The brain: An owner’s guide

Today’s subject is the human brain. And, contrary to the opinion of several of my regular e-mailers – a couple of whom I’m related to – I do have one.

Scientists agree that the brain is the most complex thing we’ve ever encountered in the known universe, with the possible exception of some college-admission forms. Of course, when you get down to it, that assertion is really the brain judging itself. It is, in fact, the most grandiose and yet the most disguised form of narcissism ever – kind of like Woody Allen declaring that the highest form of artistic expression known to humankind are the films of Woody Allen, all while wearing a fake noses and glasses.

We are now learning something about the brain that we figured out about the body a long time ago – that it needs “exercise” to hold off decrepitude, that brains can get flabby just like bodies if we get lazy.

It’s true, folks. There are mental and psychological equivalents to love handles, beer guts, crotch biscuits [a Tina Fey coinage, blame her, not me] cottage-cheese thighs, muffin tops, jello arms – hey, anybody other than me getting hungry?

That means, of course, that on top of all the time you’re spending at the gym – or all the time you’re spending loathing your worthless love-handled hide for not going to the gym – you have to pay attention to brain fitness as well. Oh, joy.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – because I just downloaded that new clairvoyance app for my brain. You’re thinking, “Oh, yeah. I’m already ahead of you there, annoying newspaper guy. I always do a Soduku before I go to bed at night.”

Ha! That’s the sound of me scoffing at your Soduku. You know that guy who looks like a hot water heater in a Harley vest who claims he gets his upper-body strength from lifting cases of Old Milwaukee into the bed of his Dodge Ram pick-up? [No? Your family must be different from mine]. Anyway, that guy is you and your Soduku, OK?

To whip that old brain into shape, you gotta reach higher. The key is to tackle some kind of mental challenge that – and this is important – your brain isn’t already inclined to do. Examples: getting straight all the “begats” in the Bible [non-rabbis only]; memorizing every starting line-up for the Pittsburgh Pirates [non-basement-dwelling, girlfriendless, mouth-breathing sports nerds only]; or understanding the rational business model of the derivatives market [non-greed-consumed, remorseless, slimeball Wall Street traders who are ruining America only].

Yet, you also have to take it slowly. I overdid it a bit last spring when my daughter took honors physics in high school and I offered to serve as her study buddy. I would have been better off signing us both up for an Ironman triathalon in the Himalayas.

People tend to get cocky when it comes to mental fitness. You have to respect your stupidity, just as you do your physical limits. When you see someone by the road with a flat tire, you wouldn’t pull over and offer to lift the car by the front bumper and jog it the mile or two to the person’s home, would you? Yet, you think your liberal-arts degree is sufficient to tackle honors physics? You know that phrase “My momma didn’t raise no fool”? Well, I never say that.

Youth is, of course, the mightiest asset when it comes both to body and brain fitness. My daughter, the same girl who took honors physics last year, is tackling Mandarin Chinese at Cabrillo in the fall [while still in high school, I might add]. With her young, pliable brain, that’s possible. For me, that would be like saying “I’m going to learn how to grow a third arm out from the middle of my chest.” Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

Still, even if you’ve hit mid-life or slightly beyond, you still have plenty to gain. No, you’re not going to impress Stephen Hawking at dinner. But if you push your brain out of the long-established patterns that aren’t serving you anymore – like the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song, your ex’s Facebook posts, paying attention to Dr. Phil – then you may have room to develop new neural pathways that could ward off … uh, I can’t remember what you call it.

Which leads me to my great business idea: a brain-fitness gym. You pay us a monthly fee and come on down to our fun little meeting place and we’ll give your old coconut a good work-out with puzzles, games, memorization tests, etc. If you want to start slowly, we can do that – women’s dress sizes [for men only]; figuring out Earned Run Average [for women only]; pig-Latin classes.

But soon, you’ll want to get out of the kiddie pool, and swim with the grown-ups: how to rebuild the engine of a Ford Mustang [those with uncallused hands only]; how to jailbreak an iPhone [those who have no idea what that phrase means only]; how to communicate with a teenager or a rock critic [those over 40 only].

Any potential partners with several million dollars getting in the way at home can contact me pronto.

I will admit that this is a big risk. What physical fitness has going for it that mental fitness does not is, of course, sex. You punish yourself in the gym and you get rewarded with a hot bod that will get attention from similarly foxy potential mates, along with various pervs and philanderers. There is no mental equivalent to rocking a new string bikini at the beach, unless you’re a “Jeopardy” fetishist, and I think there are support groups for that kind of thing.

So, unless you’re doing it blindfolded, underwater or suspended upside down – or, preferably, all three – put down the Sudoku and embrace some real challenges. Get in mental shape because people consistently find intelligence sexy. Those people are liars, but sometimes, delusion is your friend.


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