After a few too many “uh...” moments, humorist Patricia Marx started on a four-month “get smart” program. She chronicles her IQ tests, online brain training, and even cranial electro-stimulation in Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties. Here, Marx talks about growing old, forgetting, and all of the fun stuff that happens along the way.
What’s the best thing we can all do to maintain our faculties?
Scientists say that exercise, social engagement, and reducing stress all help brain functioning, and maintaining a healthy diet doesn’t hurt. But I don’t think you can make anything better than it was fated to be. You can reach your potential, but you can’t exceed it. And you can make things worse.
By drinking too much, for instance?
Drinking, it turns out, doesn’t kill brain cells. But drinking enough will damage your wiring, so it’s like the Internet’s down but you still have your computer. And it may be that people who drink a lot are smart. There is a study that college kids with IQs of over 125 binge drink at least once a month, but those who are “very dull” only binge drink every year or two. Maybe the dull ones haven’t figured out how to take the bottle cap off.
What about cognitive exercises?
One study looked at the autopsies of a group of nuns who had proteins in their brains that indicated they should have had Alzheimer’s but they were never symptomatic. And it wasn’t because they believed in God. It was because they spoke complex sentences with clauses, phrases, and commas in their 20s.
So we should all start speaking better English?
The best thing you can do is be really lucky and get the right parents.
What about online brain training like Lumosity?
When I was doing Lumosity, I was doing smart stuff for more hours than there were in a day. I didn’t even have time to be smart.
What scares you about losing your mental faculties?
I have a general fear of getting older and things getting worse, but memory loss isn’t a well-grounded fear for me. I don’t have any relatives (that I acknowledge as mine) who suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia. My grandmother died at age 99 and she was as “there” as a 99-year-old should be. But plenty of people are worried. One of the most interesting factoids I read was that baby boomers worry more about losing their minds than dying.
What about millennials?
I found it heartening to learn that millennials forget their keys and what day it is more than people who are 50 and above. It might be that they don’t have keys yet and they don’t care what day it is. The formal explanation is that they’re more distracted by their devices—and I say that as I pick up my phone.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.