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