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The Boston Phoenix Get Smart

In the quest to build brainpower, some people will swallow anything. Our reporter is one of those people.

By Chris Wright

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  A team of Princeton University biologists announced recently that they had created a super-smart strain of mice. The announcement -- in the journal Nature -- told of a new keen-witted rodent nicknamed "Doogie" who, endowed with an extra dollop of the brain receptor gene NR2B, was able to scamper through the proverbial maze with distinctly un-mouselike adroitness.

The study, having raised the possibility of genetically altered superhumans, sparked a shrill public debate.

"Immoral!" cried the ethicists. "Sinful!" carped the theologians. "Hazardous!" declared the health specialists. "Improbable!" argued fellow scientists.

"Where can I get me some?" asked the rest of us.

Not so fast. Genetic brain-boosting is still restricted to the rodent world, and will be for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the past several years have seen an explosion in brain-boosting strategies and "smart" substances. Americans have at their disposal an unprecedented apothecary of smart drugs, smart herbs, smart drinks -- even smart gum. According to a study by the research and consulting firm the Hartman Group, sales of the most popular brain builder, ginkgo biloba, reached $253 million last year. And there is also a slew of meditations, breathing techniques, and pseudo-scientific mental exercises that claim to sharpen the old noggin.

The question is, does any of this stuff actually work?

To attempt to get to the bottom of the brain-building craze, I recently plunged headfirst into the world of mind enhancement. Over the course of two weeks, I meditated and medicated myself into mental well-being. I tweaked my qi, and ingested drugs, herbs, and more drugs.

To measure my progress, I took an IQ test going in, and another at the end of the two weeks. On my first test, I learned that my IQ is a paltry 105 ("Remark: Average").

No doubt about it: it was time to get smart.


Brain Respiration

This must be what people on Madison Avenue call "blanket marketing": glossy leaflets strewn about the streets; leaflets taped to lampposts, windows, sidewalks; leaflets handed out on street corners by grinning acolytes. One weekend in October, Harvard Square is awash in leaflets, leaflets, leaflets. Come to a free demonstration of Brain Respiration, they urge us. "Wake up your Brain." On the front of each leaflet is a picture of a golden brain, aglow, floating in a starry sky.

The leafleting campaign is the work of an outfit called the Dahn Center Association, a network of holistic-health centers that has its roots in traditional Korean medicine. Brain Respiration (or BR), the Dahn literature informs us, "is the first-ever mental training method geared especially for the brain. . . . [A] method of concentrating the flow of Ki-energy onto the brain, with the effect of facilitating oxygen and blood flow to the region, thereby increasing the health and fitness of the brain."

So it is that I find myself -- along with maybe a hundred other souls -- spending a sunny Saturday afternoon sitting in a dingy auditorium, waiting to begin a session that will, we are assured, "restore balance and harmony" to our brains.

As the session gets under way, balance and harmony aren't immediately apparent. Key speakers are running late, we are told. Well-dressed Asian men and women hustle about, yammering into walkie-talkies. A few huddle around a computer screen. The audience sits and mumbles. The movie projector next to me blasts hot air into my left ear (will this affect my BR?). Before I can change seats, however, the lights go down, the projector comes to life, and a hokey, 1984-ish movie begins.

"Welcome to the 21st century," it declares. "The century of the brain!" Oh boy.

My misgivings turn to trepidation when a man and a woman step up to a podium and begin blathering about the miraculous effects of BS . . . I mean, BR. It's "proven," chimes the guy: BR will increase your concentration by 95 percent. Next, a woman named Young Sun Park, Dahn Master of all Massachusetts, is on. "I want to help your brain work," she says, before launching into a demonstration of auto-backslapping, jumping on the spot, and arm-waving. Looking back across the auditorium at a sea of wiggling digits -- a hundred people chanting, "I am happy!" -- I can't help feeling that I might be happier elsewhere.

