Your visuo-spatial ability is in fact many different kinds of ability,
ranging from picking out details, to perceiving the arrangement
of those details into patterns, to fitting those patterns into
a knowledge base so you know what to do with them.
Like your other faculties, your visuo-spatial intelligence can
be maintained or left to deteriorate. Visual close-ups can challenge
you to project those details onto a larger pattern, thus exercising
your right-brain-dependent holistic-imaging skills. Familiar patterns
with a subtle detail or two out of place can test your attention
to objective minutiae. And tasks demanding mental rotation of three-dimensional
visual objects can be a real brain-buster, until you learn to get
hang of it.
Memory & Learning:
Memory is a partner in developing all other mental skills. The
key to learning is the brain’s ability to convert a current experience
into code and store it so, later, the experience can be recalled
for your benefit. The brain codes some kinds of inputs from the
senses permanently with no conscious effort on your part. It
can also store other kinds of data because you consciously pass
that data through a rehearsal loop repeatedly — which, incidentally,
can also take place during sleep.
The front part of the cortex (the wrinkled outer covering of the
brain) allows you to foresee goals and take the steps necessary
to execute your plans. As the most recently-evolved part of the
brain, the frontal lobes also house the most fragile parts of
our identity, and support the faculties that require the most
conscious effort and practice if you want to maintain them.
The flip side of the fragility of executive functions is that
they are also the most malleable and improvable with practice.
The best way to be an expert at organizing information and using
it to your advantage is to work at it. Because your frontal-lobe
functions are so consciously accessible, this is an easier matter
— as long as you’re willing to make the effort — than, say, learning
to adjust your brain-stem-governed body rhythms.
Language & Math:
Our acquisition of language in infancy is so instinctual and automatic
that we sometimes take it for granted. Recent evidence shows
us that a life-long willingness to push the envelope of our linguistic
abilities helps keep our brain cell’s dendritic branches from
atrophying, and may even help prevent Alzheimer’s.
Almost all of us fall within the same range of basic mathematical
ability. Why, then, do so many of us avoid mental arithmetic calculations
and math-games with the excuse that we’re just “not good at math”?
But those of us who think of math as something we’re simply not
good at tend to leave the mental calculations to others. By allowing
ourselves to settle into this kind of pattern, we allow our mathematical
acuity, and general mental alertness, to slip. This is, in fact,
exactly why most of us who really are “not good at math” have become
this way — because we’ve become comfortable thinking of ourselves
Neuroscience is revealing the loci in the brain of our emotional
faculties, and the neural pathways linking emotion to the “intellectual”
functions of the mind. Emotion is intimately linked to cognition,
and to the maintenance of the health of our brain cells as well
as our body’s immune system.
Social interaction is a skill you may not think of as “mental,”
but you really can’t ignore it if you want to boost your brainpower
and maximize the effectiveness of your other mental skills. Some
of the most interesting recent brain research has shown us ways
that social skills are tied to all the other traditional measures
of intelligence. A person may have a razor-sharp logical acumen
and yet be unable to use that skill to make logical life decisions,
or even to engage in productive social interactions. Social interaction
is also one of the three pillars of a so-called “enriched environment,”
along with mental stimulation and physical exercise. That’s the
kind of environment that serves to keep all cognitive skills
sharp, to boost the production of new brain cells, and even to
lower Alzheimer’s risk.