Professionally, I follow the search engine optimization (SEO) industry. The purpose of SEO is to gradually improve the organic visibility of website content on Google by making multiple, steady improvements to the quality and structure of that content.
Human brains can be optimized in similar fashion through a process known as education. One thing that gets in the way of our education is when we think we’re already educated. No matter how smart we think you are, we’re never as smart as we could be. Our brains are under optimized.
Let me share a couple examples to illustrate.
When I was in a junior at Northwestern University, my fraternity brothers and I were quite full of ourselves. We were attending a prestigious school, getting excellent grades, and generally preparing to become Masters of the Universe. Then we started hanging around with some fellow fraternity brothers attending the University of Chicago. After a few months, it became evident that they were not only better educated, but they also had more raw brainpower than we did. When we told them so, we were surprised at their response, which was laughter. They said at U of C, they were considered real dummies — serious undergrads would never waste time in a fraternity. Now we were doubly humbled.
Seven or eight years later, I had the good fortune to attend a Great Books class led by none other than Mortimer Adler. Adler was probably the smartest and best educated person I ever rubbed elbows with, a distinguished scholar and philosopher who believed people could get smarter by critically reading the great books of Western civilization. I can tell you from personal experience he was correct. In a group of 25 adult students, I felt completely out of my depth in our monthly book discussions — but above all I learned how much depth there was to be out of. The class, along with the University of Chicago experience, strongly influenced me to keep optimizing my brain: there was a lot of work left to be done.
Knowing what you don’t know is the way to understand what you do know. When we stop challenging our minds, we stop optimizing our brains. And, just as in SEO, there is no steady state. If our brains aren’t ripening, they’re shriveling up like six-week old bananas. Web content needs continual shaping and refining, and so do our minds. How can we optimize our brains?
- Read great books. History has done the work for us of separating the wheat from the chaff — rather than follow the pack and read what is popular, instead read what has stood the test of time. Book clubs, formal or informal, help immensely in this effort, because two or more heads are definitely better than one when it comes to dissecting the meaning of our great authors.
- Learn by doing something new. When we throw ourselves into situations that are unfamiliar we learn new skills and new ways to solve problems. New hobbies, travel, changing careers, and taking on tough work assignments are some of the ways to shake the dust off our brains.
- Avoid brain-deadening inputs. This is the challenge of our times, as we constantly run the risk of distraction from our cell phones, social media, sports and popular entertainment. Overindulging in these seemingly innocuous distractions is like pouring battery acid on our brains.
A powerful strain of anti-intellectualism is running through the popular culture these days. Stupidity is almost being held up as a virtue in TV programs and TV ads. We are often counseled to have faith in experts.
But how expert are the experts? Like ours, the brains of experts are not fully optimized. How can we reasonably judge which experts to heed without building up our knowledge and reasoning power? All too often, when one expert says “white” and the other says “black,” we take sides based on emotion and/or very limited information. This sort of response is just what snake oil salesmen always hope for.
(Image Credit — Wikimedia Commons, Courtesy of the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas.)