25 Ways to Get Smarter in 2010

From a brilliant lecture series to a must-have Google Alert to an applied-physics videogame, The Daily Beast interviewed the world’s smartest minds to find new breakthroughs and products aimed at boosting intelligence. Reported by Constantino Diaz-Duran and Gabe Oppenheim.

Smarter Spending


If you've resolved to spend smarter in 2010, Aaron P. Dworkin, founder and president of The Sphinx Organization, suggests signing up with Mint.com. Mint is a free online money-management system that allows you to track your spending by pulling together your bank, credit union, and credit card data, and providing up-to-date information about your financial life. “It has certainly made me smarter about my own finances,” says Dworkin. “When you realize where all of your money is going, it tends to motivate spending behavior changes which could be the smartest thing any of us does next year.”


Smarter About Art

Stop and Sketch

Author and illustrator David Macaulay thinks anyone who wishes to get smarter in 2010 needs to go out and buy a pad and pencil. “Taking just a few minutes to really look at something forces you to ask questions,” says Macaulay. “Asking questions not only makes you smarter, it makes you more curious about the next thing you see which you might otherwise not even have noticed.” He adds that it’s cheap—a pocket size sketchbook you will set you back only about $10—and “no eraser is required because you can't make a mistake.”

Smarter Listening


According to Bright Sheng, professor of music at the University of Michigan, “Attentively listening to classical music, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler, would definitely make you smarter.” You might also want to learn how to play their work, says Nina Kraus, a neuroscience researcher at Northwestern University: “Experience with music appears to help with many other things in life, potentially transferring to activities like reading or picking up nuances in tones of voices.” And if you just want to kick back and enjoy the classical masterpieces, The Daily Beast’s Mark McKinnon says to keep an eye out for Spotify, which allows you to access almost any song in the universe easily and free. It will be available in the U.S. in 2010.

Smarter Periodical

The Times Literary Supplement

Sure, it’s been around for over a hundred years, but week after week the TLS turns out some of the smartest, sharpest, and most thought-provoking essays on the planet. In a single issue you can read about the Cambrian explosion, Nabokov’s contested legacy, Roman art thieves, and what makes good music. Even better, it arrives the old-fashioned way: in the mail. So sit down, open a bottle of wine, and update your liberal arts education.

Richard Michael Pruitt / Newscom

Smarter Board Game

The Settlers of Catan

“Settlers,” as its devotees call it, is an intelligence-building German board game developing a zealous cult following among everyone from criminal prosecutors to software programmers. The game requires ruthless negotiating skills, deception, a razor-sharp memory, and a knack for rapid numerical calculations and resource allocation. According to Silicon Valley entrepreneur Auren Hoffman, CEO of the data search company RapLeaf, “Financial people are good at understanding the numbers, the technical people are really good at understanding how different resources can come together to build something, and then the lawyers are really good at negotiating. So you start to exercise different skills, some of which you may already have, and some of which might be new to you.”

Smarter Global Awareness

Intelligence Squared Debates

Founded in Britain and reproduced in the U.S., Australia, Hong Kong, and Eastern Europe, this forum brings together the world’s brightest minds in politics and journalism. Broadcast globally through the BBC, the debates reach an estimated 70 million people, and attract speakers like Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, and Karl Rove, who took part in the discussion titled "George W. Bush is the worst American president for the past 50 years."

Smarter Literary Range

Summering with the Classics

If you want to be book-smarter in 2010, visit one of academia’s best kept secrets, the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College. Renowned for its Great Books program, the school opens its doors every summer to people of all ages and professional backgrounds who come for lively, in-depth conversations about the books, works of art, and classic musical pieces. No previous knowledge of the author or subject is needed, and when you’re done with your intellectual refueling, you can go for a hike along the foothills of the pristine southern Rockies.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Smarter Language Skills


Yale University professor Anders Winroth says that “to interact with foreigners in their language immensely enriches our lives.” So if you want to learn Chinese and nail the dialect just right, hire a private tutor in China to teach you his native language via Skype. Or do a half-hour Skype session of Romanian with a guy in Bucharest while on your lunch break at work. U.K.-based Web site VerbalPlanet.com matches you up with tutors in their home countries; the tutor sets their price, and you can shop around for someone who works well for you. Verbalplanet just brokers the deal—sort of like eBay, but for language learning.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Smarter Commuting

The Teaching Company

For commuters looking to supplement their talk-radio intake, check out The Teaching Company’s DVD and CD series. The Teaching Company engages professors from the country’s best universities to record lectures on a wide variety of topics, from religious mysticism to nutrition. They have produced over 200 courses—more than 2,000 hours of material in literature, philosophy, history, fine arts, the sciences, economics, and religion.

