Category Archives: Understanding Ourselves

The Elephant in the Room – Do Our Brains Work for or Against Us?


Who’s riding what?

We’re being taken for a ride

Dr. Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “hite”) is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s School of Business.  His doctoral degree is in social psychology, and his interests include the fascinating field of moral psychology (which overlaps with philosophy).  Dr. Haidt’s most recent book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” is a non-judgemental and fascinating examination of the inner workings of our minds, particularly the machinery that drives our political, social, and moral proclivities.

Among Dr. Haidt’s many insights is his comparison of the relationship between our conscious and subconscious minds to a rider and an elephant, respectively.   As he defines it, the elephant is all of the factors that influence our thoughts and behaviors below the level of conscious thought,  including our limbic systems which secrete and process neurotransmitters like serotonin, cortisol,  and dopamine .

He chose the elephant to represent the mysterious realm of the subconscious because they are big and powerful.  Dr. Haidt believes that the rider in his model accounts for about 1% of our behaviors and attitudes.   The rest is all elephant.

Until pretty recently, the neurosciences have not seemed  interesting to me.     After The Righteous Mind, I’ve been willing to set aside some of my biases and  pay closer attention to the mind sciences.   Maybe they’re not getting precisely the right answers, but at least they’re asking some very intriguing questions.

When I read Dr. Haidt’s description of the rider and elephant, I was perplexed and initially skeptical.  The idea that rationality would have so little control of my actions and decisions is deeply unsettling.  And that may be because the elephant doesn’t want me to know the extent of its influence.   But there’s something about the concept that seems accurate; it resonates in an uncomfortable way.

After reading The Righteous Mind, I undertook a little casual research.  I learned that Dr. Haidt’s model is well supported by his fellow neuroscientists, past and present.  Freud didn’t invent the idea of the subconscious, but he popularized it, and his work formed the basis for many of the later studies of the concept.  There seems to be no scholarly debate about the validity of the notion that we have both a conscious and subconscious mind.  Whatever scholarly debates still surround that idea seem to have more to do with the degree of control the elephant exerts over the rider and vice versa than with whether the concept is valid.  And  Dr. Haidt’s estimate is apparently not particularly controversial.

What we perceive as the rational, conscious mind is a great mystery.  For most of my life, I’ve assumed that it was the most important aspect of my existence and that my decisions and actions were directly guided by it exclusively.   When I read the book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, I had to revise my understanding.  What I’ve thought of as impulse and intuition is much deeper than I’ve conceived it, and far more influential in my decision-making.

You may be wondering how the elephant might influence you in an unexpected or even an unhelpful way without you noticing.  One very good example is a phenomenon that the neuroscientists call “motivated reasoning”.   That’s the name for the process you go through when you’re presented with information that is at odds with a belief that you hold strongly.  Our elephants are very good at helping us to find reasons to disregard information that challenges cherished belief.  In examing this phenomenon, researchers presented subjects with a phony “scientific” study that puported to show a link between caffeine and breast cancer.    Women who were enthusiastic coffee drinkers found more errors in the study than women that were not, thanks to their elephants working behind the scenes to motivate their minds to continue to believe what they wanted to believe.


In Dr. Haidt’s scenario, our very big and influential subconscious mind knows its rider intimately, but we, the riders,  have only glimpses of it.  We sense its intentions only vaguely.  We don’t know exactly where it wants to take us or whether it will ultimately act in our best interests but we do know that sometimes it doesn’t.

Very Puzzling

Taming the Beast

As a geologist, I can’t advise you how to tame the elephant.  Actually, I’m pretty sure that it can’t be tamed.  I’ve come to believe that improving our understanding of it is vital, though, if we hope to have healthy relationships and reasonably predictable and stable lives.

Researchers like Dr. Haidt have made great strides in that direction.  Start by reading his bookThe Righteous Mind“.   It will give you insights into why you think the way you do, and it will give you empathy towards others with whom you disagree, whether it’s about religion, your favorite author, or politics.

