Can a Slate reporter hold his own at the local brain gym?

A special issue on neuroscience and neuroculture.
April 25 2007 7:25 AM

Brain-Gym Showdown

Can a Slate reporter hold his own at the local neurobics club?

Click here for more from the Brains! special issue.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

I always lose at the gym. And I don't mean pounds. About twice a year, I'll head down to the YMCA in my ratty mesh shorts only to jump on a treadmill next to some woman training for the marathon, or pick up a pair of 5-pound dumbbells next to a guy bench-pressing a small car. I know the gym is supposed to be about personal growth and all, but it's hard to boost your self-confidence when you're working out next to an American Gladiator.

But this January, a brand-new health club opened near my home in Sarasota, Fla.—not another meat market like the YMCA, but the kind of place where I could finally compete. A brain gym.

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Founder George Rozelle calls his new operation the "Neurobics Club," and it's aimed mostly at seniors trying to delay the mind's inevitable decline. (He's not the only one betting on neurobics; brain fitness centers are popping up in retirement homes around the country.) It works a lot like a traditional gym: Members—there are 10 so far—pay a monthly fee of $175 for unlimited access to the club's mental exercise machines. You even get a consultation with a personal trainer, who tailors a customized workout to target your particular cranial love handles.

Daffy old people? Brainy computer games? Now, this seemed like a place where I could flex my muscles. I called up Rozelle, and he agreed to give me a pair of hour-long workouts.

I spent an embarrassing amount of time preparing for my first visit—mostly worrying over what to wear. Should I buy a pair of those cheap, nonprescription reading glasses? A bow tie? A headband?

And what would the brain gym look like? I was hoping for some kind of futuristic wonderland, all neon lights and neurotechnics, massive flat screens with topographical representations of my frontal lobe and music straight out of A Clockwork Orange. Instead, I walked into a relatively ordinary waiting room, the décor more 1970 than 2070: fluorescent lights, quasi-comfortable chairs, golf magazines, and a bowl of Hershey Kisses on the front desk. No headbands in sight.

But I began to notice clues as to what was in store for me. A 1,000-piece puzzle sat half-complete on the coffee table. Erik Burgland's Harp of the Healing Waters played almost inaudibly from a pair of speakers on the ground. And on a shelf next to the water cooler, an ad for the Web site Edible Science exclaimed, "Aging is now optional."

When I finally entered the one-room brain gym—computers along one wall and a spinning "Chi Chair" dominating the center of the space—nobody else was working out. Where were all the old people? Rozelle spent a few hours guiding me through mental-agility exercises on the computers—timed sessions of logic puzzles and memory games, mazes and pattern-recognition. It was interesting if not particularly difficult—I managed to set the Tetris high score on my second game. But something was missing. I wanted competition. I wanted to win.

You might expect a 78-year-old to balk when challenged to a mental-fitness contest by a desperate reporter 52 years her junior. But Eva Slane is game. A yearlong client of Dr. Rozelle's, the Holocaust survivor says she's busier now than she was when she and her husband ran a Massachusetts theater company before retiring to Sarasota in the 1980s. She's on the board of one of the largest arts organizations in town, handles publicity for another, and last year wrote a play. "I'm not really looking to improve anything," Eva tells me when we meet on my third trip to the club. "I'm just trying to maintain."

Because this would be the first-ever Neurobics Club battle, we have to make up the rules ourselves. We settle on a best-of-seven series in computer exercises, taking turns on who gets to select the specific games. The gym provides a slew of mental-fitness software programs, but we decide to limit our competition to Eva's favorite—a program called Captain's Log that offers dozens of activities, each one meticulously scored for accuracy and speed. She suggests we start with listening skills.

May the fittest brain win.

I take the first round, effortlessly moving images around the screen according to the complicated rules being read aloud. But Eva ties things up in the next game—a hand-eye-coordination exercise in which you navigate a cargo plane through a maze. Frustrated that I've lost my chance at a sweep, I ask for a rematch. She nods silently as she maneuvers the mouse the second time, on her way to another easy victory. This appears to be an intimidation move. Is she trying to psyche me out?

Eva 2, Max 1

Remembering my dominance in seventh-grade math, I choose logic for our next contest. A series of numbers appears on the screen, with one figure in the chain omitted—the player has to identify the pattern and supply the missing number. I watch over Eva's shoulder as she works through dozens of puzzles in her seven-minute session; I'm stumped on half of them. Sweat beads up on my forehead. I can't go down three-one. She finishes her round, looks my way, and, ever so slightly, sticks out her tongue.

My turn. I choke on the first few problems. "You should be better at this," Eva says. "You remember school." This is brain-gym taunting, septuagenarian trash-talk.
I'm starting to pine for the treadmill.