Scientists have been spending a great deal of time thinking about their brains lately, wondering how to make them bigger, more powerful, and ultimately like Einstein’s brain; worth preserving in a jar to be admired by future generations of brainy scientists.
Brains are important to scientists because they use them literally all day long to try to solve the mysteries of the universe, such as, “Is there life on Mars, and if so, is there some way to exploit it in order to obtain another government research grant?” Whereas the rest of us mostly use our brains as short-term storage devices to ponder things like “What was the name of the Chinese restaurant my wife told me has our take-out order?” and quandaries such as, “Is this power outage due to possible terrorist attack or did I forget to pay the electric bill again?”
Since scientists depend on their brains for their livelihood, they worry about things that might do damage to them, whereas the rest of us worry if we can pour the last pint out of the beer keg directly into our mouths, without wasting a drop. Recently, researchers at the University of Washington found that prolonged exposure to low-level magnetic fields like those generated by hair dryers, electric razors, and similar household devices can damage brain cell DNA. Furthermore, the damage appears to build up with repeated exposure over time.
This apparently confirms something many of us have suspected; people with the most elaborately coiffed hair are probably missing more than a few brain cells. And the longer they work perfecting their hairdos, the more serious the brain damage becomes. This also explains why many scientists look like wild-eyed, half-shaven maniacs. It is exactly this type of individual who has managed to maintain the greatest percentage of their gray matter, and therefore is capable of discovering many amazing things about the rest of us. Ordinary people’s continued use of household electrical appliances may also explain their willingness to continue to volunteer as subjects for science experiments.
For example, what were the 112 employees of the Wesbury United Methodist Retirement Community thinking when scientists asked them to regularly stay after work and join in a giant drumming circle? “Gee whiz, I always wanted to be in a drum group with everybody at the nursing home. Here’s my chance!” At any rate, the scientists found that after six drum circle sessions, participants experienced a 50 percent improvement in their mood, including a decrease in feelings of fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Moreover, during the year following the drumming sessions, 49 fewer employees resigned than had the previous year, which saved the nursing home $400,000 in costs associated with training new drummers.
As a parent of three, this research doesn’t surprise me. I’ve known for years of the therapeutic benefits of living in a house where the children are constantly beating on drums and pounding other percussion instruments such as tambourines, silverware, plates, tables, walls, windows, and each other’s flesh. As the result of being exposed to this constant level of invidious pounding noise, I often am able to note a 50 percent improvement in my mood, simply by walking out my front door.
Now thanks to scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany, I know how to rebuild the lost brain cells that may have been the result of too many years of child-rearing, shaving and blow-drying. Researchers there found that mastering juggling increases the amount of gray matter in the brain. No matter whether the juggling is done with balls, clubs, flaming torches, or knives, this finding has proven something that was thought impossible learning to juggle can alter the brain’s structure, and increase your hat size!
Other researchers have also been thinking hard about their brains. Dr. Marcos Frank discovered that the brain needs sleep, and that every animal, even flies, experience a state like sleep. I don’t know how late the doctor had to stay up before he caught a fly napping, but I do know that his discovery could mark the beginning of a whole new American manufacturing industry: fly pillows, pajamas, and stylish bedroom accessories.
A University of Wisconsin team found that volunteers who took part in an eight-week course on meditation had a more stimulated brain, and showed resiliency against infection. Not surprisingly, contemplating the void turns out to be more stimulating than contemplating the ABC Thursday night TV schedule. Another scientist discovered that nicotine improves memory and helps the brain repair itself. Unfortunately, while his brain was repairing itself, his lungs were turning as black as Darth Vader’s heart. Meanwhile, a study by the University of Kentucky found that breast-fed babies have an IQ three to five points higher than that of formula-fed babies.
This is about as much science research as I can cram into one column using my puny, non-scientific brain, and probably more than most readers will ever need to know about. So let’s recap what we’ve learned: A breast-fed baby who gets plenty of sleep, drums, meditates, smokes, and learns to juggle while managing to avoid small household appliances, is the most likely to climb to the top of the great brain summit, and become a scientist. If you know an individual like this, do your part in helping mankind solve the mysteries of the universe. Give them a jar full of flies or a nest of lab rats. Someday the super-intelligent, bioengineered life forms of the future will be grateful you did.