I’m not claiming that I’ve mastered the elephant, or even that it can be mastered.  The elephant is complex and more than a little devious.  Scientists have spent lifetimes trying to develop tools that will help us wrest a little more control from these mighty beasts with only moderate success.

The less we know about it, though, the wilder the ride can be.  My advice is to start learning what you can now.  You’ll find that the knowledge you gain will improve just about every aspect of the ride.



20 things you can do to be more (or less) likable

Do you have a magnetic personality?


Social Butterflies vs Social Trolls

Humans are social creatures.  Our interactions obey rules that are often subtle and sometimes complex.

Our perceptions of others are formed quickly, and sometimes without much justification.  That means that other’s perceptions of us are likely as fast and unfair as ours are of them.   Most of us have had the unhappy experience of being misjudged by a new acquaintance.   It’s difficult and painful, particularly when we were hoping to make a good impression, as with a prospective employer or potential love interest.

The good news is that there are some things that we can do early in a relationship that can make us more likable.  Many of these are intuitive, and the most likable people we know probably practice them without conscious thought.   That doesn’t mean we can’t work to practice them with good results.

If you haven’t read “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, you need to.  And if you haven’t read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, you REALLY need to.  These books are timeless and offer invaluable insights into ways to be more likable and avoid being less likable.   Both books were written in the 1930s and their authors have passed into eternity.  But they were men of renown, people who genuinely liked their species and wanted to impart the benefits of their success and experience to others.  They’re neither long nor difficult to read, so pick them up on Amazon as soon as you’re done here.

Behavioral scientists applying the scientific method through research have improved and added to the works of Carnegie and Hill, but their original material is still invaluable and much of what you’ll read, below, draws from their insights.  Science can explain the results of their research, but science is no substitute for the intuition, insight, and personal experience of the most successful and insightful people who have ever lived.  Carnegie and Hill fall into that category.


Traits that attract

We can’t ignore pulchritude (it means beauty, but I like the word so I used it instead) as one of the factors upon which we quickly judge others.    According to Dr. Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at Royal Holloway University of London and author of the fascinating book “Beauty Pays,” attractive people earn more than their less attractive peers.  And it’s too obvious that more beauty equates to higher likeability.

There are things we can do to increase our physical attractiveness, like styling our hair in a flattering way, choosing clothing that complements our shape and coloring, and carefully applying makeup in ways that accentuate our best features (although Dr. Hamermesh claims there’s a low return on investments in cosmetics).

Overall, though, while you can gently tweak it, you’re stuck with whatever pulchritude you’ve got (or lack).  However, you CAN make yourself LESS likable by leveraging this category downward.  This is done by shoddy dress, body odor, and poor hygiene and/or grooming.  And if you happen to have pulchritude in the top 5 or 10 percent of your fellows, you can cut the advantages you might otherwise derive by ignoring the advice I’ll share below.

The good news for the less pulchritudinous is that, while all of us are influenced to some degree by physical appearance, most of us take lots of other factors into account in addition to pulchritude.  And the better news is that we even tend to weight them more heavily, proving that beauty is indeed only skin deep.  In fact, research shows that the characteristics we value most in others aren’t related to looks or intelligence, but to transparency, openness, and empathy.

With that said, here are 10 things you can do to leverage those traits and be more likable:

