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Regardless if you’re a student, a parent, or a busy professional, the ability to solve problems is something you’ll need throughout life. Being able to solve problems can help you pass an exam, complete a challenging work project, and maintain good relationships with others.
But what if you aren’t good at it? Does it mean that you’re stuck with having poor problem solving abilities for the rest of your life? Definitely not!
As it turns out, this is a skill that you can develop. Just like a muscle that can grow stronger with exercise.
This article explains what influences your ability to solve problems and how nootropics for problem solving can help.
What Influences Your Problem Solving Ability?
Your ability to solve problems is directly linked to your fluid intelligence.
This is a form of intelligence that relates to our brain’s ability to call upon stored information in order to solve problems or complete a task.
In other words, fluid intelligence is the efficiency of your brain and its ability to comprehend, reason, and think critically. Whether you’re a student or a professional, fluid intelligence is what governs your academic or workplace success.
There several aspects of your mental performance that are governed by fluid intelligence. They include:
Just like its name suggests, fluid intelligence means it’s fluid and changing throughout our life. For better or worse, it’s mostly up to us. This is good news, because if you can change or improve your fluid intelligence, you can also influence your problem solving ability.
The Difference Between Crystalized and Fluid Intelligence
Some experts like to differentiate between fluid and crystallized intelligence.
- Crystallized intelligence relates to how much information you end up storing for a recall. E.g. your vocabulary or the total information you know at a given time.
On the flip side, fluid intelligence is all about storing and retrieving relevant information. Combining old and new information together for creativity or problem solving. Just like putting the right pieces of the puzzle together.
Creativity and Problem Solving
Fluid intelligence and problem solving are closely tied to creativity. Being creative means combining new and old information into something fresh and unique.
- Similarly, solving problems requires us to focus and retrieve old information to find a new way to deal with a challenge.
In fact, problem solving and creativity are believed to share the same “mental basis.” However, experts aren’t sure how they’re connected in the brain. (1)
Generally speaking, problem solving is closely linked to your creative output. Therefore, improving regions of the brain linked to creativity could help us come up with new ideas to solve problems, while also influencing fluid intelligence.
Can You Really Enhance Your Fluid Intelligence and Problem Solving Ability?
As we’ve hinted above, yes, you can certainly change your fluid intelligence. You can improve it when you want to, even as you age.
One way to improve fluid intelligence is by boosting cognitive processes in certain parts of the brain.
- A study found that fluid intelligence is trainable just like any skill. (2)
- Another study showed that older people whose memory improved from brain training also saw an increase in their fluid intelligence. This research confirmed that it’s possible to change fluid intelligence even as you age. (3)
- However, some experts argue that these results could be because of the placebo effect, not actual brain training. (4)
Nonetheless, there’s no denying that we can enhance our fluid intelligence. Experts just aren’t sure how this process happens.
One thing we do know though is that meditation and mindfulness are shown to help maintain our fluid intelligence.
- A study found that meditation could reduce symptoms linked to cognitive decline. More specifically, it’s shown that people who meditate have higher fluid intelligence and resilience to age-related cognitive decline. (5)
This just shows how powerful meditation can be for maintaining a sharp brain as we age.
Factors That Hinder Your Problem Solving Ability
Things that hinder your fluid intelligence will also negatively affect your problem solving skills.
Just like you should do things that help to enhance your fluid intelligence, you should also avoid things that reduce it. These include:
- Too much work
Believe it or not, working hard isn’t always a good thing. If you’re hustling all the time, your cognitive performances can suffer. Research shows that overtaxing your body and brain with work leads to a decline in fluid intelligence, and by extension: problem solving capacity.
- Aging-related cognitive decline
Aging sometimes leads to memory loss, and with it, a decline in fluid intelligence. By nourishing our brain and protecting it from cognitive symptoms of aging, we might be able to maintain high fluid intelligence for years to come.
Stress negatively affects pretty much every aspect of our health and performance. And fluid intelligence is no exception. By reducing cortisol and managing stress, you’ll maintain high problem solving ability and fluid intelligence.
Next, we look at which cognitive processes specifically affect your problem solving skill.
Mental Functions Involved in Problem Solving
A number of mental processes are directly linked to your creativity, fluid intelligence, and the ability to solve problems.
Below we explain how you might influence these processes to enhance your cognition and potentially improve your fluid intelligence.
You know that saying, “where the attention goes energy flows?” Well, it’s particularly true in the case of problem solving.
Attention control is your capacity to focus on relevant information in your working memory while repressing irrelevant information. As we saw, your attention and working memory are both closely tied to your problem solving skill. (6, 7)
When you have enough working memory and attention control capacity, you can apply the relevant information from your memory to solve the problem more easily. In other words, you may be able to manipulate your fluid intelligence by increasing your attention, which is something nootropics for problem solving can do (we’ll get to these in a second).
Speaking of working memory, it’s another important factor in your fluid intelligence (and problem solving).
A study states that our working memory levels are directly correlated with our fluid intelligence levels. A good working memory means that relevant information is within reach in your brain. Which makes it easy to solve problems. (8)
The study found that lower working memory means your focus is low, making it harder to access relevant information to solve problems. On the other hand, higher working memory links to higher focus levels and with it, better fluid intelligence.
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to create new neuronal connections. It’s closely linked to neurogenesis, which is the growth of new brain cells. (9)
There are many studies showing the close link between neuroplasticity, fluid intelligence, and problem solving.
- One research stated that mental training and physical exercise together can increase nerve growth in the hippocampus.
