New Yorker staff writer Marx (Starting from Happy: A Novel, 2011, etc.), the first woman elected to the Harvard Lampoon, brings her wit and quirky curiosity to the timely topic of mental acuity.
Frothy, funny, and abounding in quizzes, exercises, and questionnaires, the author’s latest romp takes readers to the field of applied brain studies, of great interest to an aging population. “With more baby boomers reported to be afraid of losing their minds than of dying,” she writes, “the worried well—and also a few who aren’t doing so hot—spend more than a billion dollars a year on brain fitness.” She, too, would like to transform her brain “into a spiffy young noggin,” and during her four-month quest for “cognitive rejuvenation,” she engaged in “brain-boosting pursuits” that may or may not have had any positive impact. Along the way, she discovered befuddling controversies. Alcohol, for example, “does not kill brain cells” but does damage dendrites, which conduct messages from one cell to another. According to some experts, rearranging furniture stimulates the brain, as does taking a nap, ingesting ginkgo biloba, not ingesting ginkgo biloba, consuming antioxidants, and creating “top one hundred” lists. “As someone whose favorite sport is sitting,” Marx confesses, “I would just once like to hear some bad news about physical exercise.” Alas, “better thinking” turns out to be a benefit of aerobics. Willing to try some form of meditation, Marx chose “mindfulness,” clicking on a YouTube video featuring clouds, waves, sunsets, “and any number of other pictures that look like the photographs you’ve removed from store-bought frames.” Since bilingual students tend to do better on certain intelligence tests, Marx set out to learn Cherokee from Memrise, “a free website that teaches memorization through crowdsourced mnemonics.”
A sly, irreverent take on the latest obsessions regarding self-improvement.