Thursday, October 9, 2014

10 Ways To Build Your Intellectual Muscles

Photo by Georg Holderied Via
I don't know about you but I have Intellectual Envy. Not in a sinful sort of way but in a "what in the world would it take me to learn and grow and write and think like that person!?" sort of way. I read writers like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Lewis, Chesterton, and N.T. Wright (to name a very few), wanting to know if there is a remote chance that I could learn to be a deep and seasoned thinker too. Are some people just born with "it"? Is it a false hope to aspire to join the company of such learned thinkers?

Some people are surely born more adept at learning than others, but even if you are of average intelligence there are some things you can do to sharpen the knife. I know that I want to do everything I can to increase my mental capacity in the service of God. But how? This question has put me on task to researching ways to build intellectual muscles, and, while there are surely many more, here are some sure-fired ways to get started.

1. Prayer.

James 1:5 states, "If anyone lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
Jesus promises us that if we ask, seek, and knock then we shall receive, find, and have open doors (Matt. 7:7-8)

2. Read. Read. Read.

--Reading just a little each day may decrease your risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to some recent studies.  
-- A recent poll found that 27% of Americans didn't read a single book last year. If you read 20+ books in a year, then you are within the top 20% of readers in the US.

--Read a variety of authors in a field. I know some people who are so obsessed with a certain author that they lock in their heels on an issue without bothering to see what others have to say on the topic. Nothing could be worse for mental growth. Beware of the sound of one hand clapping!
--Read old books and new. C.S. Lewis said, "It is a good  rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself  another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read on  old one to every three new ones" (from the preface to On the Incarnation).

--Read authors with whom you expect to disagree. It's easy to read someone who thinks like you or believes the way you do, but real intellectuals "keep their friends close and their enemies closer" as it were. If you want to interact with the world of ideas then you will need to read those voices contrary to your own.

3. Evaluate what you read or watch.

There is a difference between passive and active/critical learning. Learn to question books or TV, analyse them, and weigh the evidence. Just because it's labeled "history" or "science" doesn't mean that it is fact. Learn to look for signs of careful scholarship and basic presuppositions.

4. Teach or explain something to a beginner or child.

It's amazing how your mind engages when you suddenly have to simplify complicated, abstract, or even commonplace items and occurrences for beginners or children. See if you can simplify things to their basic level without becoming reductionistic.
5. Practice integrated reasoning.
According to the book Make Your Brain Smarter, by Sandra Bond Chapman and Shelly Kirkland, integrated reasoning develops a stronger frontal lobe. Integrated reasoning is looking for ways to connect what you are learning to your life. Interestingly enough, it seems that Bible studies have encouraged this for years.

6. Experience "Meaning Threat."

 Do you know that frustrating feeling when what you are reading, seeing or experiencing makes no sense? That is what researchers are calling "meaning threat." Researcher Travis Proulx from the University of California at Santa Barbara says that when you experience it your brain goes into overdrive. During their research, Proulx and his college, had people read stories by Kafka and watch David Lynch movies before taking tests. They found that the people who had tried to make sense of nearly incoherent material, were almost twice as accurate when taking tests.1  You can simulate "meaning threat" by reading bizarre stories or even going through culture shock--anything that pushes you to make sense of your situation.

7. Learn to ask more and more pointed questions.

My mentor Dr. David Bauer once told me that "the key to having profound insights is in examining the details." How do you get to those details? Ask more pointed questions. Ask questions of everything.

Little children are naturally curious. As we get older, we become more confident in our knowledge and begin to assume that we have more answers. But what if we could begin to ask who, what, when, where, how, why, what is the significance? For instance: Who made this fruit cake? What exactly is in this fruit cake? When was this cake made and when am I really going to eat this? Where can I throw this fruit cake away without Aunt Margaret finding out? How am I going to reply when she asks me how I liked this disgusting brick of liquor-filled Skittles? Why did she buy this for me in the first place? What is the significance of giving someone a nasty cake that no one eats?
You get the drift.

8. Take a stroll

By stroll I mean something different than just a jog with your headphones in and listening to a podcast or pop song. I really mean a walk for the sake of being out of doors, breathing fresh air, and taking notice of the world around you. Men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien loved country walks and they did alright for themselves.

The fact is the human mind can only take so much input. If we don't take time out of our schedules to reflect on the information that we are receiving, we won't properly digest it and turn it into productive insights. Walking is a great way to step back from lectures, books, sermons, and podcasts. Take this time to process. It also benefits your health.

9. Puzzles, riddles, codes.

Back in the day before Candy Crush Saga and Angry BirdsThe Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory stole all of our time, people had things called brains and they kept them sharp with word games, puzzles, riddles, and the like. When was the last time you played a game of chess, go, or sudoku? How about a crossword puzzle? Cracking a secret code can be a very stimulating experience. These types of exercises help your memory, improve you deductive ability, and can help us learn to concentrate (a sorely need skill these days).

10. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

We tend to become like those with whom we spend our time, so it's important for an intellectual novice to join the company of brighter minds. This is a great way to kill complacency and push yourself towards excellence. If you look around your group of friends and realize that you are the top thinker, then it's time to find a sharper cohort.

There you have ten ways to improve your intellectual muscles, which of course will benefit your mind for Christ as well. Please leave a comment and share tricks and tips that you have found helpful. I would love to hear from you.


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