Making Friends
  1. Take an interest in people.  This starts with asking questions.  No one likes to be interrogated, but sincere questions about where someone grew up, their occupation, their interests, are usually welcome.  Many of us think that every thought that pops into our heads is worth sharing.  Mostly, we’re wrong.  So ask gentle and unobtrusive questions, don’t interrupt, and pay attention to the facial expressions, tone, and body language of the person you’re talking to.  If your questions make them uncomfortable, stop.
    Be you
  2. Be yourself.  Most of us develop a pretty good b.s. detector by our 10th birthday.  If you’re faking interest or trying too hard, people will see through you and you will have turned a potential likable trait into the opposite.
  3. Be stable and consistent.  If you’ve experienced meeting someone who can’t focus on a single topic for more than a few seconds, you know why this is off-putting.  Pay attention to the person with whom you’re speaking, don’t blurt, and don’t change subjects without a reasonable segue.
    Body language is worth 1000 words
  4. Pay attention to your body language.  If you fold your arms across your chest, you’re signaling that you’re uptight and closed to new relationships.  Pay attention to your facial expressions, keep your face open and pleasant, no grimacing or frowning.  Lean forward just a bit, but don’t invade someone’s space.  A slight lean shows you’re interested and eager to know more.  You can get a few more tips here.
  5. Remember names.  This is tricky for many of us because we’re a little nervous when we first meet someone new.  It’s especially difficult if you’ve just been introduced to 10 new people, but if you concentrate on remembering names, make it a priority, you can do it, and do it reliably.  If you have to ask someone a second time so that you’re sure you remember, that’s better than calling them “Hey, you!” or nothing at all.  Remembering someone’s name the second time you meet them is important, so don’t be afraid to jot a new name down or ask Siri to make a contact or take a note.
    Smile warmly or don’t bother
  6. Smile warmly, which can take practice for some of us.  But since it’s better not to smile at all if it comes off as even a little sinister or fake (unless you happen to be Joel Osteen), make sure you master the technique before you practice on new acquaintances.  
  7. Be open but discrete.  There may be a perfect time and place to tell someone your ex-wife is a gold-digging witch spelled with a capital B, but it’s probably not within the first 20 minutes of meeting them.  There’s a balance to openness, as there is with stability and consistency.  There really is such a thing as too much information.  If you have reason to suspect that you’ve crossed a few boundaries with this one,  then be particularly circumspect about revealing too many personal details.  The rule of thumb is that you’re open primarily about the positive aspects of your life and that you save the more negative ones for your therapist.
    See me, feel me, touch me…
  8. Don’t be afraid to touch another person briefly if your relationship has progressed to the point where it’s appropriate.  Ok, when I say “don’t be afraid” what I really mean is DO BE AFRAID.   Before you touch someone, remember that this is the era of #MeToo.   Much good is coming from MeToo,  it’s calling attention to unwanted and inappropriate behavior.  If you’re at all fuzzy on what makes up unwanted or inappropriate touching, keep your hands (and other appendages) to yourself.   Some people are naturally tactile.  If that’s you, a friendly clasped hand or a gentle hand on a shoulder can release neurochemicals that produce a sense of well-being.  On the other hand, an unwelcome or clumsy attempt to touch someone when they’re not expecting it or don’t welcome it is deeply unsettling.   If you’re not confident in your ability to read others, don’t mess with this one.  Maybe you’ll develop it, but don’t feel bad if you don’t.
    Judge not…
  9. Don’t be judgemental.  That may mean that you have to ratchet back on number 2, above.  In other words, don’t be yourself if you’re a highly opinionated partisan and you’ve just learned that you’re speaking to a person that doesn’t share your opinion about a politician, public policy, or subjects of faith.  One of the things that make conversation interesting is hearing a new or different perspective.  We ALL have some things in common, if only because we share the same class, order, family, genus, and species.  Focus on the interests you share, not the values you may not.  And if you’re unsure whether you can have a friendly relationship with someone who voted for a candidate of whom you don’t approve, or attends a church that you don’t like, ask yourself what kind of relationship you have with your doctor – do you share her or his political and religious opinions?  And if you don’t, but your doctor is competent and caring,  does it matter?  If you answered yes, you may find that being more likable is a longer-term goal and that you need to deal with some more immediate issues before you get started with that one.  Maybe.
    Enthusiastic and fun
  10. Be enthusiastic.  Enthusiasm is magnetic and captivating.  We all tend to gravitate toward people who are passionate, especially when the passion is for life and love and good wine.  It’s wonderful if you’re passionate about a particular politician, or party, or religious worldview, and you should indulge those passions when you’re with family members or close friends that share them.  Especially if you’re absolutely certain that they really do share them.  When you’re meeting someone new, confine your passions to your hobbies, pastimes,  and favorite vintages.  We all want to spend time with people who are upbeat and positive and that love life.  In the end, your enthusiasm needs tempering.  Don’t let it be an excuse to dominate the conversation.   Engage your new acquaintances, and let them share their passions, too.

