The Latest Science on How to Be a Genius Learner

Contents of this section have been compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


Readers of this article are also encouraged to read the following article companion articles:

What are a Number of Characteristics of Expert Post-Secondary Students?

Neuroscience of the “Smart” Brain (This article also discusses the latest paradigms with respect to “IQ”, especially in lieu of the latest findings in the domain of neuroscience).

[1] Working Memory & IQ

Working Memory (WM) is essentially the “mental scratch pad” capable of holding 7+2 pieces of information and is critical for Attention and Learning. As noted by Torkel Klingberg (cognitive neuroscientist, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden) with respect to Attention “If you can’t hold a plan in mind, you’ll get distracted”.  Attention in turn exerts a profound influence upon the learning process. Learners who take tests of Working Memory and score in the lowest 10 percent of the general population are four to five times 4-5 more likely to have great difficulties with mathematical tasks as well as the reading of paragraphs (in practice, person struggle with Working Memory will often struggle with both tasks).

Five Ways to Improve Working Memory (Source: Simon & Schuster Books).

Focus and Concentration are critical and even integral for Working Memory performance.

[2] Your Emotions, Emotional Regulation & IQ

Emotions are critical to unleashing your genius, and play a critical role in your learning and memory. As noted by Daniels:

“Memories are more likely to stick if they combine information with emotion … Emotions help memories form and stick …” (Daniels, 2018, pp. 38, 96)

Emotions are essentially wired into your brain within your Limbic System. Put simply these are the three sections of the Limbic System that play an important role in your Learning and Memory:

  • Amydala: This is integral with our decision making and emotional responses. The Amygdala is involved in making instant Situational Assessments for making the “Fight or Flight Response”. The Amygdala is also often overdeveloped in persons who struggle with high levels of anxiety.
  • Cingulate Gyrus: this Associates one’s Actions their Consequences so we can learn from Past Experiences.
  • Insula: This section is responsible for one’s Emotional Regulation (see [2]). It is the section that “hits the brakes” after our Amygdala “hits the gas” with emotions such as stressful reactions to stimuli.
  • Hippocampus: this plays a critical role in forming new memories and is also involved in spatial understanding. The Hippocampus is involved in Information Transition between Short & Long-Term Memory. As the Hippocampus is wired into the (emotional) Limbic System, all learning is wired in with one’s emotional state of mind.

Put scientifically, the balance between your thoughts and emotions significantly influences your learning performance. Roman philosopher Horace (65 –8 BCE) was certainly correct in his statement: “Rule your mind or it will rule You”.

6 Steps to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence | Ramona Hacker | (Source: TEDxTUM).

As noted by Eric Haseltine (neuroscientist and former intelligence officer):

“Your emotional investment in supercharging your brain is critical because the techniques you’re about to learn will require you to change deeply ingrained thinking and problem-solving habits, including many that you probably don’t even realize you have … key to unlocking the potential of these transformations lies not in the domain of cognition, but in that of emotion. And, apart from motivation, the most important emotion is confidence: confidence that you can supercharge your brain ” (2018, p.57, 63)

Your Emotional Balance is Key to Your concentration and focus (integral to your Working Memory efficiency). It is critical to learn to (constructively) manage your impulses and be willing to delay gratification (instead of seeking instant gratification). Your Self-Regulation is vital for:

(a) your emotional maturity and …

(b) being adaptable to challenges which affect your academic success and any other field you choose to endeavor.

Put more simply, your emotional health and stability are vital in the unlocking of your genius talent. The unleashing of your genius talent rests firmly on your constructive temperament which often involves the following factors:

  • Calm Cardiovascular System after Stress
  • Humor
  • Self-Confidence in Coping
  • Show Self-Understanding
  • Self-Compassion

[3] Cognitive Flexibility & IQ

This entails thinking “Outside of the Box” in response to challenges. There are three general tips for helping facilitate this process:

(a) Creativity: Instead of relying on approaches one often relies to solve problems, the learner now seeks for alternative solutions that can even be unconventional and creative. In this approach you Think BIG and you Think LOUD by not setting limitations to your imagination and creativity. Note how this approach ties into (b).

