An Ancient Secret
Win Wenger on using your brain to become a genius, in his book The Einstein Factor.
In a famous scene from the 1959 film classic The Nun’s Story, Audrey Hepburn and the other postulants line up to receive small, leather-bound notebooks.
“For the rest of your lives,” says the Mother Superior, “you will examine your consciences twice a day and write your reflections in these notebooks.”
For Audrey Hepburn, the diary proves a burden. Her mind wanders as she writes. Perhaps she would have been more diligent had she been privy to recent neurophysiological discoveries that suggest this ancient spiritual practice may harbor potential secrets of enhancing brainpower.
For years, gerontologist David Snowdon of the Sanders-Brown Centre of Aging at the University of Kentucky has been studying an obscure community of nuns living in Mankato, Minnesota. Like others of their order – the School Sisters of Notre Dame – the sisters of Mankato live an unusually long life. Twenty-five of the 150 retired nuns in the Mankato convent are over ninety, and a few have passed the century mark. Of even more significance, they are remarkably resistant to the usual brain diseases afflicting the elderly, such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, and dementia, which strike the sisters of Mankato far less often, less early, and less severely than they do others.
What is the secret of the Super Nuns? Snowdon intends to answer this question. Three years ago, 678 Mankato sisters agreed to donate their brains for Snowdon’s study. So far he has collected ninety-five brains. When his study is complete, Snowdon predicts that a large portion of Mankato nuns will show an unusually rich growth of interconnections between neurons in their brains. Old age and diseases like Alzheimer’s tend to block and shrivel these pathways, but if you have more than enough to spare, your brain can use the extra dendrites and axons to bypass damaged areas.
Use It or Lose It
We have already learned that dendrites, axons, and glial cells multiply in response to mental challenges. It is, in fact, to the rigorous intellectual regimen of the Mankato nuns that Snowdon attributes their robust neurophysiology.
Even more than others, their religious order condemns the sin of mental idleness. They forbid their brains the luxury of downtime. Many of the sisters pursue higher degrees. They play quiz games and solve brainteasers to pass the time, and the debate politics in weekly seminars. Most important, each nun keeps a detailed journal of her personal spiritual quest. Like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, they examine their souls daily and record on paper what lies within.