The preceding tips are tested characteristics that most of us like and find appealing in others.  But there are plenty of ways to change the polarity and repel people that we would prefer to attract.








Traits that repel

Most of us can write our own lists of unlikability traits and they’re likely way longer than this one.   Our individual preferences can influence what we find annoying or off-putting in others, but there are some more or less universal “don’ts” that are good reminders.  We mostly know these things intuitively, but some of them can be forgotten or ignored when we’re distracted.  You don’t need to commit them to memory, just bear them in mind.

The art of humblebragging

1.  Boasting cloaked in faux humility.  It’s easy to slip into some version of this if you’re not careful.  At least, I assume it is – I wouldn’t really know because I’m usually so interested in other people I don’t talk about myself.   Even though I won the Nobel Prize for Humility and once rescued the Pope from an alligator. Boasting cloaked in faux humility.  Ick.


2.  Outbursts that stop conversation and focus attention on you.   This is sometimes called emotional hijacking.  It usually takes the form of a self-centered display of unchecked emotion.  You know –  histrionics and melodrama.  Hopefully, you’re not a practitioner because it’s usually an indicator of neuroses and/or personality disorder.   If you’ve been exposed to an emotional hijacking, you know how draining and thoroughly repugnant they are.  Be aware that we can be guilty of smaller scale hijackings that may not involve tears or hysterics, but can still be pretty off-putting.   Ranting can fall into this category, and while we usually do it online, it’s a form of emotional hijacking that likable people avoid.


3. Being glum and somber.  As I mentioned above, most of us are attracted to people with enthusiasm and passion.   So it’s no surprise that the opposite is at least a little repulsive.   While life can definitely have plenty of moments where it’s hard to find much to smile about, people that smile anyway are universally happier and have more friends.  I’m not suggesting that you should fake it if you’re depressed.  Disingenuousness is even more repulsive than gloominess.  If you’ve got a good reason for solemnity, take a day or two to deal with it.  Get help from family, friends, or counselors of whatever sort you’re most comfortable, and then tackle life and new relationships again with a new zeal.

Don’t drop that

4. Name Dropping.  This is probably too obvious, but don’t ignore it.  Too many of us do it without thinking about how bad it makes us look.   It’s a form of the faux humility in 1, above, but it’s actually a little more insidious because it cheapens you.  It’s a like a dirty window into your soul; no one’s going to like what they see through it.  If you’re not worth knowing and befriending based on your own merits, then you’re not worth knowing or befriending even if you’re on a first name basis with the governor.


5. Gossip.  It’s tempting, especially when you’re troubled by someone else’s poor behavior.  But it’s a little like name-dropping, and a lot like faux humility because it ties you to someone else, and compares your goodness to theirs.   Avoiding it will put you in pretty rarified atmosphere because lots of us indulge in it at every opportunity.  One of the drawbacks of being a prolific gossip is that you are fairly certain that you’ll wind up being the subject of plenty of it yourself.  Stay above the fray, and you’re far more likely to be treated respectfully by friends and acquaintances when you’re not within earshot.

Put it away

6.  Keep the phone in your pocket.   Nothing says you’re neither interested nor interesting like checking your email or texting while you’re talking with someone, especially a new acquaintance.  Just don’t.

Too much information

7. TMI on SM.   That’s too much information on social media.  The phenomenon of the online disinhibition effect (ODE)  has swept through western cultures.  It’s the weird tendency we’ve developed for dropping most of the filters that we keep in place during face to face or even telephone conversations.  It seems that we get lots of subtle feedback from others during a typical conversation, whether through vocal inflection or body language that helps us understand when we’re losing someone’s attention, or saying something inappropriate.  When we’re hidden behind screen and keyboard, we can’t perceive the many obvious or tiny subconsciously processed signals that tell us how others are responding to what we have to say.   That’s led lots of people to make pretty poor decisions.  ODE can literally make us seem unhinged.  Avoid it.  Look at your social media accounts with a keen eye and delete posts that seem disinhibited.  If you think you don’t have any, ask a friend for help.