Then something wonderful happens. Three dancers -- two women and a man -- begin a "Taorobic" exercise. To a soundtrack of Euro electronica, the three dance in fluid, graceful, curvilinear movements. It's mesmerizing. After 10 minutes of this, the dancers are joined by another woman and man, and the five begin hammering drums, cymbals, and gongs, building into a frenzy of heart-gripping sound. If this is how these Dahn people "purify the brain," then it can't be all bad.

Next, to sustained applause, the main attraction takes the stage: Seung Heun Lee, president of the Korea Institute of New Human Studies, founder of Dahn Meditation, and creator of the BR technique.

Silver-haired, serene, clad in white tunic and pants, and carrying a long staff (actually a flute), Lee looks Grand Masterly enough. He speaks through a translator. When our Ki (the BR-approved spelling for qi) is good, he informs us, our mood is good. When our Ki is bad, our mood is bad. He is here to make our Ki good. Good. I had been in a terrible mood all morning, and at this point would settle for mediocre Ki.

First, Master Lee has us play our bodies "like drums," slapping our chests, arms, backs, heads, necks, thighs, whatever. An ill-advised whap to my own face is a bit jarring, but otherwise I'm beginning to feel better. The slapping done, we close our eyes and rub our hands together. Then we hold them in front of us, a few centimeters apart. Do we feel the energy? asks Master Lee. In fact, we do, sort of.

We move our hands around our heads, like Madonna in her "Vogue" video. Do we feel a tingling in our brain? We do, we do. Now we are swaying from side to side, says Master Lee. And we are. And we are feeling pretty damn good. I realize this is probably due to a combination of the power of suggestion, disorientation brought about by the drum-bashing, and good old wishful thinking. Or is it our Ki, our life force, surging? Either way, something's going on. We slap and we sway and we slap some more. Most surprisingly, we do all this without the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

Toward the end of the session, Master Lee cites the phenomenal success of Brain Respiration in Korea, where students have learned to read books without opening them. D'oh! The projector isn't the only thing spewing hot air. Still, as I make my way out into the sunshine of Harvard Square, I feel revived and relaxed. Or not relaxed, exactly, but tingly. And I am determined to hang on to this feeling for as long as possible.

And I do: I feel a little stab of guilt an hour later, when I sit down and start in on the first beer and cigarette of the evening, flushing my good Ki away with every trip to the bathroom, blowing well-being into the air with each puff of smoke.

Call (781) 647-7733 or (617) 264-4851 for information.


Mozart

When psychologist Frances Rauscher and her University of Wisconsin colleagues conducted a study on the "Mozart effect" in 1993, she hadn't anticipated that it would cause such a flap. "The whole thing's been blown up so much," she says. The gist of the study was that children who listened to Mozart exhibited a modest improvement in performance on certain tests.

From the public reaction, you'd have thought that Rauscher had claimed to have discovered the key to eternal wisdom. The media devoted acres of column space to her study, scientists published refutations and rebuttals, and one state (Georgia) went as far as to endow all newborn babes with a classical CD. So what was all the fuss about?

Rauscher only wishes she knew. "Our original study featured part of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448," she says. "Students that listened to the part scored higher on spatio-temporal tasks. The effect only lasted 10 minutes, and then it was gone." Though Rauscher scoffs at the hyperbole surrounding her study, she still believes her conclusions to be fundamentally sound.

"Music improves [spatio-temporal] reasoning," she says flatly. "I think that when people listen to music, certain neural pathways become excited, raring to go, and because the neurons are excited, they're more ready to fire."

But why Mozart? "Because he was a prodigy," Rauscher says, "and if anyone was exploring neural pathways it would be him."

The question is, does different music lead you down different neural pathways? Does Marilyn Manson fire up the neurons that make you want to kill somebody? Why does Celine Dion make you want to kill yourself? And if you're going to have a crack at Boston's most daunting spatio-temporal task -- finding a parking spot -- aren't you better off with the Sex Pistols shooting between your synapses than soppy old Mozart?