Smarter Social Activism

The Feast Conference

The annual Feast Conference gathers “the world's leading creative entrepreneurs, revolutionaries, radicals, doers, and thinkers” to speak on the topic of social innovation. "A very important part of getting smarter is learning about your own abilities and the fact that you can absolutely do what you want to do,” says 2009 host Cindy Gallop. Which has been demonstrated by past speakers, such as recent college graduate Brian Bordainick, who launched a project called the 9th Ward Field of Dreams, a state-of-the-art football field and track in New Orleans, the first public space of its kind in the city. Tickets are now available for the 2010 conference, taking place on October 15 in Manhattan.

Smarter Search Engine


A small group of MIT computer scientists has developed an algorithm called Hunch that works on a single premise: Groups of people make better decisions than individuals, even individual experts. Hunch is brilliant in its simplicity: It asks you narrower and narrower questions, and continues suggesting answers until it finds what you want. It then uses the your search to find even better answers for the next user. For instance, to the question, “What should I get my mom for her birthday?” Hunch might ask questions like, how much do you want to spend? How old is she? Is she conservative or liberal? Does she drink? In the six months since it was launched, users have already created over 5,500 decision topics and used it to purchase electronics, figure out what book to read, and plan entire vacations.

Bob Riha, Jr. / AP Photo

Smarter Videogame

World of Goo

Videogames used to require just enough brain power to steer a convertible through a palm tree-lined racetrack. The technology has advanced, as proven by Nintendo Wii’s World of Goo, a highly addictive game in which you’ll exercise your knowledge of applied physics. Two reassurances: It’s not nearly as boring as it sounds (quite the contrary), and you probably know more about physics than you realize, as the game quickly reveals. Reviewer Jon Blyth calls World of Goo “physics' latest, purest, and most brilliant gift,” adding that what makes the game so rewarding is “the sense of constant accomplishment and awe at the new things you're being allowed to do.”

Smarter Mental Powers

Neurobics Brain Exercise

These brain exercises, pioneered by the deceased neurologist Lawrence Katz, involve performing typical activities in an atypical way. You’ve doubtless already heard about the neurological benefits of, say, brushing your teeth or surfing the Web with your non-dominant hand (a Case Western study showed those who did increased their willpower and focus). Doing things like this forces your brain to forge otherwise nonexistent connections. What’s new in all this is the supportive research. A study released by German scientists in September showed definitively that people in dark rooms, when asked to locate a sound’s source, tended to point to their non-favored side, indicating once again how important handedness is in our brain’s workings. And an October study demonstrated for the first time that the brain’s white matter can increase as it acquires novel experience and training.

Smarter Afghanistan

In the Graveyard of Empires
The Patience Stone
The Looming Tower

Even as we increase troop levels in Afghanistan, the country remains an enigma to most, but there are three books that will prime you on the country's history, people, and what's happening there now. First, read Seth Jones' In the Graveyard of Empires for an up-to-date survey of the military and political problems facing Afghanistan from the perspective of an adviser to the U.S. Special Forces. Next, read Atiq Rahimi's spare, stunning account, The Patience Stone of one woman's life under the Taliban, and get a sense of the complex social issues that define Afghan society. Then return to Lawrence Wright's award-winning and still vital The Looming Tower for the story of what happened when America last got the country wrong.

Jens Meyer / AP Photo

Smarter Online Learning

Mind Online and Open Yale Courses

Two of the Internet’s best kept secrets offer free access to a pair of America’s premiere institutions of higher learning. The University of Chicago’s “Mind Online” series shows video of fascinating debates, discussions, and lectures with the school’s illustrious faculty and alumni. Recently, the series featured a talk with Bernard Sahlins, founder of the Second City comedy troupe on its 50th anniversary. And Yale’s portal allows you to “sit in” on the university’s introductory classes, like “Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics” and “Introduction to the Old Testament.”

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Smarter Google Alert

Jamie Dimon 

The CEO and chairman of JPMorgan Chase is required by law to fully disclose every material related to the one of the biggest banks in the world. According to Simon Johnson, professor of entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management, anyone who wishes to get smarter about what's happening with the economy should set a Google News alert on Dimon right away. “Don't let the deadpan delivery fool you,” says Johnson. “This guy knows more about banking, the world around you, and what will go wrong next, than almost anyone else.”

Richard Drew / AP Photo

Smarter Blog

Felix Salmon

You've probably never heard of Felix Salmon, says Simon Johnson, professor of entrepreneurship at MIT, but his is the smartest blog you're not reading. Salmon's posts on Reuters.com “take you inside the guts of the ‘beast’ of the Wall Street-Washington power corridor; unless you get in these weeds, you don't know what's going to hit you next.” Prior to blogging for Reuters, Salmon worked at Euromoney magazine, created the Economonitor blog for Roubini Global Economics, and wrote the Market Movers blog for Portfolio.com.

