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The question is vague, but makes sense.

Playing Chess / Poker would improve certain abilities.

Performing mental calculus would improve others.

But which activity, other than those, would litterally change a person's "brain power", or to be more precise, mental abilities, by an astronomical factor ?

By abilities, I mean : - ability to learn complex things fast : e.g. learn a new programming paradigm, a new philosophical concept, a new mathematical proof... - ability to understand complex things

May be an activity worth taking a sabbatical year.

I know the question is fuzzy, so please feel free to edit it so it sounds like the question you'd have asked. If you feel you understand what I mean :)

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Quoting the faq: "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page." –  bWowk Jul 10 '12 at 13:23
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Reading daily for at least 4 hours. Read a wide variety of subjects. –  HLGEM Jul 10 '12 at 13:24
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All subjects, a mix of fiction and nonfiction. The broader, the better. I would suggest going deep into some subject you are currently knwoledgable in and reading several subjects in which you have shown no previous interest. My current list includes books on research on the mind, fractal math, WWII history, comparative religions, biographies of non-entertainment people (Lyndon Johnson has an excellent multivolume biography), poetry, database performance tuning, yoga, football, longitude and maps, widowhood, the BEatles, espionage, Indian cooking, the American Revolution, chaos theory. –  HLGEM Jul 10 '12 at 17:03
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I think you answer your question in your question. Playing chess makes you a better chess player. Learning more will make you a better learner. There must also be a level of commitment and desire- we pay attention to things we deep-down want the most. –  Gaʀʀʏ Jul 10 '12 at 21:40
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Learn mathematics well. It is the subject that requires the most understanding. –  Mew Dec 26 '12 at 3:53

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Learn how the brain works.

The brain is generally quite stupid. It remembers things you don't want it to remember. It forgets things you really want to remember. It never recalls the right things at the right time.

It's not a computer. It's a pattern recognition system. Your memory does not function exactly like a disk. There are large portions of the brain dedicated to things like senses and keeping your body alive. While too many people have said that we use only small portions of our brains for things, it's simply not possible to use the 'unused' portions for things.

You'd need to learn the limitations of how the brain learns and understands things. Thinking, Fast and Slow by D. Kahneman is a great book that gives a high level view of the brain without the reader needing a detailed psychological foundation.

Generally, playing chess does not make you smarter, though it depends on your definition of intelligence. It will improve your chess playing skills a lot. It will improve your ability to anticipate people's actions several steps in the future, but this only goes so far, before it's limited to the context of chess. You can be a grandmaster chess player and still fail game theory.

It will not improve reading comprehension, research skills, communication skills, mathematical logic, etc.

Similarly, poker will drill your training of statistics and hone your intuition to body language, but it will not improve in a lot of fields. Someone who is a master poker player will not be a much better statistician than someone who is a very good poker player.

If you want to improve your skills in something, identify it. Poker will help investigative journalists in their career, but may be useless for a soccer player. If you wish to be an architect, video games about buildings will probably help you more than months of latin/calculus.

Know the kinds of skill your career needs, and then focus on doing things that help it. Chances are that most people already do this. And most of those people end up taking careers in things that they've developed skills for in their spare time.

If you wish to be a polymath/jack-of-all-trades, you should learn mathematics, which is applied to everything in the universe. You should learn engineering, which is a practical application of mathematics. You should take philosophy, which is at a much higher level than mathematics, but focused on people.

And if you simply want to learn practical knowledge, read biographies and listen to interviews. A lot of people live for dozens of years and manage to bring out all the important life lessons they've gone through in half an hour. Biographies are a pretty damn good deal.

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You could be interesting in the works of Vera Birkenbihl. They are concentrated on the ways to improve the learning and thinking abilities.

However, don't expect your abilities to increase by astronomical factor, as long as you don't have total hay in head.

The key factor is concentration, if you lack concentration, you won't be able to learn much. And it's hard to concentrate if you try to learn something which is not connected to what you already know - brain learns by finding connections to existing knowledge, this is one of the key theses of Mrs Birkenbihl.

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Makes sense ... Thank you very much for this valuable answer. –  Skippy Fastol Jan 2 '13 at 9:07

Practise : might sound ridiculous but nothing beats it . Find a way to practise the concept you want to master if not known already .It will not only increase your understanding of the concept but bring up many more questions .Finding answers to those questions will increase your overall idea .

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Feynman Technique works well with me especially when learning concepts and ideas - http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=FrNqSLPaZLc

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How to improve one's 'learning' and 'understanding' capabilities?

You cannot see unless your eyes are working properly, you cannot hear unless your ears are in good shape, you will start panting after walking if you have not drank enough water, and finally you cannot think properly unless your mind is in perfect order. I think you are getting my point here, i.e. oiling and servicing your mind properly like you do to a car.

As @le_garry pointed about desire and attention, playing chess and reading intelligent books will definitely keep your mind sharp, but above all that for increasing our mind's horse power I very firmly believe in a balanced diet. Take lot of vegetables, take some fish every week, cut out oily food or fried foods, and apart from that jog every morning until your shirt is all wet. Do this for a year and you will see a magical transformation. Also stop watching tv needlessly.

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