I spend a little while with the soundtrack of Amadeus, trying to picture my neurons popping and my pathways clearing. I play gin rummy with a friend and lose miserably. Then I listen to Never Mind the Bollocks and go looking for a parking spot in Harvard Square. I soon give up, go home, and switch the TV on to VH1. As Brandy warbles, I begin to doze off, and a little picture enters my head: a neural pathway with a sign reading CLOSED TO THROUGH TRAFFIC.


Ginkgo biloba

In 1997, a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that a concentrate made from the leaves and bark of the ginkgo tree has beneficial effects in sufferers of Alzheimer's disease. Even though most people don't have Alzheimer's, sales of ginkgo biloba skyrocketed.

Ginkgo's popularity is nothing new. According to Geoff D'Arcy, a Natick-based doctor of Eastern medicine and maker of D'Arcy Natural Herbs, the ginkgo tree is 200 million years old, and ginkgo derivatives have been maximizing mental processes for at least 2000 years.

Ginkgo supposedly works by dilating blood vessels, increasing blood flow to the brain and thus enhancing short-term memory and alertness. But, says D'Arcy, "it goes beyond this. It has a protective impact. It's a fantastic antioxidant, too."

It's also a stimulant. And, as D'Arcy points out, unbridled stimulation does not always make for clearer reasoning. "People think they need to get hyper to be more effective," he says. "Ginkgo revs the brain up, and you don't just want to rev the brain up." The perfect complement to ginkgo, he says, is ginseng.

"Ginseng is misunderstood in the West," D'Arcy says. "We tend to equate ginseng with a double cappuccino," but it's actually a "mind quieter." The mixture of ginkgo and ginseng can be seen as a sort of healthful speedball (a combination of heroin and cocaine) in that one substance is used both to enhance and to counteract the other. "The idea is to bring the star players together," D'Arcy says, "so they form a powerful team."

I try ginkgo on its own, and also in D'Arcy's Alert! formula, which includes ginseng. I prefer the latter. A 450-milligram megadose of ginkgo (the recommended daily dose is around 300 to 450 milligrams) leaves me with a desire to run for governor, bat for the Red Sox, and copulate with the entire cast of Friends. Two seconds later, however, the feeling degenerates into a slight case of the jitters. The Alert!, while not endowing me with fleeting megalomania, has very little in the way of uncomfortable side effects. Am I any smarter? Almost certainly not. But I have vowed, bravely, to keep on popping ginkgo and ginseng until my supply runs out.

Geoff D'Arcy can be reached at (508) 650-1921. Alert! and other formulas can be found at Harnett's, 47 Brattle Street, Cambridge; (617) 491-4747.


Piracetam

One of the most popular smart drugs in the world is all but unavailable in the US. A derivative of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), Piracetam has gained such popularity among mind-enhancer enthusiasts that it has led to a new pharmaceutical category: nootropics (from the Greek, "acting on the mind").

"It's a massively prescribed drug in Europe," says Steven Fowkes, executive director of the California-based think tank CERI (the Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute). "A billion-dollar-a-year drug."

Though not FDA-approved, Piracetam has no known harmful side effects. In fact, says Fowkes, the drug is "phenomenally" nontoxic. "You could make up a slurry and fill an animal's stomach with it, and it won't kill them." (You get the sense that someone, somewhere, has tried this.)

Theoretically, Piracetam works by facilitating the flow of information between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, thus enhancing language skills, problem-solving, and the ability to synthesize information. "It's a productivity drug," says Fowkes.

The drug is also said to have a regenerative effect on the nervous system, and in Europe it's used to treat such disparate ailments as alcoholism, vertigo, and dyslexia. There is also anecdotal evidence that Piracetam perks up the user's sex life.

