2013.08.21 Your brain on neurobics


OK, you can put the crossword puzzle book away now. If you really love crosswords, then by all means keep it going, but if you're doing them just to make your brain better, then enough is enough.

At least that's the opinion of Alvaro Fernandez, the C.E.O. of SharpBrains, a brain health market research firm. He says once a person has done hundreds and thousands of crossword puzzles, the benefit slips toward zero. It's just routine. A daily challenge, perhaps, but not so much better than watching television.

And if people engage only in crosswords, they won't be buying any of the dozens and dozens of brain enhancement software now available.

Brain enhancement is a billion-dollar industry, expected to grow to $6 billion by 2020.

I learned these facts from a New Yorker article by Patricia Marx who decided to check out the state of brain building. She starts her article by asking, "Do I seem smarter than I did a few weeks ago?" She asked that after visiting several labs and speaking with experts on the subject, after taking many batteries of tests and after playing a lot of video games—now known as brain exercises.

Marx brings the sad news that most neuroscientists believe brain power peaks in a person's late 20s. So many years of decline for me. Brain capacity begins to shrink. It's not all downhill. Big picture thinking gets better, empathy increases, and vocabulary grows bigger. That's wonderful. You'll have so many more words to describe your frustration about where you left your keys or about the stupidity of touching your toothbrush bristles to see if you already brushed.

But problem solving, decision making, complex thought? What were you doing when you were 30 years old? I hope all that brain power didn't go to waste.

Marx learned some fascinating facts during her research—there are at least a hundred trillion neuron connections in the brain, more than all the stars in the Milky Way—and she encountered a variety of methods to "grow" the brain.

She was told by a researcher in California about a new reason to eat sensibly. Managing blood pressure is the best thing a middle-aged person can do to prevent vascular dementia. People today worrying more about losing their minds than about dying.

A neuropsychologist in San Francisco suggested mindfulness training, such as practicing meditation to concentrate on only one thing at a time, such as your breathing. At a lab in Washington, D.C., she was advised to practice Tai Chi and do volunteer work. At a brain center in Chicago, she was told to get the brain-shriveling stress out of her life.

She spoke with people from a company that produces a device that clips to your ear and plugs into your computer. Then you watch your brain at work, as seen through graphs and curves, as you strive for maximum coherence. The heart, brain and nervous system need to work synchronistically, says the P.R. director of the firm, to engage in emotional muscle building. Marx decided she would call it the G.P.S. for the soul. Insurance companies will never cover this device. When experimenting with it, Marx was asked to focus on a special place. The best she could do was to fantasize on the end of the session. That worked. She did well.

At the University of California, researchers are working on T.D.C.S.—transcranial direct-current stimulation—where video games will understand what's going on in your brain and help it to become more plastic as it rewires the circuits.

There's also neurobic exercises (from a book published in 1999). Don't just keep on doing those crosswords. Change things up. The authors, Katz and Rubin, suggest showering with your eyes closed, brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, wearing mittens while driving, turning your family photos upside down.

I have Q-Tip'd my ears with my left hand and probably punctured an eardrum. I have hung the kids' photos upside down on the living room wall and I'm waiting for the neurobics fireworks to begin when my wife notices. I don't think this is going to end well for my brain.