Smarter Body Clock

Get Up Earlier

A University of Montreal study published in October makes a compelling case for getting up early. It found that light exposure regulates the brain’s response to all sorts of tasks, even non-visual ones. The intensity and type of light, and the duration of exposure can increase the effects, which can be seen through neuroimaging in the sub-cortical structures related to alertness (hypothalamus, brain stem, thalamus) and in cortical areas related to behavior. This relationship accords with research published in July by University of Alabama scientists, who found an association between decreased exposure to sunlight and increased probability of cognitive impairment.

Adam Larkey, ABC / AP Photo

Smarter Cable News

Way Too Early With Willie Geist

From The Daily Show to Rachel Maddow, some of today’s smartest TV commentary is delivered with flawless comic timing, and Willie Geist fits right into this category. The co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe finally got his own show this year, Way Too Early With Willie Geist—and indeed, it airs at a stomach-flipping 5:30 a.m. Hence, lots of the interviews—everyone from Donald Trump to Maureen Dowd to Rod Blagojevich—are call-ins (Geist says he can’t get anyone to show up at the studio at that hour). No matter: It’s 2010’s must-watch cable news show; TiVo it if you can’t drag yourself out of bed.

Smarter DIY Web Sites

Instructables.com and 5min.com 

If you want to become smarter about do-it-yourself projects in 2010, Mashable’s Pete Cashmore recommends you bookmark 5min.com and Instructables.com. They provide you with instructions on how to do anything, from making homemade laundry detergent to replacing your disc brakes. 5min does it through short instructional videos. In addition to its free membership, Instructables offers a paid "Pro" version that allows users to download PDFs of step-by-step instructions for their projects.

Smarter Life Functioning

Stay in shape

Your spare tire may be going to your head. A study to be published in 2010 in the journal Human Brain Mapping examines the link between body-mass index and the volume of gray and white matter in the brain. The researchers found a link between higher BMIs and lower volumes of gray matter in many brain regions. Not only that, an additional link was found between these smaller gray matter volumes and lower “executive functioning”—essentially, the ability to organize one’s life. So slimming down now makes your brain a little sexier as well.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Smarter TV Interviews

Clive James

One of England’s post popular and entertaining critics, the Australian writer and television personality has long been a favorite of people in the know. His intimately filmed conversations with Jeremy Irons, Nick Hornby, Emma Thompson, Terry Gilliam, and many others are available on his Web site. Paired with Cultural Amnesia, his erudite and witty collection of thumbnail essays on everyone from Albert Camus to Duke Ellington and Thomas Mann, you have a top-notch crash course in the humanities.

AP Photo (3)

Smarter Foreign Affairs

The Council on Foreign Relations

Stratfor Global Intelligence

Where do you turn for the smartest take on global issues? The Council on Foreign Relations and Stratfor Global Intelligence have established themselves as the go-to Web sites for the smartest and most insightful takes on world events. With a mix of analysis and opinions from experts around the world, you can watch a video of Richard Holbrooke on the situation in Pakistan, read an op-ed on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or get the latest on oil output. Read both and you’ll be as well informed as a State Department employee.

Ian Gavan / Getty Images

Smarter Podcast

Start the Week With Andrew Marr

Every Monday morning on the BBC, Andrew Marr hosts Start the Week, one of the liveliest and most wide-ranging conversations to be found on the radio. Unlike most radio shows, Marr's doesn't focus on one theme or topic, but brings together four guests—they might be journalists, historians, actors, playwrights, finance gurus, novelists, or scientists —and guides them through a free-form conversation that ties together all of their expertise. Recent shows have included Roger Scruton on the philosophy of wine, Andrew Dalby on Wikipedia, experts on Russian art, Christopher Meyer on diplomacy, and a British police chief on the end of terrorism.

Courtesy of Magonolia Pictures

Smarter Documentary

Food Inc.

This was the decade when we started to care about the source of our sirloins, and the literature leading the way— Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma—has been impressive. But a new documentary is the smartest visual edutainment on the topic so far. Food Inc., co-produced by Fast Food Nation writer Eric Schlosser, scored a sky-high 96 percent on film-review aggregator RottenTomatoes.com. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis was dazzled by its “prodigious evidence” and “bushels of statistics,” and Variety called it “a civilized horror movie” that’s “aesthetically polished and politically urgent.” Skip the Pop Secret and add this to your diet instead.