the intoxicated men an average of only 11.5 seconds to answer each question, compared to the average of 15.2 for the non-drinkers. This shows that, because alcohol can inhibit your normal thinking process, it can lead to improved creative problem-solving skills. "We have this assumption," Wiley explains, "that being able to focus on one part of a problem or having a lot of expertise is better for problem-solving … but that's not necessarily true. Innovation may happen when people are not so focused." That said, before you start downing beers on the morning of your finals, it's important to remember that their BAC was below the legal limit, and that this worked for solving creative problems, but not for working memory problems. Wiley stated that the reason alcohol improved the creative memory was because it was decreasing the functionality of the working memory, AKA the ability to remember multiple things at once. "Sometimes it's good to be distracted," Wiley said. Looks like a few vodka crans could be the solution to writer's block you've been looking for.

Listening to music while studying

Music is one thing we humans got right. These strings of beats and melodies have been proven to improve our mood, our sleep, and even our immune system. On top of all that, it looks like it can even make us smarter. Psychologist Dr. Emma Gray teamed up with the music streaming service Spotify, to learn that listening to music while studying helped students perform better academically. It's not just any old music that does the trick though — they found that certain types of music were better for some subjects than others.

To ace that math exam you should start picking up some Beethoven for that study playlist. Classical music such as Beethoven's "Fur Elise", "helped students to study for longer and retain more information," Gray says. Classical music with 60-70 beats per minute creates a state of relaxation where the mind is both calm and alert. Your imagination is stimulated and your concentration heightened, much like the state your mind is in when you meditate. Meanwhile, for those studying science, humanities, and languages, you're going to want to lean on the poppier side of music, in order to stimulate the left side of the brain that's used to processing factual info and problem solving. Songs like "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus and "Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake hit the sweet spot of 50-80 beats per minute, creating a "a calming effect on the mind that is conducive to logical thought, allowing the brain to learn and remember new facts." English, drama, or art students looking to tickle the right side of the brain (used for processing original, creative thoughts) want to go with, "emotive rock and pop music, like Katy Perry's 'Firework' and 'Satisfaction' by The Rolling Stones, which produce a heightened state of excitement that is likely to enhance creative performance."

Clearly, the right tunes can make all the difference. Gray summed up that, "for logical subjects, like math, music should calm the mind and help concentration, whereas for creative subjects, the music should reflect the emotion that the student is trying to express." You can find the playlist best suited for your subject on Spotify, naturally.

Feeling sad :(

We're all familiar with great artists being associated with the blues. Chopped off ears and premature deaths from men and women have given us some of the greatest works of arts in recorded history. Turns out, there may be a scientific correlation between sadness and creativity. Modupe Akinola, a professor at Columbia Business School, had subjects give a short speech about their dream job, and each was given either positive or negative feedback. Once they finished pouring their hearts out to either frowny faces or smiley ones, they were given glue, paper, and colored felt, to create a collage to be judged by professional artists for creativity. It turned out that those who received negative feedback, ended up creating better collages, compared to those who received either positive or no feedback from their speeches.

So, where exactly is the science here? Well it has to do with the nature of emotion and cognition. According to Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales who has been studying the benefits of negative moods for a decade, angst and sadness, "It turns out that states of sadness make us more attentive and detail oriented, more focused on the felt collage." He added that those feelings promote "information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations." Forgas knows what he's talking about — he's done experiments showing that those who watched a short film about death and cancer proved to be better at "judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they're also much less likely to stereotype strangers and make fewer arithmetic mistakes." He also compared the memories of people at a grocery store on both rainy and sunny days, and saw that those on rainy days were more attentive.

So next time you're feeling sad, try to make the most of it! Create a masterpiece, research possible fake news, or simply count lima beans — however you want to utilize the power of your frown is up to you.

Writing by hand

The arrival of new technology always seems to knock out the old standbys. Like, computers have helped launch us into a whole new era, but even though it seems quaint and useless, we may not want to retire pen and paper just yet.

Researchers from Princeton University and University of California, Los Angeles did a series of studies, where they had students take notes on a lecture either by writing or typing — they were then tested on the material both right after the lecture, and a week later. Both types of students did well on the first test, but according to the study, those who took notes by hand "had a stronger grasp of the overall concept" and were also "able to remember and still understand the concepts of the lecture after a week had passed." This is because, when people write longhand notes they are "briefer, more organized, and better capture information from graphs and charts than typed notes." Typing also tends to make you transcribe lectures word-for-word but when you're forced to write by hand, you don't have time for that, so you condense the information into a compound way that you'll more easily understand. This makes reviewing notes that you've written yourself more valuable because it's like the version of you that heard the lecture, is re-explaining it to the current you, as opposed to just having all the info laid out in front of you.

The convenience of computers is definitely appealing and has advanced us to new heights, but they may cause us to disassociate from what we're interacting with, without us realizing it. When it comes to learning, sometimes it's better to cut out the middleman and keep it strictly between you and the information. After all, you can get sucked into Facebook on your notebook computer, but not on a real notebook.

Sex

Just when you thought sex couldn't get any better, it comes through with a slew of benefits for the old noggin. According to a study published in PLOS One, sex helps combat all the damage that stress hormones can have on the brain. Stress can destroy your concentration and cause tension that leads to indecision, but sex produces hormones that act as a buffer for the negative effects stress has.

A research team from the University of Maryland found that middle-aged rats that engaged in sex "showed signs of improved cognitive function and hippocampal function." These neurons growing in the hippocampus are so important, because this is the region of the brain associated with information retention. However "when a prolonged withdrawal period was introduced between the final mating experience and behavioral testing, the improvements in cognitive function were lost despite the presence of more new neurons." So, consistent sex is key, as if you didn't already know that.

Sex has also been shown to have a positive impact on maintaining memory, as well as your analytical skills, but that only applies to passionate, in-the-moment sex — not so much loving, long-term sex. "When in love, people typically focus on a long-term perspective, which should enhance holistic thinking and thereby creative thought, whereas when experiencing sexual encounters, they focus on the present and on concrete details enhancing analytic thinking," say the study authors. In short — speed it up and get bizz-ayyy.

It may even make you more open, due to the brain's release of oxytocin during sexual arousal. "If someone is feeling very distressed, oxytocin could promote social support seeking, and that may be especially helpful to those individuals," says study author Christopher Cardoso. Circulating oxytocin even makes us less sensitive to social rejection, though that may be putting the cart before the horse. If your sexual advances get rejected, maybe try seeing if someone else will do you the honor, for the sake of getting you some much-needed oxytocin.