Mental core exercises, and the difference between doing and not stopping

The 5-second version: do some math to exercise the brain, or at least do something scary. Also: Ask yourself the reason you keep doing something and the (alternative) reason why you don’t stop

math brain retarded hedge fund manager novelty plasticity

You go to the gym to live, not make a living

Even if you never plan to enter a race or compete in sports in any way, you know you should still be keeping your body reasonably fit. If you want to live a longer, healthier life, that is.

aneurysm SpreZZaturian

Here’s the shocking news: The same goes for your mental “core”!

There are several ways of keeping your brain fit; and, yes, it’s at least as important as maintaining the rest of your body – even if you never plan to actually use the top level of your brain’s capabilities.

A fit brain keeps the body healthy, a fit brain postpones Alzheimer’s and other diseases. An active and fit brain simply doesn’t age the same way an idle one does. [Ref: the entire body of approximately 120 episodes of the Brain Science podcast]

brain plasticity science retarded math

Do math to live longer, not for actual calculations


In addition to all the other recommendations I have given [see some kind of partial summary below], yesterday I heard something new:

The [female] mathematician Eugenia Cheng, who is doing pioneering work in category theory (“the math of math”) called “doing math” a “core exercise” for the brain.

a lot of very low hanging

novelty fruit within math

to benefit from

Few people use more than simple arithmetic (in the grocery store, e.g.) and thus has a lot of very low hanging novelty fruit within math to benefit from. Why not try doing some slightly more advanced calculations in your head when suntanning, or if you have trouble sleeping. One “fun” exercise is doing “Power 2s” or simply “doubling”. Just try to go as high as possible in your head in this series: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536 and beyond.

When I was a teenager, I regularly went up into the millions in that series, when I and my girlfriend lacked prophylactics… so the series does nothing good for me these days.

Check if I got the 2^0-2^16 series right. By the way 65 536 was how high the total memory count (in bytes!) my first computer went. After doubling numbers in your head, it might be time for some simple equations, or going hard core and firing up Khan Academy’s math section.

math find x retarded


(sometimes) Learn skills for the exercise, not the skill in itself

Languages. Cheng’s idea falls right in line with my advice to learn a new language for a while, the skip to another one. Never mind maintaining a semi-fluent level, unless you do it automatically by socializing with native speakers. just focus on fun learning to maintain brain plasticity.

Programming. And then, of course, there is programming, which is language and math all baked in the same cake. It can be just as frustrating as it can be fun. Actually more so. Nevertheless, you’re bound to make a lot of progress and get the satisfaction of controlling pixels on your screen and sound in your speakers like a God.

There are many other ways of feeding your brain with novelty (which apart from keeping you sane and sound longer also makes the present flowing, enjoyable and ephemeral, while the past – your life – will seem longer, fuller and more meaningful):

Walk barefoot on uneven surfaces

Do things blindfolded (just judging the distance 10-20 meters ahead, walking with your eyes closed to a certain tree, stone or lamp is enough, but try harder stuff too, like navigating your house… cook dinner?!)

Do something that frightens you (but not too dangerous; just scary)

Try controlling your neurotransmitters as advised in this article. It’s basic premise is to conquer social fear and submissive behavior, by “psyching up” (generating neurotransmitters), doing, letting go of the potential “failure shame” afterward by just relaxing instead of analyzing.

Mindfulness exercises – paying close attention to single sensory stimulus or activities.


New things, hard things, scary things

The key word here is novelty – experiencing new things, new challenges, using the brain and the body in new ways. Surprise and scare yourself.

And do math – at least a little when you are idle anyway, or if you have trouble sleeping and used to fall asleep in math class.

Cheng also shared this profound thought: There is a difference between the reason for doing something and the reason for not stopping. She was referring to herself: She does category theory because she loves math, not because it’s useful. To her it’s like art or music. It’s simply beautiful. However, if it wasn’t useful too she would stop.

Try applying that system of thought to your job, a TV series you follow, your somewhat stale relationship…

Now, 1) subscribe to my newsletter for more tips and for my free book, and 2) can you do 2^20 in your head? …”Michael, where are you?”




  1. Mikael, you have a repeated paragraph: “A fit brain keeps the body healthy…”

    Do you think, being busy and progressing gives enough of mental fitness? I learned a dozen things (many complex one like publishing on Kindle or blogging on WordPress) in te past two years and it seems like they will never end.

    • Thanks. Perhaps I should take my own advice, since I seem to be getting Alzheimer’s already :)

      I want to stress “novelty”. If you keep busy/active and progress in similar fields of interest won’t be enough. You can keep learning new programming languages or natural languages ro publishing and editing methods all you like, but if you never try to do math, compose music, build something physically, stand on one foot with your eyes closed etc., then those pathways from childhood will atrophy

  2. What do you think about the nature of IQ? Can it change? They found that in separated twins, despite having different “nurture” their IQs were nearly always exactly the same for each pair. Also have you ever taken an IQ tesr yourself?

    • The more I see, the more I think “IQ” as one’s ability to adapt.

      That is, people with the highest “IQ” seem to be able to assimilate new ways of being & doing (sophistication), pushing them to try & master things (assimilation) quicker than others.

      The “IQ” aspect appears to be pattern recognition — having been exposed before, they are able to “learn” quicker, making them appear more intelligent.

      The underpin of “IQ” is how you’re brought up. If your parents (esp mother) didn’t give a shit, let you watch TV all day, give in to petty tantrums, you’re going to grow into an irresponsible adult.

      Responsible adults (who scald themselves), are able to focus their energy onto productive (often boring) things. This exposes them to more “intellectual” pursuits. Intellectual pursuits expose them to stuff which can be used in the future, giving them the ability to recognize patterns etc; self fulfilling prophecy.

      Therefore, the nature of “IQ”, if my observations hold merit, could be improved by spending time around “responsible” people (birds of a feather). Most people, however, will never free themselves of the quagmire of instant gratification long enough to pull it off.

    • I’m not going to give you a straight answer, at least not as straight as Richard’s. The reason being I don’t know what IQ is or what it’s for.

      If we are talking strictly about pattern recognition abilities as measured by popular tests like Mensa’s, I think it CAN change, but I’m not sure what that answer is good for.

      I did take an IQ test in a controlled environment when I was 14. I’ve done a couple of online tests as an adult which more or less corroborate the original result

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.