Is It Possible to Raise My IQ?

According to some doctors, it is possible to raise IQ by “exercising” the brain with challenging activities for the left brain and right brain. Do you agree? – Jane

Dear Jane,

more smarterNot only do I agree, I heartily recommend it.

Those of us in the biz don’t typically think of intelligence in terms of left and right brain. Usually, we speak in terms of verbal and performance abilities.

Verbal IQ includes abilities like short term memory, language comprehension, and sequential information processing. Performance IQ includes spatial reasoning, non-verbal logic, visual-motor skills, and so on.

This division is somewhat arbitrary, but there are advantages to it. For one thing, discrepancies in verbal and performance abilities help diagnose problems such as head injury, developmental disabilities, dementia, and stroke. The verbal/performance division also helps us understand how the mind ages. I hate to tell ya, Jane, but our brains are slowly falling apart.

As we age, performance IQ tends to decline fairly quickly. Processing speed is one of the first things to go. It tends to peak in the early twenties, after which it begins the long, downhill slide. Nonverbal reasoning and visual-motor coordination are not far behind. Working memory, which allows us to do things like remember shopping lists, typically begins to decline during the thirties or forties.

Verbal abilities, on the other hand, tend to stay pretty strong throughout the lifespan. Verbal reasoning, fluency, and language ability show gains through the thirties and forties, as do arithmetic skills. Even though they later decline, they tend to stay pretty strong until approach the finish line. Our long-term recall of concrete information (Who was the first president? What was the name of that sexy teacher in third grade?) also remains fairly strong. That’s assuming you’re lucky enough to avoid dementias such as Alzheimer’s.

As we age, verbal abilities tend to outlast performance. Maybe that’s why there are no 60-year-old fighter pilots while there are plenty of skilled 60-year-old lawyers.

But don’t let this talk of mental decline and plentiful lawyers get you down. There is good news. So far, we’ve been discussing general trends in the population. You, Jane, are not a population. You get to exercise some control over the health of your own brain. Research suggests that not enough people do that. Most people overestimate the effects of aging on IQ decline, and they tend to underestimate the value of regular mental exercise. Exercise makes a big difference. Even if our minds slow down with age, we can easily compensate with greater knowledge, accuracy, and effectiveness.

Barring misfortune, we can keep our brains operating at peak efficiency by challenging them throughout our lives. I wouldn’t waste time on gimmicky exercises. Instead, use your brain the way it was meant to be used: learn a language, join a sports league, get that degree in quantum physics that you’ve always wanted. In short, engage in the world around you, be curious, and have fun. It’s no more complicated than that.

If you want that extra brain boost, take good care of your body. If you can avoid high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems, you will increase the chances of holding on to that mind of yours for as long as possible. Martial arts are a perfect way to stay healthy and work the brain, all in one handy package. Plus, the uniforms look cool.

Speaking of which, I know a wise martial arts instructor who asks his students to learn three new things during each class. Apply that rule to your daily life and not only will your brain age more gracefully, but soon enough your IQ will be off the charts.


Kaufman, A.S. & Lichtenberger, E.O. (1999). Essentials of WAIS-III Assessment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.