If you want to go from scrawny to brawny in 30 days, there is no shortage of miracle shape-up programs. But as impressive as beefy pecs and triceps may look, they won’t help you cite the evidence for Einstein’s special theory of relativity, rattle off pi to the 20th decimal place, or liberate yourself from the mass delusion that a penny dropped from the Empire State Building will gather enough speed to kill a hapless pedestrian.
We believe the body part most worth stretching and toning — not to mention showing off — is the brain. You need to ensure that yours is flexible enough for creative problem solving, strong enough to run the occasional intellectual mini-marathon, and most of all, free of pseudoscientific flab.
You say the brain isn’t really a muscle? Irrelevant. Recent studies indicate that it can bulk up: The hippocampus, a brain region responsible for thought and memory, produces new cells throughout a person’s life, and some neuroscientists believe other parts of the brain also regenerate. The trick to keeping those new neurons? Use ’em or lose ’em. So take our scientific-aptitude quiz, learn the mental muscle groups, and get pumping.
STEP 1: HOW FIT IS YOUR BRAIN RIGHT NOW?
The first step in your regimen is assessment. It’s time to apply the fat calipers to your gray matter. Gauge your mental conditioning with this PopSci quiz.
STEP 2: MIND GAINS: EXERCISES FOR THE IQ ORGAN
The first lesson from your neurobics instructor: Like any muscle, the brain can be limbered, shaped, and expanded. Here’s a smart workout routine.
Train Your Cranium: Eight activities that build beefier brains.
In 2003, University College London researchers found that middle-aged people who regularly engaged in logic and memory games such as cards, bingo and chess performed better on short-term memory, mathematical reasoning and vocabulary tests than those who did not. Animal studies have shown that mentally enriching environments increase the likelihood that new brain cells will survive.
After training rats to cross rope bridges and pencil-wide balance beams, and to master the seesaw, University of Illinois researchers found in a 1990 study that the coordinated rodents’ neurons possessed 25 percent more connections to other brain cells than did those of treadmill-running rats.
Duke University neurobiologist Larry Katz suggests getting up from your desk every hour for a change of scenery, even if it’s just a trip to the water cooler. Unfamiliar sensory stimulation can increase the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins, he says. In a 1996 study, Duke University researchers found that neurotrophins increase the size and complexity of dendrites — the tendrils on a neuron that receive and process information.
In 2003, researchers at Hong Kong’s Chinese University concluded that playing the piano or another instrument significantly improved subjects’ verbal memory. And after studying the leisure activities of almost 500 subjects over the course of 21 years, researchers at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine reported last year that playing a musical instrument is associated with a reduced risk of dementia.
“Two hydrogen atoms are walking down the road. One says, ‘I’ve lost an electron.’ ‘You sure?’ the other asks. ‘Yes,’ the first answers, ‘I’m positive.'” Silly joke? Yes, but jokes are not just silly. A 1999 University of Toronto study showed that processing a verbal joke exercises cognitive abilities such as abstract reasoning and the use of long-term memory to reinterpret information in working memory. “If solving math problems in your head is like doing sit-ups, sharing jokes is like playing Frisbee,” explains linguist David Gamon, coauthor of Building Mental Muscle.
Rest Between Workouts
Many studies suggest that when people fall into rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep soon after learning something new, they are more likely to retain the new knowledge. And non-REM sleep may give inactive neurons a chance to repair damage caused by free radicals.
Brush your teeth with the wrong hand. Take a new route to work. “Rarely activated pathways in your brain’s associative network will be stimulated, increasing your range of mental flexibility,” says Larry Katz, a Duke University neurobiologist.
Jogging may boost your ability to produce and maintain new brain cells. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reported in 1999 that running doubled the number of new brain cells that survived in adult rodents.