Don’t be closed-minded

8. Being closed-minded.  Being open-minded doesn’t mean that you can’t have opinions.  Even open-minded people can be too eager to share their opinions, though.  Open-mindedness means in part that you don’t hold mundane opinions too strongly and that you’re not just willing but eager to hear other’s views.  This is not to say that you need to be willing to compromise on your moral and ethical beliefs.  Just be willing to listen without condemnation.  And be aware that your body language and expressions can betray you, so do your best to be genuinely interested in even ill-informed opinions without telling those that hold them why they’re wrong.   This is particularly important in new relationships.

Putting it all together

Putting it all together

When making a first impression, looks matter.  If you dress and groom well, you’ll score some points early on in a relationship.   If you want to support that early advantage, be empathetic and judiciously transparent and open.  We respond favorably to these attributes.  If they don’t come naturally, practice them, but don’t be artificial.

Meanwhile, it’s nearly as easy to repel others as it is to attract them.  Boasting is near the top of repellant characteristics.   We are pretty good at recognizing it even when it’s disguised as humility.   You can avoid it by focusing on others instead of yourself.  Ask questions about other’s lives, their interests, their origins, and their passions.  Develop a genuine sense of wonder at our diversity, whether it’s cultural or simply based on interests and life experience.  We really are all as different as snowflakes or leaves.  Getting a glimpse into the mind of another person is a privilege and has many rewards.  Pursue the experience and you’ll reap the rewards.

Be sure to share your experiences, thoughts, comments, and ideas below.  Cheers!

Hack your brain: 3 ways to sharpen your focus


get smart

Is it really possible to improve your brain power?

I wish that I’d asked this question a long time ago.   Surprisingly (to me, at least), the answer is “Yes!”  Now that I’ve learned these relatively simple hacks, my productivity and work quality have improved dramatically.  If I knew 10 years ago what I know now, I’d have written dozens of books, completed far more of my own research, and launched a few dozen enterprises.  And that’s not meant as hyperbole.

We’ve come a long way from the days when “intelligence quotient” was the only metric by which we measured human cognition.  While we used to rely primarily on pattern recognition, today’s neuroscientists understand that general intelligence (g)  is comprised of a number of individual factors like fluid reasoning, visual and auditory processing, working memory, attention control, long-term storage and retrieval, and cognitive processing speeds, among others.

While the specific factors that make up our overall intelligence are pretty firmly fixed by genetics and other factors that we can’t change, there are some important tune-ups that can help us to get the most horsepower   If you ignore these hacks and the science behind them, you can rest assured that many of your peers and competitors will not.

Sharpen your focus, raise your income…

If you’re skeptical because you’ve read that intelligence is inherited from your mother, or that g is fixed by genetic factors, or you otherwise just don’t believe that there’s anything you can do to improve your cognitive performance, keep reading.  The jury is not out on this topic – intelligence IS heritable, but that does not mean that you typically perform at your peak capacity.  You may not be able to transform yourself from dull normal to genius, but you CAN boost your cognition in ways that will improve your performance including the quality and quantity of your work regardless of what work you do.

Intelligence, as measured by IQ, correlates very well with income and it is a good predictor of family stability.   Several studies also link IQ below 90 with criminal behavior, and at least one researcher believes that societies with low average IQ can’t sustain a democratic form of government.

Beyond the obvious immediate benefits, once you reach the age of 65, your chances of developing dementia due to Alzheimer’s or other disorders are about one in ten.   You can dramatically reduce those odds by following the recommendations laid out below.

So if you CAN raise your IQ, or g, and reduce your chances of dementia, hopefully, it seems obvious that you SHOULD.

Not only will you be better off, society as a whole will be better off.   And the more of us that value our minds and work to improve them, the better our families, neighborhoods, and whole cultures will become. So don’t just follow these methods for yourself, pass them along to anyone that might be interested.