Sadly, I'm not able to get my hands on any of the stuff before press time. (The drug is available in the US only by prescription or mail order). However, Fowkes, a long-time user, describes Piracetam thus: "There's no buzz. It does not produce any kind of altered state, not like caffeine or an amphetamine. It's a totally smooth experience where you can only identify its presence through performance." Don't expect immediate results, though, and don't overdo the doses. "With very high doses you can feel a little edgy," Fowkes says. "I once took very high doses for nine days, and it was too much. I had to stop. I had to turn it off."

Log on to http://www.ceri.com for mail-order information.


Ritalin

A prescription drug I am able to get my hands on is Ritalin. The guy who gives it to me -- we'll call him Ted -- has been taking the drug for a little more than a year, mainly because he was having difficulty concentrating at work, and was beginning to suspect that he might have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), for which the drug is a common treatment. "When I first started taking it," Ted says, "my life was a wreck. I thought I'd try Ritalin to see what it would do."

What Ritalin does is stimulate the central nervous system, which produces effects similar to amphetamines'. And so, "Ritalin's done a lot more for me socially than it has professionally," says Ted. "My disorganization it hasn't really helped. But a lot of the subtle social signals that people give off I pick up on now, whereas before I don't think I did." Ritalin also improved his general mood, Ted says. "I like what it does for me."

Ted's not alone. As the legitimate use of Ritalin has increased, so too has its abuse. According to some reports, the Midwestern states in particular are being overrun by wild-eyed Ritalin junkies, who inject and snort the drug for a bigger buzz. But it's not just the Midwest that's been bitten. A Rhode Island elementary-school principal was in court last month for having allegedly pilfered his students' Ritalin supply. Not surprisingly, the drug is considered a Class II narcotic in the US, in the same category as heroin and cocaine.

One particularly dreary morning at work -- in the spirit of investigative journalism, of course -- I pop (orally) one of the little yellow pills Ted gave me. Not much happens. I sigh a lot more than usual, or maybe yawn. My smoking-room conversations don't really pick up, and at one point I actually forget the name of one of my co-workers. I don't, however, suffer the loss of appetite, convulsions, fevers, palpitations, paranoia, or psychosis that are said to accompany the drug's abuse. So I take another. Again, the effects seem to be, disappointingly, minimal.

That night, however, I ill-advisedly sink a few Newcastle Browns on top of my double dose of the big R. If Ritalin's main purpose is to increase focus, it works like a dream -- a bad dream: I spend a good deal of the evening focused intently on a toilet bowl.

See your doctor about a prescription for Ritalin.


Weed

Lester Grinspoon isn't your average pothead. He's a psychiatrist, a Harvard associate professor, and the author of several books, including Marihuana Reconsidered. Indeed, Grinspoon's advocacy of grass is based on long-standing philosophical beliefs. "I have no doubt that marijuana can be useful in many ways for those who take the time to learn how to use it," he says. "It enhances appetite, it enhances sex, it enhances one's appreciation for music and art, and it enhances creativity, no question."

Well, this is pretty much what we're looking for in a brain drug. But doesn't pot eventually, um, destroy the brain? Not at all, insists Grinspoon. "For all the talk about it destroying neurons," he says, "it may be just the opposite. Studies suggest that there's a real possibility that cannabis is protective."

As well as having protective qualities, marijuana eases intellectual inhibitions, says Grinspoon, allowing for more unusual and interesting associations. "If you consider the mind as a generator of new ideas, shooting them out at targets," he says, "then with cannabis the generator increases in frequency, and the target is enlarged." Grinspoon does, however, allow that a good number of pot-induced ideas can miss the target by a mile. "You have to be able to discriminate," he says.

But it's not just imagination and creativity that are enhanced by pot. Analytical skills, too, can be improved by smoking weed. "Part of analysis is making associations," Grinspoon explains. "To the extent that that's true, cannabis helps with that."

Grinspoon's analytical skills are certainly intact. Listening to him lecture on the effects of cannabis on endorphins and receptor sites, on CB1s and CB2s, you begin to wish you'd devoted as much of your youth to studying biology as you did to enhancing your musical appreciation and appetite.

