Whether cramming for an exam or contemplating the fundamental answers to life, humanity has always strived for greater knowledge. As this search continues, so does our understanding of how we learn. Using this information, many people now attempt to maximise the learning process through various avenues, ranging from mental exercises to supplements designed to increase the mind’s efficiency.
At the forefront of developing cognitive function comes improving memory. A balanced diet, plenty of sleep and a little attention to detail will take you a long way toward remembering the noteworthy events of the day. That being said, most people are not fortunate enough to be able to recall vast quantities of information without significant repetition. If you are one of the lucky few capable of doing so, then I wish you well in your pursuit of polymathy. For the rest of us looking for a quick fix, there are countless brainteasers that claim to offer shortcuts to a more retentive memory. Beyond the realm of casually completed Sudokus, come clinically trialled brain training. Though the jury is still out, there is not a great deal of support for these exercises actually improving your mental processes as opposed to simply training the specific gameplay skills involved. Interestingly, a specially designed brain training game called Wizard has experienced some success with patients suffering from schizophrenia (the condition severely impairs episodic memory: the recollection of actions and events in the past). A collaboration with the developers of the popular brain training app Peak, has seen the neuroscientific principles behind Wizard incorporated into a game for a wider audience, even taken up by Northampton Saints rugby team in a bid to enhance their players’ mental performance on the pitch.
If the prospect of spending even more time on your phone is not particularly appealing, or you’re hoping to really push the limits of your mind, then you may be brave enough to consider transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). A far cry from an electric chair or the animation of Frankenstein’s monster, electrical stimulation has long been used in medical treatment, cited as far back as migraine treatment for the Roman Emperor Claudius. tDCS uses carefully placed electrodes to stimulate specific target areas in the brain; the constant low current allegedly alters the resting membrane potential of neurons in that region allowing for better cognitive function. Different areas of the brain are associated with different types of actions and learning, and as such this technique can supposedly be used to promote skills ranging from mathematics to languages.
While electroconvulsive therapy has been used for some time to treat conditions like depression with notable success, what tDCS potentially represents is an opportunity to advance intellect beyond standard human potential. Ethically this poses concerns over mind alteration and safety, although the side effects have so far been shown to be fairly minimal. Perhaps more worrying is the accessibility of kits to carry out personal tDCS, easily found online without having to break into triple figures. The pursuit of greater knowledge may be alluring, but I’m unconvinced it’s worth skin burn on account of incorrect positioning of electrodes, especially given the incomplete understanding of its effects on brain chemistry. If you do choose to subject yourself to these small zaps (hopefully in a controlled environment), remember the treatment alone will not be sufficient to increase your intelligence, rather it is intended to support your learning process.
Nootropics is the umbrella term for a number of purported productivity and performance enhancers, grouping supplements such as prescription drugs and stimulants. Especially popular among those looking to get an edge in a competitive world, many of them focus on maximising and prolonging your attention. Commonly referred to as ‘study drugs’, two of the most popular are typically misused prescriptions. Modafinil is not unlike an extra strength ProPlus (caffeine) tablet, allowing the subject to stave off fatigue for several hours, and Adderall (a treatment for ADHD), has been found to improve memory. Resorting to such measures is unnecessary, and besides, a less risky active compound can be found in green tea and as a frequent food supplement: L-theanine. This amino acid is claimed to perform well in conjunction with caffeine, offering faster thought-processing without experiencing infamous caffeine jitters. Seemingly safe beyond risks of sleep-deprivation, and easily obtainable, it would seem the main obstacle for this cognition-boosting pair is stomaching a cup of coffee at the same time as green tea.
It is possible that the capacity of the human mind is finite, but humanity will, and must, continue to strive for the peak of human potential. Advancing neuroscientific understanding has done wonders for mental performance, particularly for those who have suffered from debilitating mental conditions. However, it is this aspect of mind alteration that is crucial to consider when regarding techniques such as those aforementioned. The brain is unique, it differs on an individual basis; the improvements in one person may be superficial, and certainly do not guarantee the same result in another. Ultimately, we have not yet reached a point that hard work and resolve should not remain your first course of action.