How to Grow Your Brain


It used to be thought that once we moved past adolescence our brains were pretty much set for life.  All we had to look forward to was a slow deterioration into old age.   This couldn’t be further from the truth.

It has been found that, rather than our brains deteriorating with age, our brains can actually grow. We can improve our cognitive functioning as we get older.  The Seattle study carried out by Washington University has tested the cognitive abilities of 500 adults every 7 years since 1956.  Their results show that middle-aged adults perform better on four out of six cognitive tests than they did as young adults.

One explanation for this increase in ability could be that the amount of white matter in the brain, which forms the connections among nerve cells, appears to increase until age 40 or 50 and then begins to decrease.  This increase in white matter is associated with an increase in ‘fluid intelligence’.  Fluid intelligence draws on peoples’ capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge.  It is fluid intelligence that enables leaders to better deal with the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments many organisations are facing today.

The rate of growth and strength of white matter depends on how the brain is used. Whilst partly determined by genetic blueprint, white matter thickens and becomes more efficient with deliberate use.  Being exposed to challenges where our existing view of the world does not provide a solution appears to be one way to stimulate the growth in white matter.  In these challenging situations a new solution comes from making new connections in the brain rather than reinforcing the old connections which happen when we keep applying old solutions to existing or new problems (often called the expertise trap).  Leaders are more able to access new solutions when they:

  • Suspend their need for detail and tune into the dynamic patterns of the situation
  • Focus less on the pragmatic and are more open to the possible
  • Are less concerned with short term solutions and have greater awareness of long term implications
  • Have less reliance on structure and a greater comfort with chaos

What about grey matter?   These are the cells which are the processing centres in our brains and responsible for our crystallised intelligence (which draws on past knowledge and experience).  Recent research has found that we can also grow grey matter as we get older.  However, this requires some physical, rather than mental, effort.  Neuroscientists at Cambridge University have shown that exercise, especially running, stimulates the brain to grow fresh grey matter and this has a big impact on mental ability.   The new brain cells appear in a region that is linked to the formation and recollection of memories.

So if you happen to run into a few challenges you will be improving both your fluid and crystallised intelligence.

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