But even when you can understand what Grinspoon's saying, can you really believe him?

Grinspoon is aware that many write him off as a crackpot subversive, a pie-eyed piper leading America's youth along the road to ruin. But he's not worried. Grinspoon believes that time will vindicate him and his ideas. "When this country comes to its senses," he says, "we will not penalize people for exploring this."

Until then, marijuana is illegal in the US. Being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I personally have never, ever smoked marijuana, or even seen it. But I do have a friend, a poet, who swears by it. "I'd say a good 75 percent of my poems were written under the influence of ganja," says my friend, adding that a bout of pot-induced creativity is usually followed by a period of mental sluggishness. "Marijuana is my creative credit card: write now, pay later."


Phosphatidylserine

When it comes to phosphatidylserine, Parris Kidd, a biomedical educator and consultant, describes himself as "one of the few real experts in the world." Which means that he is one of the few people in the world who can pronounce phosphatidylserine. Not surprisingly, non-experts tend to use the snappy contraction PS.

Though it's been around only since 1995, sales of PS have increased "tenfold" since its introduction, according to a spokesperson for Lucas Meyer, which produces the brand Leci-PS. Today, PS can be found not only in drugstores and health-food shops, but also in Wal-Marts. It's a very popular form of mind enhancer, hailed as "Viagra for the brain" by some enthusiasts.

Kidd is quick to stress that PS isn't a drug: "It's a nutrient, a food," he says. In fact, he says this at least 900 times during our conversation. "Food," he says. "Not drug, food." Specifically, PS is a phosphorus-rich fatty acid that occurs naturally in the cell membranes of all living things, says Kidd, "all the way down to bacteria." In its medicinal form, PS is extracted from soy. (Soy's a food?)

PS basically works by beefing up the neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages from neuron to neuron. "It's a building block for nerve cells in the brain," says Kidd. "It helps nerve cells make better connections; it helps circuits to perform better." Which results, for one thing, in improved memory skills.

"It will help you better remember the name of the guy you met yesterday," says Kidd. "It will help you match up the face with the name."

"Your concentration should improve," he continues. "Your capacity to read and understand, maintain focus, multitask. And it has an anti-depressant effect. It seems to have a profound effect on the brain as a whole."

Kidd isn't just an advocate for PS, he's also a client. About five years ago, he says, "I found I was having trouble. I couldn't concentrate. My mind was drifting." Two months of PS use, he says, and he felt much better. PS is especially beneficial for drinkers and smokers, says Kidd -- "people who live life in the fast lane."

One recent morning, having spent the night on the hard shoulder of the fast lane, I try it. The recommended dose is 100 to 300 milligrams per day, but taking a single megadose of 500 milligrams has been known to have immediate results. Besides, the drug -- food -- has no known detrimental side effects.

So, blithely, I pop a 500-milligram dose. The only immediate effect is a vague anxiety. As the day wears on, I'm not exactly feeling smarter, but I definitely feel something: a dryness behind the eyes, and a sort of pressure -- as if someone had numbed my forehead, attached a couple of alligator clips, and begun gently tugging. Whether I'm being led into the realm of clearer thought isn't apparent. As with most mind-enhancing substances, users probably won't notice PS's benefits until they've been taking it for at least three weeks.

PS can be found at Harnett's, 47 Brattle Street, Cambridge; (617) 491-4747.


Rub-off

We hear much talk about people dragging others down to their level, but isn't it equally possible that one can be dragged up -- that hanging around with smart people can make you smarter? I decide to test this possibility by socializing with the smartest people I can find -- namely, members of the Boston chapter of Mensa.

When I heard that Boston Mensa was planning a field trip to Sterling to navigate Davis Farm's Mega Maze, I almost choked on my phosphatidylserine. Where better to test intelligence than a maze? If it's good enough for super-smart mice, it's good enough for me. I hurry out to Sterling with images of bespectacled, grimly determined rodents scuttling through my head.

