Did someone say “brain elixir”? Let’s make it something we can drink, especially if it tastes like piña colada. Or eat, preferably with the flavor and texture of fine dark chocolate. Lacking that, at least give it to us in pill form since this is, after all, 21st century America where we expect things fast, effortless, and effective. No pill? Okay then, how about a surgical procedure? You know—risk-free, quick recovery, and lift this saggy jowl while you’re at it.

Actually, there are many substances we can drink, eat, and pop that benefit the brain. Ginseng is tops among several herbs said to improve memory and mental performance. Gingko biloba is another, known as the memory booster and widely used in Europe to treat dementia. The list of “brain foods” tacked to your refrigerator door probably includes blueberries, wild salmon, avocados, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, whole grains, and yes, dark chocolate (finally, a guilt-free obsession!) It could be that coffee and tea can not only improve mood, but also memory and general cognitive function as well. There’s wheat grass versus brain fog, pomegranate juice versus forgetfulness, and of course exercise as one of the best ways to maintain brain health into old age. Studies show that people who walk just five miles a week increase their brain volume and show less development of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Along with that green light for dark chocolate, here’s another welcome piece of news: many studies indicate that brisk walking is preferable to heavy aerobic exercise.

The subject of growing a bigger brain captured my attention when I read a BBC report about a scientific study of the brain size of London cab drivers. Interns undergo three to four years of intensive training and then take a test of the accuracy of their mental map of the city’s 25,000 streets and thousands of landmarks and their ability to quickly calculate routes and avoid jams. Only about half of them pass to become taxi drivers in one of the world’s busiest cities and craziest street layouts. In each one of the individuals in the test group, MRI imaging showed that a specific part of their brain, the posterior hippocampus, had grown remarkably and continued to develop as they spent hours each day behind the wheel mentally mapping the quickest route between two points.

Less than five years ago, there was another landmark study in Sweden using recruits in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy who were tested before and after a three month period of intensive foreign language study. Compared to the control group, the language students showed growth in the hippocampus, as well as in three areas of the cerebral cortex.  Since the hippocampus is responsible for learning new material and spatial navigation, and the cerebral cortex is related to language learning, the findings in both studies seem logical in retrospect, but it is stunning to realize that the brain actually behaves like a muscle, increasing in size and strength with exercise…

Excerpted from Wordstruck! The Fun and fascination of Language