(b) Embrace the Growth Mind-Set. This removes mental and emotional shackles, which can lead to the unleashing of your creativity. The shackles are those limiting and negative thoughts such as “I can’t achieve this…”, “That’s not possible …”, “This is too hard …”. Instead, you focus on the possibilities and especially on your confidence that you can achieve tasks due to a belief that your abilities and IQ are not fixed and can in fact be improved with patience, strategy and hard work (the Growth Mind-Set). For more on the Growth Mind-Set read:

Focus on Your “Learning Process” rather than Your “Ability” to be Successful

As you practice (a) and (b) together, you will notice that your problem-solving skills (and speed) will improve. Note how (a) and (b) are also amplified by approach (c):

(c) Get the Bird’s Eye View: This is the case of “seeing the forest through the trees”. It is often the case that we become so enmeshed in the details that we can feel that we are stuck, moving too slowly and not making much progress. In these cases, it is often helpful to step back from the details of the task and take the “Bird’s Eye View” to get sight of the bigger picture. By “looking from above” we can start to see patterns, links, connections and possibilities. In a sense this is a case of being able to both “Zoom In” and “Zoom Out” when faced with tasks. When we need to focus on the details we “Zoom In” and when we need to step back to see that bigger picture for patterns, connections, etc. we “Zoom Out”.

What is Cognitive Flexibility? (Source: Understood). See also the article “Thalamus plays a Role in Cognitive Flexibility“.

It is here where we can draw lessons from three genius thinkers of modern times: Marie Curie (1867-1934), Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955).

Marie Curie is the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences (chemistry and physics). Curie noted that much of her abilities stemmed from her sense of curiosity and wonder, spirit of adventure and the joy of discovery.

Nikola Tesla whose vast array of engineering inventions and pioneering works in electricity are far too numerous to list here took great joy in creating new inventions and making new scientific discoveries. He is known for having unleashed his imagination by not shackling his creativity by negative and limiting thoughts.

Albert Einstein known for his pioneering works in physics such as the Theory of Relativity, was like Curie and Tesla, imbued with a powerful sense of creativity, Growth Mind-Set and seeing the bigger picture. One of the features of Einstein’s brain (which was donated to science) was that he had an especially highly developed corpus callosum, the set of fibres connecting the left brain (often involved in rational, linear thinking) with the right brain (often involved with patterns, pictures and creativity.

[4] Study Smarter or Harder? Brain Efficiency & IQ

One of the leading researchers in the field of brain efficiency and IQ has been Richard J. Haier (Professor Emeritus, School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine). In 1988 Haier et al. used PET (Positron Emission Tomography) to investigate brain efficiency when engaged in IQ tasks. The aim of this study was to locate where G is located in the brain. PET scans would be used to observe which brain regions display increased activation when solving problems. PET scans produce images of the brain’s metabolism by detecting amounts of (low-level radioactive) glucose used by neurons as they fire.

10 Brain Hacks to Learn Anything Faster! (Source: Top Think).

Haier et al. investigated the brain energy consumption of their study participants as they solved the RAPM (Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices: task for solving non-verbal abstract reasoning problems) which is considered as a reliable indicator of “G” IQ. Reporting on the 1988 study in the Scientific American Mind Edition of 2015 Haier stated his findings as follows:

“To our surprise, greater energy use (that is, increased glucose metabolism) was associated with poorer test performance. Smarter people were using less energy to solve the problems – their brains were more efficient (2015, p.21).

Haier et al. conducted a similar study in 1992 where they used PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans to study the brain activities of students before and after students they had learned the game of TETRIS (a fast computer game for visuo-spatial puzzles). The findings, as in 1988, were remarkable and as follows:

(a) After 50 days of practice and enhanced skills with TETRIS, students’ brains were found to use less energy use in several brain regions.

(b) Students who used Greater brain energy often had Poorer Test scores.