But wait – it’s NOT a no-brainer

Improving the way your mind works has always been within our grasp.   Getting a STEM degree, learning a new skill, and solving complex problems are all ways in which we improve our cognition.   People have been leveraging their brain power for as long as there have been people and that’s why we have smartphones, bullet trains, and the ISS.

While the hacks I’m going to share with you are simple, not all of them are easy.  We’ve often heard the brain compared to a muscle.  While brain tissue is nothing at all like muscle tissue, they both improve their performance when they are exercised.  Be prepared to put some effort into improving your intelligence.  Just like bodybuilders that work out for hours each day, you’ll see better results with better effort.

You should keep in mind that human intelligence is a composite of the factors I mentioned above along with a few others.  These factors are sharpened to varying degrees the brain hacking techniques I’ll share with you below.

Some of thems are as simple as taking a pill.  Others require more effort.  In general, you’ll see better results in the long term than you will in the short term.  Persevere.

The five best brain hacks to sharpen your mind

1. Brain-boosting supplements.

Yes, I know that the supplement industry is rife with poor quality products, unsupported claims, unscrupulous advertising, and bad science.  At least some of those shortcomings can be applied to many other sectors of the economy, including the pharmaceutical industry.   But that doesn’t mean that all supplements are always bad.  There are a number of non-prescription substances that have been proven to boost cognitive performance and either slow or reduce cognitive decline.  Here are my top three:

a)  Sunflower lecithin –

Lecithin makes up about one-third of our brains.  It’s a type of fat, so if you’re ever called a fat-head, don’t feel bad.   Besides fat, lecithin contains a compound that our bodies require in order to produce acetylcholine, a vital neurotransmitter.  Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that allow impulses to be passed between the neurons in our brains.

Studies have shown that phosphatidylcholine, one of the several phospholipids in lecithin, can stimulate neurogenesis which includes the growth of new brain cells as well as creating new neural connections even in older adults.  There are almost too many benefits to list without making lecithin sound like snake oil, but it’s not.

Lecithin and phosphatidylcholine are in many foods, including eggs, meat (especially liver), nuts, and seeds.  But it’s nearly impossible to get the levels that create the best results through diet alone.  You’ll need to supplement, and lecithin from sunflowers seems to be much better than lecithin from soy.  NOW produces very reasonably priced gel capsules that contain 1200 milligrams (mg) of lecithin derived from sunflowers.  You can purchase them from Amazon for less than $12 for 200 caps. They contain 420 mg of phosphatidylcholine, along with a number of other phospholipids that have a range of benefits.   Country Life produces soft gels with 1200 mg of phosphatidylcholine alone.  Because there are other physiological benefits associated with sunflower lecithin, I’ve elected to take it instead of the phosphatidylcholine by itself.  The results have thus far been better than I expected.

Among the benefits you should experience from taking a phosphatidylcholine supplement are increased mental focus, improved memory, faster learning, improved motor skills, and better sleep patterns.   These results were confirmed in a 1975 study conducted by MIT.

Other research indicates that sunflower lecithin also helps heal liver tissue, and reduces joint and other internal inflammation.  Sunflower lecithin and phosphatidylcholine are very nearly too good to be true, but the effects are very real and the cost is minimal.

b) Fish Oil – Omega 3

You may have heard the old saying that fish is “brain food”.  There are many examples of folk wisdom that are nothing more than hearsay or urban legend, but several studies have shown very conclusively that Omega 3 improves brain function.  At least one study has found that fish oil and omega 3 supplementation correspond with higher volumes of brain matter in areas shown to be connected with memory and higher cognitive functions.  And yes, size DOES matter with brains, too, especially when the larger parts are involved with memory and cognition.

Fish oil contains docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega 3 fatty acid, that has been shown to be important for both heart health and neural function.  Unfortunately, there are some potential problems with fish oil supplements.  Some studies have shown a potential link between fish oil supplements and some types of cancer, including prostate cancer.

And since some supplements use low-quality fish from questionable sources,  an injudicious purchase may give you more than you bargained for.  But because Omega 3 oils, including DHA, are found in seeds and oils, like flax seed, flax seed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil, and in many types of fish and seafood, you can experience cognitive enhancement and slow or even reversed cognitive decline by eating more of those foods, thus reduce the need for supplements.

