Discover your intellectual strengths
This month's issue:
What number when multiplied against itself will result in a number which includes the numbers (1 - 9) in forward order, and then descending in order from the 9? (i.e., to get the number: 12,345,678,987,654,321)
A man is asked what his daughters look like. He answers, "They are all blondes, but two, all brunettes, but two, and all redheads, but two." How many daughters did he have?
Three switches outside a windowless room are connected to three light bulbs inside the room. How can you determine which switch is connected to which bulb if you are only allowed to enter the room once?
What occurs once in June, once in July and twice in August?
What is it that goes with an automobile and comes with it; is of no use to it, and yet the automobile cannot move without it?
Regular mental exercise helps to preserve memory and mental sharpness in older age.
In homer’s Odyssey, the heroic traveler Odysseus survived a series of challenges through either mental or physical prowess. Acrobatic strength vanquished the Cyclops, but the key to breaching the walls of Troy was a clever gambit—the Trojan horse—rather than direct military assault. And of course, like any hero, Odysseus met every obstacle that Homer threw at him with determination and confidence rather than fear or despair.
Decades of research in gerontology, the study of aging, has found that the qualities that allowed Odysseus to triumph also promote general health and longevity. This counts not just for living longer, but living better: avoiding chronic depression, preserving your memory and other mental skills, and functioning independently in your daily life.
In recent decades, scientists have radically redefined the concept of “healthy brain aging.” The ruling paradigm was once that living to a ripe old age was simply a matter of avoiding chronic disease. As for the brain, it was assumed that it would simply go along with the body for the ride—until gradual, inevitable decay transformed us all into the stereotype of the doddering, forgetful, senile elder.
There was just one problem with this: Many people make it to 100 with their mental powers virtually intact, and lead physically active, interesting, satisfying lives. How did they manage to escape the “inevitable decline” that defined old age in the popular imagination?
Aging researchers found a way to ask the question. The tool is called a longitudinal aging study. Healthy people would be recruited in youth and then tested periodically throughout life to measure any changes in their physical and mental function as well as their lifestyles: what they ate, how much they exercised, and their leisure and social activities.
One of the most well known longitudinal studies, though not the first, was the MacArthur Study. It tracked healthy people from middle age into their 80s. As part of the project, MacArthur researchers identified 1,200 healthy people between the ages of 70 and 80 whose mental abilities ranked in the top third compared to the general population in this age group. The researchers tracked these high performers for a decade and determined who among them tended to remain high-functioning. They identified three factors that distinguished these people from the others:
In short, they were like Odysseus. To their brains, they were heroes.
From the MacArthur and other longitudinal studies has come a guiding principle known as “use it or lose it.” A recent brain-scanning study appeared to show this principle in action. As reported in the January 22, 2004 Nature, 23 healthy people, average age 22, learned how to juggle. After three months, MRI scans showed enlargement of the gray matter in their brains—the part responsible for higher mental functions. Either existing cells had grown denser, more numerous connections, or the sheer number of brain cells had increased. When the study participants stopped juggling, their brains shrunk again. This doesn’t mean we should all juggle our way to cognitive vitality. But it does strongly suggest that mental exercise has real and positive effects on brain function.
Some researchers have wondered whether mental activity might reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. In a study in the June 19, 2003, New England Journal of Medicine, researchers tracked 469 people aged 75 to 85 for up to 21 years. None had dementia at the start. People who participated the most in leisure activities—including reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing—were at 63 percent lower risk of being diagnosed with dementia.
It may be that the active people built up a mental bank account that helped delay the onset of dementia symptoms. “It might provide some reserve,” explains Robert N. Butler, M.D., president and CEO of the International Longevity Center in New York City. “They’ve got enough there that even though there is decay underneath, they are still able to function pretty well.”
However, Dr. Butler, who in the 1950s led the first longitudinal studies of healthy older people, is reluctant to promise that a healthy-aging lifestyle can actually prevent Alzheimer’s. “What I am reasonably sure of is that the various sorts of apparent cognitive impairment in the later years, as well as depression, are influenced by the level of mental activity.”
Fortunately, there are no known health risks to doing crossword puzzles or reading novels. Even if lifelong mental “neurobics” doesn’t prevent dementia, it may support general brain function and enhance your overall quality of life.
It should be emphasized that physical fitness is also associated with lower risk of cognitive decline. Longitudinal studies also suggest that remaining socially engaged aids healthy aging. “Those individuals who had goals in life, something to get up for, actually did better and lived longer,” says Butler.
Butler, now in his 70s, ought to know. He has hardly slowed the pace of his career since 1982, when he left his position as the founding director of the National Institute on Aging to found the first department of geriatric medicine in the United States, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Perhaps, like Odysseus, we all need a quest in order to maintain our physical and mental zest.
The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up and does not stop until you get into the office. - Robert Frost
A man paints with his brains and not with his hands. - Michelangelo
I have been Foolish and Deluded, and I am a Bear of No Brain at All. - A.A. Milne (from The World of Pooh, Winnie-the-Pooh talking)
It is not possible to tickle yourself. The cerebellum, a part of the brain, warns the rest of the brain that you are about to tickle yourself. Since your brain knows this, it ignores the resulting sensation.
Chocolate contains the same chemical, phenyl ethylamine, that your brain produces when you fall in love. But don't have too much — an excess of phenyl ethylamine makes people very nervous.
Sideshow performers in ancient Greece used to amaze their audiences by pressing a spot on a goat's neck - pinching off the artery leading to the brain - and causing it to go to sleep. Releasing the pressure would allow the goat to wake again.
Adjective: Having two significations equally applicable; capable of double interpretation; of doubtful meaning; ambiguous; uncertain; doubtful.
"D'Artagnan, however, gathered from his equivocal replies that the road to the right was the one he ought to take, and on that uncertain information he resumed his journey." - Dumas, Alexandria
Imagine attending a cocktail party, where your elegant hostess introduces you to a new person. You hit it off, chat happily for fifteen minutes, and as you walk away you realize you cannot remember your new friend's name. Just one more sign that your memory isn't what it used to be, right?
Actually, no. Lapses like this probably have very little to do with memory and a great deal to do with attention. Much of the time, when we "forget" something, it isn't so much that we fail to recall the information; it's that we never stored it properly in the first place. When the cocktail party hostess mentioned the name, odds are that you weren't paying full attention. You were also evaluating whether the newcomer looked like an interesting person, whether he might be interested in hearing about your pet cat, whether the tray of hors d'oeuvres was passing within reach, everything except that new name. The name never got the attention it deserved, and so memory for it will be shaky at best.
Next time you need to remember someone's name, or any other bit of random information, make the effort to store it properly. Repetition is a good start: use the name a few times. "Nice to meet you, Nelson. Do you have any kids, Nelson?" Every time you hear yourself speak the name, it will become a little more firmly embedded in your memory. After the conversation, as you walk away, practice a few more times: "That guy's name was Nelson. Nelson works in the banking industry." These repetitions create a stronger memory.
A week later, when you bump into Nelson on the street, you'll have a fighting chance of recalling his name because it was firmly stored in your memory in the first place.