(c) Students with high “G” scores were found to have even more brain efficiency after practice in comparison to individuals with lower “G” scores.

Study Smarter, Not Harder: 3 Genius Tips (Source: The List Show TV).

As noted by Haier, the Brain learns which areas are unnecessary for improved performance on tasks which leads to less activities in those (unnecessary) areas. This in turn leads to enhanced brain efficiency.

Nevertheless as more research in the domain of expertise studies has indicated, even experts with high abilities benefit from practice, especially if they intended to maintain their skills over long periods of time in their fields of endeavor. As noted by Ericsson:

“The continued and often extended development of expertise … shows that additional experience is necessary to attain one’s highest level of performance.” (2006, p.690)

[5] Active Learning & IQ

Being constantly engaged in one’s environment and learning even when no goals or production is involved, is yet another feature of Genius thinking. In a sense, this is the case of always being “in the Now” out of a health sense of curiosity or to just enjoy oneself.

Effective Active Learning Techniques (Source: U of SC Center for Teaching Excellence).

Haier et al. (2003) used PET scans to investigate two groups: (A) hi scorers on the Raven’s Test and (B) average scorers on the Raven’s Test. Both groups (A & B) were then asked to watch the same videos passively. They were given no problem-solving task, or any other types of task demands.

The results were remarkable. Group A (hi scorers on the Raven’s Test) show different brain activations in the Posterior Visual processing Areas of the brain in comparison to Group B (average scorers on the Raven’s Test). This suggests the possibility that higher IQ persons are not watching the videos “passively” – they are “actively” processing what they see as they are “in the Now”.

In the overall sense, it would appear that persons with higher IQs are more engaged (than persons with average IQ) even if they are not required to complete tasks and/or solve problems. Another way of viewing this is that such persons are continuously curious and enthusiastic towards novelty.

[6] Thinking, Understanding, Making Connections & IQ

MRI Scans (starting in 2004) investigated correlations between IQ test scores and the brain’s Gray and White Matter areas. Gray Matter is composed of Neural Cell Bodies: these engage in the computation work of the brain. White Matter is defined as Axons that allow for communication to take place between regions of Gray Matter.

Intelligence and the Brain: Recent Advances in Understanding How the Brain Works with Jeff Hawkins (Source: University of California Television [UCTV]).

Research findings have revealed that IQ in the brain is characterized by a Network system: there is a Network of brain regions where More Gray Matter or More White Matter is associated with Higher IQ scores. In a sense each of the neural cell bodies are biological “CPU”s and when these work as a group or (as Hebb would characterize it) as a “Cell Assembly”, which characterize something that is a learned concept such as velocity vs. acceleration in a physics course or mitosis vs. meiosis in biology. Brain processing power is thus increased the more the gray regions are linked together through the “cables” (or axons) of White Matter. Put simply the Brain’s Genius Power is increased as more and more brain (Gray Matter) regions are connected together (with White Matter). As Learners we need to emphasize the roles of thinking, understanding and making connections as we learn and engage in problem-solving.

These findings are consistent with findings in cognitive learning research (Gagne & Yekovich, 1993, pp. 390-422; Mayer, 1992, pp. 387-413):

(a) the importance of making connections between concepts by looking for (meaningful) relationships between them.

(b) organization of these concepts and the connections between into meaningfully associated patterns.

The role of (a) and (b) are corroborated by Haier in 2015 who notes that More Efficient connections between Gray Areas of the Brain allow for Information to Flow Faster. These (More Efficient connections) lead to quicker processing times which is associated with Higher IQ.


Gagne, E.D., & Yekovich, C.W., Yekovich, F.R. (1993). The Cognitive Psychology of School Learning. New York: HarperCollins

Haier, R.J. (2015). What does a smart brain look like? Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp. 18-25.

Mayer, R.E. (1992). Thinking, Problem Solving, Cognition. New York: W.H. Freeman & Company.

Ericsson, K.A. (2006). Deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. In K.A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P.J. Feltovich, & R.R Hoffman (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Cambridge University Press, pp.683-704.

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