If you want to try a supplement, Carlson Labs Very Finest Fish Oil is not a bad choice.  It’s not the cheapest, but I’ve found it to be of high quality, and my memory and clarity improve noticeably when I take it.  I try to limit my intake to two teaspoons full 3 days per week, less if I’m eating lots of omega 3-rich foods.

Carlson Labs also makes soft gels that may be easier for some people to get down.  They contain 800 mg per capsule, so you’ll have to choke down 3 to get the recommended 2,000 mg.

c) Curcumin   

Curcumin is a component of turmeric, the spice that gives curry powder its color.

Indians have used turmeric literally for millennia, not just as a spice but also as a powerful medicine.

If you don’t take any other supplements either because of the cost, inconvenience, your own skepticism, or just plain obstinance, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor if you overcome whatever obstacles are preventing you from taking supplements.  This one does far more than just improve brain health.  And while I’m a big fan of healthy skepticism, if that’s what’s stopping you, it’s anything but healthy in this case.

In fairness to skeptics, the claims made about turmeric and curcumin are so broad and audacious that it’s hard not to dismiss them out of hand.  But an increasing body of research is bearing out many of even the more outlandish claims.

When it comes to brain health, curcumin’s benefits have not been studied as thoroughly as some of its other nearly miraculous properties.  Based on my own experience and curcumin’s  documented ability to stimulate the brain’s production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (a compound that causes the brain to produce more brain cells) it’s a vital part of a brain health regimen.    While that’s a pretty big benefit, it has also been shown to act as an anti-depressant.  These are two potent ingredients for increased intelligence and clearer thinking.  For just under $18 you can get Bio Schwartz’ turmeric with bioperine.

Although you can get curcumin by itself, there are other compounds in turmeric that seem to have a certain synergy, so I prefer turmeric.  The bioperine, which is essentially black pepper, helps your body to absorb the beneficial components by orders of magnitude, so however you choose to add turmeric and curcumin to your daily regimen, make sure to include pepper (aka piperine or bioperine).

Turmeric and curcumin should be part of every diet or supplement regimen.  If you doubt it, read this article listing 10 reasons that you should be taking it every day.  And there are no side effects, as far as is known, so don’t hesitate to start taking it today.

2. Brain Training

Here’s where a little effort can go a long way.  And while it may not sound like it, it can be a lot of fun.

Because competition for bright minds is fierce in both academia and commerce, the race to find ways to sharpen our minds has become just as fierce.  Naturally, that means that there are lots of unrealistic claims made about cognitive enhancement from various brain training programs.  And there are lots of programs.   Lumosity is one of the leaders in this pack, largely because they’ve invested heavily in a variety of promotional campaigns. To their credit, Lumosity’s website doesn’t make outlandish claims about the results that users achieve, although some of that may be implied in their advertising.   Lumosity has lots of competition, and while it’s possible that some of the games and exercises that Lumosity and other brain training websites offer can really improve your cognition, there is a lone stand out brain training exercise that has been shown by conclusive studies to actually improve general intelligence.  It’s called dual n-back training.

The n-back concept was introduced in 1958 by psychologist Dr. Wayne Kirchner, not as a brain training method, but as a way of measuring working memory.  Dr. Kirchner’s original method involved presenting a subject with a sequential series of shapes, letters, or sounds.  The participant was then asked to indicate when a current pattern matched an earlier one some number (n) of steps back in the sequence.  Hence the name n-back.

in 2003, Dr. Susanne Jaeggi and others developed a modification of Kirchner’s original n-back concept in which two sequences are presented to a subject in different forms, usually one audible and the other visual.  Although Dr. Jaeggi was interested in using this technique to measure working memory, which is a key component of g.  The double sequence is the primary concept behind “dual n-back” brain training.

Meta studies have shown that dual n-back training actually can increase general intelligence.  The amount of increase can be more than 6 points on a standard IQ test, which is pretty amazing.  You can read more here.

