What is the smartest age? Perhaps a day of friendly competition will lead us to the answer. Tomorrow’s the annual Brain Clash— ten teams of two competing in a decathlon of mental challenges, trivia competitions, and puzzles. I’ve been training all year. I’ll need to pick the smartest, most capable teammate. I’ve narrowed down the roster.
First we have Gabriela. She may only be 8, but don’t underestimate her! She’s fluent in two languages and is the ultimate outside-the-box thinker. Then there’s Ama. She can recite 100 digits of pi, designs satellites for a living, and bakes a perfect soufflé. Or I could go with Mr. Taylor.
He’s the best chess player in the neighborhood, not to mention he’s competed in over 20 Brain Clashes and is a five-time champion! I’m not sure who to pick! Who’s the smartest? Which of these teammates should Amir choose for tomorrow’s contest and why? Of course, it depends. While intelligence is often associated with things like IQ tests, these assessments fail to capture the scope and depth of a person’s varied abilities. So instead, we’ll break down the idea of “smart” into categories like creativity, memory, and learning and explore when the brain’s best at each of them. Let’s start at the very beginning.
In the first few years of life, your brain undergoes incredible rapid growth, called synaptogenesis, where more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. As the brain develops, it goes through a pruning process. Based on your experience and environment, used connections are strengthened and unused connections are removed. Frequently used neuronal pathways are myelinated, wrapped in a layer of insulation, allowing information to travel faster. This creates a more efficient, fine-tuned brain. But this brain remodeling happens within and between brain regions at different times, allowing different skills to flourish at different ages.
For example, in childhood, brain regions involved in language learning develop quickly, which is why many children can learn and master multiple languages. Yet the prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for cognitive control and inhibition, is slower to develop. As a result, some young children may struggle with strategic games, such as chess or checkers, which require constant concentration, planning, and abstract thought. At the same time, children tend to be more flexible, exploration-based learners. They often use more creative approaches when finding solutions to riddles and are, on average, less afraid to make mistakes. But adults have their own unique set of abilities. Adults benefit from a well-developed prefrontal cortex, allowing them to better execute skills that require learning, focus, and memory, making them quick and efficient puzzle solvers or crossword masters. Late in adulthood, these same skills may decline as the brain’s memory center, known as the hippocampus, shrinks. But there’s a reason for the phrase “older and wiser.” After a lifetime of learning, older adults have more knowledge to recall and utilize, making them excellent trivia partners. Other factors that Amir should consider are his own strengths. As an adolescent, the prefrontal cortical regions of your brain are more developed than in childhood.
This allows you to better navigate logic and math puzzles. Simultaneously, deep inside the brain, regions that are important in motivation and reward are developing even faster, driving teenagers like Amir to be curious and adventurous learners. In many ways, you can think of the teenager as a jack-of-all-trades, with brains wired to seek out new experiences and learn quickly. You’re at a dynamic stage, where the choices you make and the skills you focus on can actually guide the development of your brain. So, what’s the smartest age? There’s no single answer. It’s 8, 16, 25, 65, and everything in between; our brains have adapted to prioritize different skills at various ages to meet that stage of life’s challenges and demands. So no matter who Amir picks, having an age-diverse team is a good strategy.