Challenge your mind and prevent brain decay. That’s the message of Garth Sundem’s new book “Brain Candy: Science, Paradoxes, Puzzles, Logic and Illogic to Nourish Your Neurons” (Three Rivers Press), which follows on the heels of his best-selling “Geeks’ Guide to World Domination” (2009). Filled with self-quizzes, factoids, and eye-opening perception tests, it’s an accessible and fun guided tour through the workings of the brain. In the following Q&A, Sundem discusses the book—and what it takes to “grow” your mind.
How did you decide what you were going to put into “Brain Candy”?
These days you can’t spit near science without hitting entertaining, useful, or generally awesome information about the brain. To avoid delivering a doorstop I came up with a simple test: When I had a factoid or how-to that I thought was cool, I dropped it into conversation and gauged the response. If people responded with surprise or delight, I had a topic. You’d be surprised how accurate people at a potluck are at deciding what’s interesting. I would tell them, for instance, that the brain of a liar is physiologically different from the brain of a truth-teller, or that game theory can decide which movie they watch tonight. If the conversation “popped,” the topic went in the book.
So what is your overall picture of the brain?
I spent a year reading today’s best brain science, and what struck me most is how the brain is only mostly right, most of the time. If you want to recognize a tiger in the jungle and instantly decide if you need to run like hell, the brain’s a nice tool. But as soon as you start thinking, you’re pretty much screwed. Want to stick to morals and rationality in the face of temptation? Nope. Or remember what really happened at the scene of a crime? Not so much. The brain is much too easily punk’d.
I’m also amazed by the brain’s malleability and resilience. One can accidentally fire nails into it—or, in one case, a four-foot metal tamping rod—and the brain heals around the severed circuits in what is likely nature’s most spectacular workaround. And depending on how we act and think, one brain can develop into a much different tool from a similar brain that’s been used another way.
How can a person “grow” the best brain possible?
Brain training is at the leading edge of science. And like anything at the leading edge, there’s a lot of debate: Crosswords? Brain teasers? Cod-liver oil? One accepted fact is that the brain wires itself for certain tasks and then, if left alone, the wires start to decay. By doing the crossword every morning, you can keep your crossword wires from decaying, but the gain doesn’t necessarily carry over into other areas of your life—doing any one thing only makes you better at the one thing. But there are two strategies that hold promise for boosting and keeping brainpower: new experiences and happiness. New experiences force your brain to continuously build new pathways, which happens at a faster rate than losing the old ones—so rather than solving an extremely tricky puzzle of a type you already know, it seems better to learn how to solve a new type of puzzle. The same benefit seems to apply for any type of new brain-challenging experience: visiting new restaurants, meeting new people, consuming new media—whatever. And a brain that sits in a healthy, social, happy body holds its zip much longer than an unhappy, isolated brain.
Have you learned anything about yourself from the quizzes in “Brain Candy”?
I thought I was rational and generally in control of my thoughts and actions. I learned from the Robin Hood Morality Quiz that beneath my veneer of steadfast Little John is the impish rogue of Robin Hood fighting to get out. Actually, I hope that’s a fair description of “Brain Candy.” Beneath the veneer of science is one heck of a good time.
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