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VOL. 128 | NO. 164 | Thursday, August 22, 2013

Vic Fleming

In Search of Brain Fitness

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In an article titled “Mentally Fit” in the July 29, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, Patricia Marx writes, “[A] study of six hundred and seventy-eight elderly nuns analyzed essays they’d written in their twenties and found that the sisters who had used the most linguistically complex sentences tended to have the lowest incidence of Alzheimer’s, which is why I’ve added this unnecessary subordinate clause even though it’s been a long time since I was in my twenties.”

Now, that’s my kind of sentence. It’s a great article, too. Don’t not read it just because a 500-word column was written about it.

The New Yorker is the best literary value on the market, in my opinion. They have great back-up as well. As I was starting to write this piece, I realized my copy of the magazine was in one location, and I was sitting in another, across town. Having trouble accessing the archives online, I called Conde Nast customer service. The person with whom I spoke, after an unsuccessful effort to help me access the archives, suggested she fax me the article. Which she then did!

Marx, author of two novels, sizes up the industry that has grown up around the notion that we might somehow fend off or minimize dementia by this, that, or the other activity. “A 2011 survey,” she writes, “found that baby boomers were more afraid of losing their memory than of death.” So, Marx wonders, “Should I get out a crossword? Learn to play bridge? Chew gum? Take a nap? Drink more coffee? Eat blueberries?” Yes, there is a study out there somewhere touting each item mentioned for its beneficial impact on mental health.

From the Cottage Center for Brain Fitness in Santa Barbara to Washington’s NeoCORTA, Marx reports on just about every new-age item or service being offered in the “staving off dotage” industry. She experiences dance-movement class, brain fitness questionnaires, the working lab of a neuroscientist who hopes to develop the “first therapeutic FDA-approved videogames,” and more.

How did the author fare in the end? I’m going to share what she wrote, but you must read the article to fully appreciate it. “Judging from the … questionnaires I filled out … my mood brightened, my sleep was more restful, and I felt more confident. I may also have become a bigger liar on questionnaires, but that was not evaluated.”

In Marx’s article are answers to questions I imagine we all are asking more and more as the years roll by. They are not necessarily anything akin to the types of answers we may have hoped for. They are certainly not answers in the yes/no mode, so if your questions are worded in that fashion, go back and edit them now.

And if somehow you don’t do as I advise – by failing to remember to read Marx’s article – then at least do yourself the favor now of clipping the following quotation from her article and taping it to your bathroom mirror:

“It’s hard to be both scientist and lab rat.”

That, too, is my kind of sentence. (I can make a puzzle out of that quip! Watch for it.)

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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