Pulling into the Davis Farm parking lot, I'm half expecting to find a hundred eggheads arguing loudly about black holes. What I get is Bill Hees and John Meagher, shuffling their feet in the corner of the lot. Out of 950 Boston Mensa members, two have found their way to Sterling.

Shortly after entering the maze, Bill and John set to work devising a system. First we try the "left" system (brilliant in its simplicity): for an hour we take only left turns. When that brings us full circle, we try the "right" system. An hour later, we're back at the maze entrance. All the while, Bill works on a little diagram, which he has drawn on a flier with a stubby pencil.

An hour later we're still floundering around, horribly, helplessly lost. Finally, my wife devises a system of her own: the "browbeat the staff into telling us the goddamn way out" system, which works like a charm. And so, three hours into our ordeal, we stagger out into the parking lot. The average time for completing the maze, we learn, is an hour and a half.

"I wasn't expecting it to take that long," says Bill sheepishly. "I was supposed to be somewhere an hour ago."

Later, as I try to figure out which end of a hot dog should be bitten first, it becomes glaringly obvious that consorting with the Mensa men hasn't left me a jot smarter. So what happened? Maybe the rub-off theory backfired. Maybe mazes aren't a good test of intelligence after all. Maybe mice are smarter than people. Maybe Mensa members are smarter than mice. Who knows? At the end of my two-week-long experiment with brain-building, I still have more questions than I do answers.

The Boston Mensa Web site is http://www.angelfire.com/ma/bostonmensa.


Coda

To make matters even more complicated, another team of biologists from Princeton has just completed a study (on monkeys, whose brains are comparable to humans') that discovered that cells in the cerebral cortex actually regenerate from day to day -- contradicting the long-held belief that brain cells dwindle over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps mind enhancement might be served by leaving well enough alone.

"The fact is," says author and educational consultant John Bruer, "we just don't know that much about the brain. When you get into areas like this, it's hard to separate fact from fiction."

Daniel Schacter, chair of Harvard's psychology department, agrees. "The jury's out" on the benefits of intelligence boosters, Schacter says. "My reading of the literature is that ginkgo produces modest short-term effects, analogous to a stiff cup of coffee."

Solid scientific evidence for the benefits of ginkgo biloba and the like is scant at best. Some health experts have expressed concern that popping smart pills could compel people to ignore the root causes of their mental ill health -- such as lack of sleep. Others go so far as to suggest that mind enhancers -- particularly taken in complex permutations -- could have negative effects in users. Again, the bottom line is that we just don't know.

But Americans keep taking intelligence boosters, and they will keep taking them as long as there is a possibility that ginkgo, Piracetam, and pot will make them smarter, wittier, more efficient, better in bed.

The odds that Brain Respiration will become America's favorite pastime, on the other hand, are slim. And this is because to practice BR, you have to get out of your chair. Mind-enhancing drugs -- and herbs and foods and drinks and gums and candies -- may be yet another example of sloth's never-ending quest for the easy route -- a get-smart-quick panacea. Is ginkgo the mental equivalent of the diet pill, a convenient stand-in for nutrition and intellectual exercise?

Schacter suspects so. "It's a natural impulse," he says, "to reach out for something that requires little work or effort on your part.

"If you gave me the choice of taking gingko or putting the effort in," he says, "there's no doubt in my mind that the person who opts for the latter is going to get more benefit."

Nonetheless, my own stringent, scientifically based experiments these past two weeks have yielded some positive results.

At the beginning of the experiment, as you'll recall, I took an IQ test on which I scored a pathetic 105. At the end of the two weeks, I took a similar test -- and my IQ had soared to 138. I'm clearly a more intelligent, well-rounded human being now than I was two weeks ago. So I've been putting my mind to some knotty problems, and I think I've got an idea for a workable national health-care system. I've also got some advice for NASA about the next Mars probe. Give me another week and I should be able to figure out why Keanu Reeves has a career.


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