Becoming a smarter person is obviously a good way to get more done. However, we live with a bit of a myth that what we are born with is what we are stuck with when it comes to raw brain power. There are all kinds of aspects to this, but for today, I want to focus on one interesting experiment that involves mice.
With two young kids, my family and I like to spend a lot of time at zoos. When we travel, we’ll often try to visit the local zoo. If you’ve been to a zoo recently, you’ve probably noticed all kinds of strange things in with the animals. The elephants have colorful balls and even a car tire. The monkeys have plastic toys for toddlers. Even the otters have a pool of bubble bath to play with.
Obviously this is something that the zoo keepers get questioned about–particularly when it looks like some mischievous teenagers threw their younger siblings’ toys into the enclosures as some sort of prank. In fact, they get so many questions that they put up signs saying that the items are there for the animals’ “enrichment.” I suppose this makes sense because it probably gets boring to look at all the humans coming by and watching them every day, but why are we trying enrich jungle animals with toddler toys?
Evidently this goes back to some experiments with mice in which scientists provided the mice with “enriched” environments and found that the mice were smarter and more mentally stimulated when they had lots of toys to play with.
However, a recent study has tried digging a little more into those results, and their research is very insightful. The new experiment tried to further break down exactly what was causing the increase in intelligence. It turns out that when the mice were given an “enriched” environment in the previous experiments, it always included a running wheel. The new experiment separated out the exercise wheel and found that the intelligence followed the wheel–not the toys.
While the mice loved the toys, they didn’t get smarter unless there was an exercise wheel in the cage. The mice with the wheel and no toys showed the increase in intelligence that had previously been attributed to the “enriched” environment.
While humans aren’t mice, there are some very good reasons to believe that investing some time in exercise can have a good payback in increased cognitive skills in addition to all of the health benefits.
This is really interesting stuff! I just read John Ratey’s book “Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain.”
He writes about this as well. As far as I remember he’s talking about use-dependant neuroplasticity. He goes on to explain that to grow a better brain (aka become more intelligent) with exercise you optimally need 2 things:
1. The exercise stimulus which creates new neurons (among other things)
2. A rich environment which “forces” you to use those new neurons and helps them grow (otherwise they might “die” again because they’re not getting used)
Not sure my explanation is correct, but one thing’s clear: Exercise is a HUGE brain booster :-)