Exercise Your Brain

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According to studies reported in Tuesday’s Washington Post, both mental and physical exercise are good for preserving the health of the brain.

A research review published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that people who have a significant “brain reserve,” or intellectual base, have a much lower risk of developing dementia. “In virtually every study in which we’ve looked, the more education you have, the lower the prevalence of dementia in that group,” said Steven DeKosky, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Jewish history, of course, is replete with scholarly leaders who were celebrated for their brilliance well into their 90s. The fact that they constantly exercised their brains probably played a role — “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

A friend of mine who learned in Ner Yisrael told me a story of the first Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Ruderman zt”l, who complained late in life that his memory wasn’t what it was. Someone cautiously asked what the Rosh Yeshiva meant — forgetting one of the halachos (laws) as determined by the Rambam (Maimonides), for example? “Chas V’Shalom (Heaven forbid),” he replied, “that I should forget a single Rambam!”

Outside the Orthodox community, it is often assumed that people able to memorize large works, such as the Talmud or the Rambam’s “Yad HaChazakah” Code, are gifted in the area of memorization to the detriment of their ability to engage in creative thought. There is, apparently, a neurological phenomenon of this nature, and, by and large, people of intelligence (e.g. Einstein) are not known for having memorized large works.

A frum doctor explained why this is so unknown outside our community: who else encounters documents that they consider worth memorizing, despite their great size? The Bible, for example, is much smaller, and thus more achievable — but nonetheless, to find someone who has memorized it is quite rare. We are truly the People of the Book in terms of how we revere and analyze our Holy texts — and, apparently, that devotion has numerous benefits to our brains.

As I mentioned, the doctors also found benefits in physical exercise — and there is interest in activities that combine the two:

Hybrid activities — those combining a mental stimulus with some other action — are also the subject of scientific interest. “Some of the strongest evidence is for activities that involve physical, mental and social at the same time,” said [psychologist Elizabeth] Edgerly. Examples include social dancing and coaching or refereeing a team sport, she said.

This reminds me of the one time I was privileged to hear Rav Mechachem Shach zt”l deliver a shiur klali, a weekly class concerning the topic then being studied by the yeshiva, for all students who chose to attend. Then in his early 90s, he walked slowly to the podium, obviously frail. But as he began to speak he truly came to life, gesticulating and delivering his points energetically. Periodically he would pause, smiling as his students turned to each other and debated between them the point the Rosh Yeshiva had just made. And someone told me later that, in his younger years, Rav Shach used to practically jump off the platform as he was making his case. Mental, physical and social activity all rolled into one.

It is interesting that in a yeshiva, learning isn’t a sedentary activity. People jump up, walk around, and argue with such obvious effort that they are getting a good cardiovascular workout in the meantime.

Often we don’t learn that way a few decades later — and apparently, that’s not such a good idea. Doctors now say that healthy arguments are healthy in more ways than one!

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11 Responses

  1. ja says:

    1. In prior centuries, rote learning was highly valued in secular context too. Scholars of ancient
    greek literature knew the material by heart too. We have less memorization today – no one is *instructed* to memorize anymore.

    2. In at least some case, we almost definitely are talking about specific memory skills. Some people who know shas by heart seem to have been capable of reading secular material once and knowing it almost if not entirely by heart. R Hirschprung of Montreal was noted for this. Similarly, I’ve heard of Mirrer who knew Doestoevsky by heart as well as Shas.
    The famous “pin trick” relies on visual memorization, not verbal memorization, and it’s almost a sure thing that those who can do it have unusual memories.

  2. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘I believe a recent study casts doubt on this hypothesis-based on the apparent quick ending of those who are very intelligent once Alzheimers is diagnosed-a hypothesis-that intelligence etc masks the symptoms for a while and then once the symptoms are noticed the disease is in an advanced state-thus less time remaining and of course less time for any future treatments that may be invented to take affect.’

    Uh, I’m a bit embarassed to say that I am doing research on exactly this issue — I presented some early results in Tampa and Philadelpha last year and will present up to date findings in San Diego in early April. I’m preparing a manuscript to submit to a journal next month. Once the abstract for the San Diego talk is online I can send a link to anyone interested.

    ‘Of course, it is sufficient to learn because that is what God demands of us.’

    Amen.

  3. Yaakov Menken says:

    Joel, we have our own TorahMedia.com site for audio shiurim, as well!

  4. mycroft says:

    “The reason this doesn’t happen with Chumash is that no one really analyzes chumash with that same intellectual intensity, thus they are unable to memorize it.”

    Why don’t people analyze chumash with the same intellectual intensity?
    The Rashbam, IBN EZRA, Abarbanel, Ramban for starters did

  5. Ezzie says:

    Does this mean bloggers won’t lose it as fast? :)

  6. Michael Kopinsky says:

    The thing that lets Roshei Yeshiva etc. memorize the large works, imo, is specifically the creative analysis they do on it. After looking at a Gemara again and again trying to figure out “pshat”, anyone will remember the Gemara.

    The reason this doesn’t happen with Chumash is that no one really analyzes chumash with that same intellectual intensity, thus they are unable to memorize it.

    Michael

  7. mycroft says:

    “Jewish history, of course, is replete with scholarly leaders who were celebrated
    for their brilliance well into their 90s”
    Sadly there have been many gdolim who did not reach a ripe old age-
    and sadly there were gdoli whose last years were very rough-even on their mental faculties

    “A research review published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that people who have a significant “brain reserve,” or intellectual base, have a much lower risk of developing dementia. ”
    I believe a recent study casts doubt on this hypothesis-based on the apparent quick ending of those who are very intelligent once Alzheimers is diagnosed-a hypothesis-that intelligence etc masks the symptoms for a while and then once the symptoms are noticed the disease is in an advanced state-thus less time remaining and of course less time for any future treatments that may be invented to take affect.
    Of course, it is sufficient to learn because that is what God demands of us.

    ‘the Rosh Yeshiva meant”
    I always admire how 2 decades after the ptirah of Rav Ruderman ZT”L he is always referred to as the Rosh Yeshiva-even to non Ner Israel audiences.

    “The Bible, for example, is much smaller, and thus more achievable—but nonetheless, to find someone who has memorized it is quite rare”

    That would be a good subject for someone to post on why?

  8. Avrom Pollak says:

    I once heard that Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky ZTL once commented that he did
    not know what it means to forget something learned until he was well into
    his sixties.

  9. joel rich says:

    Go to http://WWW.YUTORAH.ORG, download a shiur, and jog or whatever.
    KT

  10. HILLEL says:

    The RAMBA”M clearly writes that good health depends on:
    1. fresh air 2. fresh water 3. healthy food 4. exercise

    5. proper procedures for eating, exercising, and bathing

    The RAMBA”M guarantees that, if you follow his instrucions, as written in Mishneh Torah , he guarantees that you will live a long and healthy life.

    –Hilchos Deos, Chapter 4
    –Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Simen 32

  11. mb says:

    Well said. Now put on some running shoes and get out there and run with a chavrusa. I can think of no better example of what you are preaching.