ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
They say when the bully at the beach kicks sand in your face, go bulk up at the gym. Well, the same goes for when you're feeling mentally scrawny. There are ways to add strength to your brain. NPR's Linton Weeks went for a workout of the mind.
LINTON WEEKS: My personal trainer is Richard Restak. He's the author of a new book, "Think Smart: A Neuroscientist's Prescription for Improving Your Brain's Performance." Okay, let's get started. Oh, yeah - there is a quiz at the end.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
WEEKS: You know what Restak says? He says if we sleep more, eat less, exercise our bodies and our brains, we can improve our intelligence over the years. Yes, even...
Dr. RICHARD RESTAK (Author, "Think Smart: A Neuroscientist's Prescription for Improving Your Brain's Performance"): ...in old age, if you will. You can still take up a language, you can learn to play bridge, and that establishes connections between the neurons so the synaptic density begins to increase.
WEEKS: In other words, as we get older...
(Soundbite of baby crying)
WEEKS: ...we can still get smarter. The key is to exercise the three different types of memory: long-term, sensory and working. Let's first talk about long-term memory.
Dr. RESTAK: Well, long-term memory is just everything we know about like, history, important dates, important things that happened - call it the treasure trove of information that you have. So that's long-term memory and we're forming it all the time.
WEEKS: Here's how we can exercise our long-term memory.
Dr. RESTAK: You can choose a year and then first of all, associate it with yourself, what you were doing. The case may be…
WEEKS: Let's see: 1985, we were living in Little Rock. I was driving a Toyota Tercel. Our first child was born in March. And it's sort of hard to remember anything after that.
Dr. RESTAK: It's called a reminiscence exercise. It could be used at any time in life.
(Soundbite of horn honking)
WEEKS: Then we stretch our sensory memory.
Dr. RESTAK: Sensory memory is something that you don't hear to much about, yet it's the most important part of laying down a memory: paying attention to what's going on. Why don't we remember somebody's name? Because we weren't really listening when we met them. One of the exercises I talk about is going into the kitchen and pulling down some spices and herbs, and seeing if you can identify them by smell alone.
WEEKS: We're in your kitchen and you've got some spices out. Now, I'm not going to look at them. I'm going to close my eyes.
Dr. RESTAK: Smell that one. You know what that is?
WEEKS: No I don't.
Dr. RESTAK: Curry. Try one more?
WEEKS: Oh, no. That is - that's thyme or...
Dr. RESTAK: Correct. That's right. So you like thyme?
WEEKS: That's true. It makes a difference.
Dr. RESTAK: It also will be something that you're going to be able to increase your ability to recognize.
WEEKS: Research shows that routinely training the memory with simple exercises throughout your life can help ward off the dementia of old age. Now we turn to the working memory.
Dr. RESTAK: Working memory is the most important part of it. That's the area of being able to keep in mind several things at once.
(Soundbite of gong)
WEEKS: He suggests an exercise.
Dr. RESTAK: I give the example of what I say to someone: well, give me the presidents from Obama back to Truman. And they would name them, and then I'll say, well, now give them to me alphabetically. Now, as soon as you get alphabetically then you have to keep them in mind and juggle them around, and when they get that, I say well, let's do it according to party. Then they have to do it a different way. That's working memory.
WEEKS: So, speaking of being able to keep several things in mind at once, can you name the four sounds you heard during this report? If you said an alarm...
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
WEEKS: ...a baby...
(Soundbite of baby crying)
WEEKS: ...and a car horn...
(Soundbite of horn honking)
WEEKS: ...you're on your way to a fine and fit working memory. Oh yeah, there was one more sound. Oh well. Linton Weeks, NPR News.
(Soundbite of gong) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Challenging your brain with mental exercises can improve your intelligence over the years and help stave off the dementia that comes with old age, says psychiatrist and author Richard Restak. He offers up a workout regimen to keep your brain fit.
To Keep Your Brain Nimble As You Age, Stretch It
An MRI scan of a man's brain. Richard Restak says research shows that the brain responds to stretching and challenging exercises in every stage of life.
Don Farral / Getty Images
Nowadays, some scientists say, you can exercise your brain the way you exercise your body.
If you sleep more, eat less and get plenty of exercise — using your body and your brain — says Richard Restak, you can improve your intelligence over the years and help stave off the dementia that comes with old age.
Restak, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., is the author of the just-published Think Smart: A Neuroscientist's Prescription for Improving Your Brain's Performance. Research shows, he says, that the brain responds to stretching and challenging exercises in every stage of life.
An older person "can still take up a language, you can learn to play bridge," he says, "and that establishes connections between neurons, and the synaptic density begins to increase."
In other words, as we get older, we can still get smarter.
The key, Restak says, is to exercise the three different types of memory: long-term memory, sensory memory and working memory.
Making Memories — Stronger
"Long-term memory is just everything we know about history, things about our life, important dates, important things that happened, all the things that separate one person from another," Restak explains. "You could call it the treasure-trove of information that you have. So that's long-term memory, and we're forming it all the time."
He suggests an exercise to increase the strength of long-term memory: Choose a year in your past and associate it with what you were doing — where you were in school or where you were working. Then expand your recollections into other events in the world at large — sporting contests, political activities, major catastrophes and cultural happenings.
"It's called a reminiscent exercise," he says. "It can be used at any time in life."
There is controversy surrounding the ability to improve memory and intelligence through exercises. Torkel Klingberg, a Swedish brain researcher and author of The Overflowing Brain, says that "certain cognitive functions, such as attention, working memory and possibly reasoning ... can be affected by training." But he is less certain that exercises will strengthen long-term memory.
Restak says that we are constantly adding to our long-term memory, and learning to associate images or emotions with those memories will increase the chances of retrieval.
Your Brain On Peanut Butter
Sensory memory is the recall associated with the senses, such as touch, smell and hearing. Restak says, "Sensory memory is something you don't hear too much about, yet it's the most important part of laying down a memory: Paying attention to what's going on."
For instance, we don't remember a person's name, he says, "because we weren't listening when we met them. Why don't we remember certain facts? It's because we weren't really there."
To stimulate the sensory memory, Restak suggests testing your powers of olfaction. He writes that "eighty-five percent of the U.S. population can identify the following seven odors: baby powder, chocolate, cinnamon, coffee, mothballs, peanut butter and soap."
So go into the kitchen, close your eyes and ask someone to hand you each of those items — opened so you can sniff them — one by one. Or use spices. Or other familiar odors to connect your nose to your memory. Try to identify as many as you can. Then try again and see if you can improve your fragrance memory.
The Working Memory Workout
Of all forms of memory, the working memory is the most vital to our everyday lives. "That's the area of being able to keep in mind several things at once," Restak says.
To exercise working memory, Restak suggests a few radical ideas, including video games for adults that reinforce focus and dexterity skills.
And a self-quiz: Name the U.S. presidents, going backward from Barack Obama to John F. Kennedy. Then, arrange them in chronological order starting with Kennedy, assigning each his proper party affiliation (so, Kennedy — Democrat; Johnson — Democrat; etc.). Next, list them alphabetically. That ability to perform more than one function at a time, Restak says, stretches the working memory.
In the end, Restak believes we should think of the brain's growth over the years as a series of marathons. He credits Canadian neurologist Kenneth Rockwood with the metaphor. In Think Smart, Rockwood says, "As our brains age, we must prepare them to resist injury — equip them with good education, train them thoughtfully with challenging regimens, support them with nurturing environments and be prepared to refresh them from time to time."
Looking at the old noodle that way, Restak says, encourages an active brain — one that will keep working and stay fit through the years.