Building a better brain: The right jobs can make us smarter

Engagement is key, experts say

Work can be stressful, but recent research suggests that what you do on the job can actually make you more intelligent, Sue Shellenbarger reports for the Wall Street Journal.

According to Shellenbarger, several recent studies have linked certain occupations which increased density and electrical activity in areas of the brain associated with cognitive function.

Research has found that certain functions—like abstract reasoning and focus—can be improved with practice, and that certain workers improve their cognitive abilities by repeatedly carrying out core tasks.

For instance, executives, managers, paramedics, and emergency-medical technicians routinely block out distractions and exercise reasoning at work, according to William Becker, a professor of management at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, who conducted a study on the issue this year.

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But researchers note that on-the-job cognitive training only works in certain contexts.

Workers need to be engaged. "The job has to matter to you. You have to be into it," says Michael Merzenich, author of "Soft-Wired," a book on brain plasticity. "And the rewards and feedback have to be clear and valuable to you." 

Workers need to be regularly challenged. "We have an early period on the job when we master it, commit it all to memory and say, 'I'm good at this now,' and stop advancing," Merzenich warns. Those who seek out new challenges can sharpen their communication and perception skills, he says.

Workers need to be focused on learning. For instance, Merzenich says, new salespeople will improve their skills if they are attuned to the facial expressions, attitudes, and behaviors of their customers.

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Becker has his management students journal about important conversations they've had to help them remain focused on improving their perception skills. "Every year there will be a handful of students who really get into it, and they're the ones who get smarter," he says.

The environment matters. According to Cynthia Green, president of Total Brain Health, a provider of cognitive training programs, workers maximize their cognitive development on the job by staying active and socially engaged. For instance, Green notes, research shows that teachers who work in busy schools with lots of social interaction retain cognitive skills longer than computer programmers who have more advanced technical skills but remain isolated more of the time (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 12/8).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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