June 1, 2011

Lifestyle & Leisure: Start a Mental Fitness Program

Dr. Bob Gordon

The value of physical exercise for Baby Boomers  and Seniors is universally accepted. The gold standard of measuring mental abilities is the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale– Revised. Colloquially, it is called the “IQ Test.” Designed by psychologist David Wechsler during the Second World War, it was first applied to help discover the hidden abilities of recruits. Administering this test results in a measurement known as the intelligence quotient (IQ). An IQ score of 90 to 110 is considered normal. The IQ scores of most lawyers and doctors is estimated to fall in the range of 116 and above.

Over the years, the IQ Test has undergone extensive research cross-culturally in America. It is considered a valid and reliable measure of intelligence. It includes factors such as verbal and spatial understanding and long-term, short-term, and working memory.

But what is “intelligence”? This important question has been raised about exactly what is the meaning of intelligence and whether it can be described as a single score. Harvard Professor Richard Gardner emphatically explains his view that intelligence is a mosaic of abilities and that it can’t be reduced to a single mental ability.

For example, Gardner’s theory explains that British physicist Stephen Hawking is a genius in logical-mathematical thinking, but may be only average in intrapersonal intelligence or self-knowledge. Boxing great Muhammad Ali was a genius in the ring but not so able in verbal problem solving. Mother Teresa was a genius in self-awareness and compassion for others but may have been not so capable in terms of musical ability.

Another kind of intelligence is emotional intelligence (EI). This aptitude is not measured by the IQ Test. EI addresses the ability to identify, assess, control, and influence the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups. It extends the concept of intelligence to include vital areas of life and human function beyond verbal and spatial capabilities. It recognizes that the success of humankind is due in part to people’s ability to recognize, interpret, and react to the emotional aspects of life. Dr. Daniel Goleman is credited with popularizing the concept of emotional intelligence. In his schemata, EI includes perceiving, understanding, and managing emotions. Even more fascinating is that EI can be increased by learning to reduce stress, manage emotions, and connect nonverbally with others. Related to these abilities is our capacity to use humor to deal with life’s challenges and to resolve interpersonal conflict positively and confidently. On the other hand, the traditional “IQ score” is thought to be relatively constant throughout life.


It’s natural for professional people such as physicians, lawyers, and engineers to think that intelligence is somehow reflected more by education. This is not necessarily true. Young people today are quick to point out that director Steven Spielberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and cosmetic guru Mary Kay Ash share one thing in common—they never earned a college diploma.

The Brain

More has been learned about how the human brain works in the last 10 years than in the previous 1000 years. The reason is simple—the invention, manufacture and availability of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) apparatus. Prior to the MRI’s brain-imaging capability, only brains that were injured or diseased could be studied. Now normal brains doing everyday things can be studied without opening the skull. A healthy person whose head is put in the core of the MRI can have 7 million digitally sliced pictures of their brain taken while resting, remembering, problem solving, or day dreaming. This miraculous advance has exponentially increased our understanding of how the brain works.

Compared to state-of-the-art computers, the human brain continues to be a marvel. It is a three-pound organ with 100 billion neurons. It perceives pieces of information from our senses, evaluates them, stores them, and makes them available for retrieval. It solves problems and allows for insight. It has “plasticity.” This means that different parts of the brain can learn to do new things and to solve problems better.

One example is Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was shot in the head by a deranged assassin. During her rehabilitation program at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, the press liaison explained that she was “relearning” how to walk, talk, speak, and “re-experience” certain emotions. In other words, the plasticity of the brain allows even a seriously injured person to regain lost function.

So what about normal healthy people who have the passion to contribute to society, their professions, and their families into their 70s, 80s, and 90s? For seniors to continue their success, understand more, and better solve challenging problems, they must exercise their brains just like they do their bodies.

In his best-selling book How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci, research scientist Michael Gelb points out that human brains are:

•  More flexible and multidimensional than computers

•  Able to improve with age

•  Capable of making virtually unlimited neural connections and patterns of thought

A Few Examples

A few examples of mental exercises that are easy and enjoyable are listed below. After each example is the cognitive benefit and the area of the brain activated by the mental activity.

1.   Play a board or video game like Monopoly, Scrabble, or chess with family and friends. Or if you’re by yourself, do a crossword puzzle or Sudoku. Benefit: Sharpens problem-solving ability. Brain area involved: The left side of the frontal cortex.

2.   Visit a museum exhibit. As you stroll through a gallery and notice an interesting painting, ask yourself: What is my reaction to this art? What is the artist trying to say? How is he or she saying it? With shapes, color, composition, or all three? Benefit: Sharpens spatial reasoning. Brain area involved: The limbic system and occipital lobe.

3.   People watching. On your next trip to the mall, relax in a sitting area. What do the people passing by seem  to be feeling? Are they happy, sad, or bored? What can you infer about their lives from their attire? Are they alone or with others? Benefit: Brightens emotional intelligence. Brain area involved: The limbic system and basal ganglia.

4.   The glad game. Play it with family and friends. Think of something good that can come of a distressing event such as the 2011 Japan tsunami. Examples: Designing safer reactors, developing better nuclear energy policies, and people coming together and responding to help those in need. Benefit: Reframing a problem. Creative thinking. Brain area involved: The prefrontal cortex.

5.   Neurobic exercise. Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand. Eat a Chinese meal with chopsticks. Benefit: Learning or practicing a new way of doing a familiar task. Brain area involved: Anterior cingulate gyrus.

6. Personal insight. Ask yourself a “virtual history” question, such as how would history or life be different if John Kennedy had not been assassinated? If 9/11 had not occurred? If personal computers had not yet been invented? Benefit: Engage in creative thinking. Brain area involved: Prefrontal cortex. 

Dr. Bob Gordon is a psychologist and attorney who practices in Dal- las. He is the author of 4th Quarter Winners: Successful Life Plans for Boomers & Seniors and the Ultimate Mental Fitness Program.