Dual n-back brain training focuses on challenging and improving working memory, but it has an overall effect on general intelligence.  You can start a regiment of dual n-back training at  It’s free, so there are no excuses.  Of course, you could spend a little extra time watching re-runs of Friends, but hopefully, you’ve already figured out that if you can INCREASE your IQ, you can also DECREASE it. Choose wisely.

Dual n-back training is an effective way to improve your intelligence, but it is not the only one.  Lumosity may be effective, along with many of their competitors.  As nearly as I can tell, dual n-back is the most effective.   But it’s important to remember that activities, like solving sudoku puzzles and reading nonfiction, may improve some of the factors that contribute to general intelligence.  Make up your mind to devote at least 15 minutes a day to one of these activities, and your brain will thank you for it.

3.  Pharmaceutical Nootropics – Modafinil

I’ve saved the best for last.  This does NOT mean that you should ignore the preceding two hacks but if you do, you’ll have impressive results with this one by itself.  Nootropics are drugs or other substances (like the supplements I listed in part 1, above) that enhance memory and/or general cognition.  I didn’t use the term for the supplements because I reserve it for pharmaceuticals, even though it can be correctly applied to any substance that can make you smarter.

There are plenty of nootropics on the market, including many claiming to be “natural” concoctions of herbs, roots, berries, vitamins, oils, etc.  This is a burgeoning industry, with more and more tech execs, students, engineers, coders, and others in competitive environments latching on to any potential advantage to sustain or advance their careers.  Caveat emptor applies to these, but with way more caution than you should use when buying a car or just about any other product. There are lots of bad actors promoting snake oil, so learn as much as you can before you try something that may

The one that has my undivided attention because I’ve tested its effectiveness personally is modafinil.  Before you read on, you should understand that I’m biased and that my opinions on modafinil’s effectiveness are dispassionate.  I fell in love with it when I first tried it, so even though I’ve read peer-reviewed literature about it, I’m fighting my own confirmation bias.   In other words, you should definitely do your own research before diving into this nootropic head first.

I’m not alone.  A good friend that started taking modafinil a few months ago tells me that his experience with it has been extraordinarily positive.  He’s an engineer, so his mental acuity is a vital resource, and it’s been significantly sharpened by this nootropic.

Modafinil was originally developed in France by neurophysiologist Michel Jouvet to treat narcolepsy.  It was approved by the USDA in 1998 as a prescription-only treatment for narcolepsy and for shift work sleep disorders.  It’s not clear when it became popular as a nootropic, but it’s become one of the most sought after formulations by nootropic users.  It’s often compared to the fictional smart drug NZT-48 depicted in the movie “Limitless” starring Bradley Cooper.  The US Airforce has officially approved modafinil for use by air crews on long or demanding missions including combat.  Athletes have used it in violation of doping rules because it significantly lessens the perceived level of effort required to sustain strenuous training.

The potential downsides of modafinil are relatively minor.  Skin rash and allergy are the only two contra indications listed by Cephalon, the US manufacturer.  Cephalon also advises people with cardiovascular disorders and/or cirrhosis of the importance of consulting a physician before taking modafinil.  FDA did report 6 cases of severe skin rash that may have been related to modafinil use between 1998 and 2007.  You can read more about potential side effects on Wikipedia.

Modafinil has been used safely by countless millions of people world wide.  It IS a prescription medication in most western countries.  Your doctor may prescribe it for you if you have narcolepsy or do shift work.

You may also order it from Duckdose by clicking here.   Duckdose is thoroughly reputable.  They’re shipments originate outside of the US, but shipping usually takes a week or less.

Don’t take my word for the effectiveness of modafinil.  Do your own research, and make your decision accordingly.  For me, modafinil has been life-changing.  Without it, I almost feel as though I’m in a fog.  It’s a familiar feeling, but I didn’t notice it until I took my first dose of modafinil and the fog lifted.

For me, modafinil has been life-changing.  Without it, I almost feel as though I’m in a fog.  It’s a familiar feeling, but I didn’t notice it until I took my first dose of modafinil and the fog lifted.

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