Strengthen the Muscle Between Your Ears

Brain Work

Nov 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

EXERCISE IS GREAT, but holding your own against Stephen Hawking takes more than working up a sweat. To increase your brain's capacity, you need a mental regimen that will consistently take on the three cognitive regions of the brain: the frontal lobe (in charge of speech and planning), the hippocampus (memory), and the parietal lobes (processing sensory information). It's easier than it sounds.

Memory tests, word puzzles, and other brain teasers can stimulate all three of these areas of the brain, actions that elicit two neurological responses. First, they trigger the release of neurotrophins, which promote arborization—the growth of new microfilaments, or dendrites—expanding the network that connects the regions of the brain and enhancing cooperation between the left and right sides. Or, as Restak translates it: "You build a bigger brain." The process is somewhat akin to the way your body builds new muscle fiber after a tough weight-lifting session.
Second, such stimulation has been shown to boost plasticity, the brain's capacity to learn, remember, and reorganize itself. A long-term study released in February of this year by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute showed that brain teasers and memory training helped rejuvenate neglected areas of the brain. By undertaking a daily set of these mental gymnastics, subjects both young and old experienced improvements in cognitive function and showed signs of reversing the typical decline in memory associated with growing old.

To take advantage of the brain's large capacity for growth (arborization) and learning (plasticity), you need to develop your own set of mental exercises to keep your mind fertilized. The trick to doing that, says Restak, is adding a mental component to your workout. "Physical and mental skills are not opposed to each other," he says. "They should form a continuum." In other words, instead of simply zoning out or stewing over your stooge of a boss, try adding one or more Restak-endorsed brain teasers (see "Mind Games," right) to your favorite ride or run. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road.

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