Close Close

Portfolio > Economy & Markets

Brain games: Do they stop the mind from aging?

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

Last night, my brain hurt. It didn’t hurt like a pulled hammy or had a broken heart. My brain felt more like a piece of Play-Doh if Play-Doh had feelings and resided at a public day care center where it endured the daily torture of being squeezed and stomped and ripped apart by two-year-olds on Red Bull.

Because my brain hurt, I decided to take two Tylenol before going to bed. I set a bottle of water and a bottle of Tylenol on my bedside table. While watching a commercial on crispy fried chicken, I grabbed the bottle to shake two pills onto my hand only to feel and then see that I was pouring cold water on my palm.

With the water dripping between my fingers, I thought of Patty Marx, a staff writer for The New Yorker, a former writer for Saturday Night Live and the author of “Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties.”

patty marxMarx got the idea to write the book, a hilarious look inside her brain, after having one too many senior moments.

“I put the butter dish in the sock drawer,” Marx told me in a recent interview. She noticed other things about her aging brain as well — she forgot her brother-in-law’s name while he was wearing a name tag; while on a call, she hung up the phone to look for her phone.

Like many people of a certain age, Marx worried about the potential causes of her frequent “brain farts.” Did she have dementia or Alzheimer’s? When doctors assured her she did not suffer from those disorders, Marx was relieved, yet still perplexed that her brain sometimes took a nap.

She writes: “Of late, I’ve been worried about it. My brain, I mean. Although the combination to my junior high locker seems to be stored indelibly in some handy nook of my temporal lobe, right next to Motown song lyrics, could it be that elsewhere up there, not everything is shipshape?”

So, she set out on a scientific study of the brain, her brain, to better understand its aging process. “This study and this book,” she told me, “isbrainy not about people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s about people of a certain age with normal brain functions who begin seeing their brain slow down.” 

Marx wanted to see if she could reverse the aging and, in the process, make herself smarter. She studied the research of leading neurologists such as Michael Merzenich, who theorizes that we don’t lose memories but that “we are seeing, hearing and feeling less saliently” as we age.

When in Rome

Maybe a shock to the system will help us feel more in our noggins — at least that was the belief of the Roman emperor Claudius, who pressed electric eels against his forehead. Marx chose a similar experiment, attaching the Fisher Wallace Stimulator to her head.

“For at least 20 minutes a day every day, for the past four months,” she writes, “I have fastened a small apparatus to my head, treating my brain to pulses of electricity.” She could not detect any changes after those four months, but “when I tried the machine I saw a faint flickering of light due to the electricity passing through my optical nerve. If there’d been a bulb inside my head it would’ve needed changing.”

Brain games

Other experiments included learning Cherokee, writing backwards, eating super foods and meditating. Marx also spent much of her time playing brain games like Lumosity.

“Did any of these things make you smarter?” I asked.

Marx coyly held the answer from me. “You’ll have to read it in the book.”

So I did. Marx took an IQ test before she began her brain study and another after. And her IQ…went down. Okay, so maybe we can’t make ourselves smarter, but we can make ourselves wiser, right? At least that’s the question I posed to her.

Our brain on the Internet is a mess, Marx said. We’re flooded with information and we retain so little of it. And that news is not relegated to seniors.

“A recent study showed that millennials scored lower than seniors on some cognitive tests,” Marx told me.

It may sound “New Agey,” but the key thing I took away from the book and from talking with Marx is that it’s okay to slow down, give your brain an occasional rest and just be in the moment. You might not learn what’s trending on Twitter or ever understand what’s going on with the Greek economy, but at least you won’t pour cold water on your hand.