So, increasing neurogenesis may also improve your memory and learning to enhance your ability to skillfully deal with new situations and problems. (10)
- Nerve Growth Factor, which helps the brain grow neurons, is shown to counteract symptoms of cognitive decline while boosting cognitive performance. All of this, as we saw, is directly linked to your fluid intelligence and problem solving skill. (11)
Additionally, experts agree that neuroplasticity is the basis for fluid intelligence and sharp cognition. (12)
What we can conclude from this is simple:
Supporting your neuroplasticity and nerve growth seems to be good for problem solving.
Dopamine is what enables you to control attention and focus. It also influences your memory and learning, both of which are aspects of fluid intelligence and problem solving.
One research found that the dopaminergic pathway in our prefrontal cortex could predict levels of cognition. (13)
Because of this, it’s speculated that dopamine release might promote memory and attention control for better problem solving. That said, we need more research to confirm this notion.
Best Nootropics For Problem Solving
Now that we know that our ability to solve problems can be improved, just like any skill, let’s look at the top 5 nootropics for problem solving.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is one of your brain’s most important phospholipids, accounting for 15% of your total phospholipid pool.
PS makes up a big chunk of your brain cell membranes, governing their flexibility and permeability. This allows for better firing between your neurons. (14) The benefits of PS include:
- Sharper focus
- Better memory
- Enhanced creativity
As we saw, things like focus and memory are of vital importance for being able to access stored information and use it to solve a problem at hand. That’s why PS is one of our favorite nootropics for problem solving.
Tyrosine is simply a precursor to dopamine and other catecholamine brain chemicals.
Dopamine can get drained from stress, aging, and mental work. By restoring dopamine levels, Tyrosine helps you maintain peak cognition and may thus be able to improve your fluid intelligence. (15)
Oat Straw Extract
Oat Straw is an MAO inhibitor, meaning it prevents the breakdown of dopamine in your brain. It’s also a vasodilator that helps with overall brain function. (16)
Fish oil is an old-school nootropic, and arguably the most important one. It contains DHA, a fatty acid that makes up a large portion of your brain.
By giving your brain more DHA, you’re feeding your neurons and helping them work better. Numerous studies have shown that fish oil has positive effects on everything from mood to cognition and other mental processes closely linked to your fluid intelligence. (17)
Problem solving is all about creativity, as we saw. And L-Theanine is one of the best natural ingredients for enhancing your creativity.
See, Theanine is a natural amino acid in green tea. When you ingest it, Theanine increases your brain’s alpha waves, which are linked to states of deep focus and creativity. As a result, L-Theanine can be a game changer for helping you solve problems. (18)
If you aren’t a fan of researching and taking individual nootropics, you can take a proven pre-made nootropic formula. One example would be Onnit Alpha Brain, which we did a review on. It features some of the ingredients from this list, and was carefully designed to target all aspects of your cognitive performance – including problem solving.
Anything Else to Consider?
Like any supplement, nootropics are just an addition to your lifestyle. They’re not a replacement for it. If you eat a diet high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, exercise very little, and stress a lot. Nootropics probably won’t help you that much.
That’s why you should ensure to optimize all aspects of your lifestyle to maximize your problem solving capacity.
Here are a few key points to remember:
Regular exercise is shown to boost neuroplasticity and BDNF for increased brain cell growth. As we saw, neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are both strongly linked to your fluid intelligence. Any type of exercise will do, including cardio, weightlifting, and even long walks.
Diet is critical for optimal performance, not just physical but also mental. Giving your brain the right kind of fuel will enable it to work at its best, and will also make you feel better and think clearer. It’s also important to remember that it’s not just about adding healthy foods to your diet, it’s just as much about removing the inflammatory ones. This includes sugar, trans fats, and alcohol.
The fact is, stress is unavoidable. But practicing mindfulness can significantly reduce it. Not only does mindfulness reduce cortisol release, it’s also great for problem solving and creativity.
The nootropics shown above aren’t just for problem solving. They’re also great for boosting all aspects of your mental performance. This includes:
- Word recall
- Attention control
And more. If you’re looking to optimize your brain, and your problem solving capacity with it, it’s worth giving some of these nootropics a try. Combined with a healthy lifestyle, they can have a profound impact on your long-range cognitive performance, and may help you ward off symptoms of cognitive decline later in life.
Are intelligence and creativity really so different? Fluid intelligence, executive processes, and strategy use in divergent thinking. (source)
Increasing fluid intelligence is possible after all. (source)
Neural correlates of training and transfer effects in working memory in older adults. (source)
Placebo effects in cognitive training. (source)
Fluid intelligence and brain functional organization in aging yoga and meditation practitioners. (source)
Working Memory and Fluid Intelligence: Capacity, Attention Control, and Secondary Memory Retrieval. (source)
Why does working memory capacity predict variation in reading comprehension? On the influence of mind wandering and executive attention. (source)
Brain training to improve memory boosts fluid intelligence. (source)
What is neurogenesis? (source)
Training your brain: Do mental and physical (MAP) training enhance cognition through the process of neurogenesis in the hippocampus? (source)
Nerve growth factor promotes survival of new neurons in the adult hippocampus. (source)
Human intelligence and brain networks. (source)
A Dopaminergic Gene Cluster in the Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Performance Indicative of General Intelligence in Genetically Heterogeneous Mice. (source)
Effect of tyrosine supplementation on clinical and healthy populations under stress or cognitive demands--A review. (source)
Chronic Effects of a Wild Green Oat Extract Supplementation on Cognitive Performance in Older Adults: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. (source)
What is fish oil? (source)
An EEG study on fluid intelligence, inspection time and Alpha oscillations. (source)