For decades, intelligence was thought to be fixed from birth, like eye color. you’re born smart or born dumb. You can jam more facts into your brain, but your basic intelligence — your IQ, your reasoning skills — remains static. But now? As University of Michigan professor richard Nisbett explains in his well-respected bestseller Intelligence and How to Get It, we’re starting to discover how malleable the brain is. The scientific term is “neuroplasticity.”

According to the metaphor du jour, the brain is like a muscle. You can build its strength. You can keep it from withering with age. You can create new connections and carve new pathways among the brain’s 100 billion neurons.

The key is to keep the brain active and challenged: do crossword puzzles, memorize poems, learn new languages. Meditation helps thicken the cerebral cortex. And make sure to eat the right brain food — namely, the good fats from nuts, olive oil, along with omega-3 fatty acids in fish. With these strategies, you can improve the brain in all areas — memory, creativity, attention, and reasoning.

It’s a great and uplifting way to see the world. It’s very American, too. Intelligence is not an aristocracy, with each of our brains assigned to be a prince or pauper from conception. It’s a meritocracy. You work hard, and anyone can have a royal pair of frontal lobes.

But is neuroplasticity for real? Or is it just wishful thinking? The experts I talked to say it’s a bit of both.

On the one hand, we’re so enamored of the idea of self-improvement (me included, obviously), we latch on to promising studies and stretch them beyond recognition. Consider the so-called Mozart effect.

Back in 1993, three University of California–Irvine professors did a study that showed that students performed moderately better on spatial reasoning tasks immediately after listening to Mozart’s music. They were better at manipulating visual patterns in their mind. the effect lasted ten minutes. A short-term, moderate, and specific effect.

Before the study appeared, The Associated Press ran a story with the distorted thesis: Listening to Mozart makes you smarter. The media went nuts. Mozart CD sales exploded. Pregnant moth-ers pressed Mozart-playing boom boxes to their stomachs. And the taken-by-surprise scientists got death threats from rock fans.

Subsequent studies have either shown little effect, or else that Mozart wasn’t anything special. Any music temporarily improves spatial thinking. As the journal Intelligence put it recently, “Mozart effect, shmozart effect.”

And yet… if you cut through all the hype and the learning Annex quackery, most scientists believe we can improve our own brains, at least somewhat.

And for my health project, improve it I must. The World Health Organization defines health as a state of emotional, mental, and physical well-being. I dealt with emotional last month. While I’m on this side of the Cartesian duality, I figure I should tackle the mental.

On the advice of brain experts, I’m following a list of mind-expanding activities.

Do the crossword puzzle (several studies suggest that doing the crossword puzzle could help delay cognitive decline). I fill out The New York Times crossword puzzle on my computer every morning, or at least a few boxes. Crosswords have joined my list of Healthy Vices alongside chocolate and naps. Whenever I get a sidelong glance from my wife Julie that says, “I thought you were so busy,” I tell her, “It’s for my brain!”

Play logic games. I downloaded the allegedly scientific Brain Challenge onto my iPhone. You’re given a brain trainer — a muscle-bound cartoon character in a white lab coat who berates you when you don’t solve the logic prob- lems quickly enough. “What’s the matter with you today? You don’t seem yourself.” I deleted it. I don’t need to be trash-talked by a bunch of pixels.

I prefer the logic puzzles created by my son Lucas. They are a version of that game “Which one of these doesn’t belong?” The trick is, instead of offering three or four items, Lucas gives only two options. He’ll ask me, “Which one of these doesn’t belong: the chair or the tomato?” “Chair?” I’ll say. “No, tomato.” It’s more challenging than a Zen koan.

Do the math. I tried one of the genre’s most popular books, Train Your Brain, by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. It involves a nightly routine of solving simple math equations. The promise is that the “delivery of oxygen, blood, and various amino acids to the prefrontal cortex,” will “result in more neurons and neural connections, which are characteristics of a healthy brain.” The equations were so simple, even for a math idiot like me, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment, especially when my time dropped by fifteen seconds in six weeks. Plus, I like to exhale loudly while doing the exercises, as if I were doing some lat pull-downs. That makes me feel virile.

Memorize poems. In his book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge argues that memorizing passages — as schoolchildren did in the nineteenth century — has surprising benefits. “When students used to memorize poems, it helped them with the ability to speak fluently,” Doidge tells me when I call him for guidance. I’ve been reading Alice in Wonderland to my son, so I spent a few days memorizing the poem “You Are Old Father William.” I’m a sucker for any poem that rhymes “suet” with “do it.”

Become belligerent. Well, maybe that’s not the way the research puts it. But that’s what has resulted. One of my brain books says that one of the best ways to keep the brain sharp is to argue. Nowadays, I’m always looking for a fight. Just today, I bickered with Julie about our Netflix queue, towel usage, and the placement of the apple juice in the refrigerator. I want it tucked out of sight so the kids won’t see it, since it’s so sugary.

Yesterday, Julie told me she read an article about how songbirds are being illegally hunted in Europe.

“Isn’t that terrible?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. Then I saw an opening. “But let me ask you this. Is it any more terrible than people killing and eating turkeys or chickens?”

“So you’re taking the side of songbird hunters now.” “No, I’m just asking, why should I have more empathy for songbirds? Because they look pretty and sound pretty? That’s really unfair to ugly birds.”

I then ranted about how we think it’s okay to eat ugly animals: cows and turkeys. but if you’re a beautiful creature, like a horse or a swan, you get a free pass. And we also treat ugly people horribly. Studies have shown that parents inflict less punishment on their attractive kids.

By this time, Julie had stopped listening, and I’m following her around the kitchen as she puts away glasses and bowls.

Try new things. The theory here is that the brain is similar to a ski slope. The more times you perform an activity in the same way (shop at the grocery store starting at the left aisle, for example), the deeper the rut you carve in your brain. The great, bumper-worthy phrase that describes it: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

If you want to keep your brain flexible and open to new ideas, you should eliminate rote, repetitive activities. A book called Keep Your Brain Alive has dozens of ”neurobic exercises” to shake up your brain. I brushed my teeth with my left hand (wacky!). I took a different route home from the drugstore (superwacky!). I ate dessert first, then my entrée. (Get me to a psych ward!) I don’t mean to be flip. There really is something wonderful about these exercises. They force mindfulness.

There’s a tradition in Judaism that on the Sabbath, you should do things differently from the rest of the week. I once had an Orthodox Jew describe to me how she took this edict to mean that even lipstick should be applied in a new way — counterclockwise instead of clockwise. And this small tweak reminded her to focus on how pleasing the putting-on-lipstick ritual can be.

Of course, nonstop mindfulness is exhausting. You need a little dull repetition for balance. And there’s another danger as well. When Julie found out that I had committed myself to embracing new things, she took full and cruel advantage. “We’re going to try Momofuku,” she said, referring to a trendy restaurant I’ve been avoiding. “I know it’s loud, but you’ve never been there before. You should go. For your brain.”

Source: [Esquire]