NeurExpand Brain Center: Stretching the brain

Dr. Majid Fotuhi, founder of Columbia's NeurExpand Brain Center, holds a model of a human brain.
(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

"If you have the time," Dr. Majid Fotuhi said to me, "I'll give you a little test."

We were in an office in the neurologist's Lutherville brain center, and he'd just finished explaining to me how the short-term memory portion of your brain shrinks about .5 percent every year after you turn 50. The test he had in mind was for me to try to memorize 20 random words so well that I could recite them forward and backward. When he explained that everyone he's guided through the test has been able to do it, my 60-plus-year-old brain, well-shrunk but still attuned to the risk of embarrassment, began searching for excuses to beg off.


It failed, of course. So I took the test.

The trick, Fotuhi told me, was to separate the words into blocks of four, then make up stories -- vivid, fantastic, memorable little stories -- that involved those four words.

The first four words were "book," "table," "brain" and "apple." The story, which Fotuhi helped make up, was about a huge book dropped on a table, which broke and caused a brain to pop out of the book and then morph into an apple.

With the story in mind, I recited the four words a couple of times and then, according to Fotuhi's instructions, "stored" the story in one corner of the room and moved on to the next four words.

At the end of each story, I'd recite the four words, as well as any previous set of words, and store each set of words in its own part of the room. And lo and behold, after about 20 minutes of making up a series of truly bizarre stories involving shoes and strawberries, cell phones and monkeys, streets and tractors and more, I was able to recite all 20 words forward and backward.

Fotuhi smiled broadly and proudly when I was done, though not as broadly and proudly as I did.
"See?" he said.

"My brain hurts," I said.

It wasn't easy -- not by a long shot. And when I reached 12, then 16, then, at last, 20 words, my brain actually did hurt. Well, it didn't hurt, exactly. But I could, somehow, feel it stretch and strain, and when I was done with the exercise, it felt tired, like my legs do after a long walk. It hadn't felt that way in a long time -- as long as I could remember, perhaps ironically. I kind of liked the feeling.