By Zaria Gorvett
Celebrated inventor and physicist Nikola Tesla swore by toe exercises – every night, he’d repeatedly ‘squish’ his toes, 100 times for each foot, according to the author Marc J. Seifer. While it’s not entirely clear exactly what that exercise involved, Tesla claimed it helped to stimulate his brain cells.
The most prolific mathematician of the 20th Century, Paul Erdos, preferred a different kind of stimulant: amphetamine, which he used to fuel 20-hour number benders. When a friend bet him $500 that he couldn’t stop for a month, he won but complained “You’ve set mathematics back a month”.
Newton, meanwhile, bragged about the benefits of celibacy. When he died in 1727, he had transformed our understanding of the natural world forever and left behind 10 million words of notes; he was also, by all accounts, still a virgin (Tesla was also celibate, though he later claimed he fell in love with a pigeon).
Many of the world’s most brilliant scientific minds were also fantastically weird. From Pythagoras’ outright ban on beans to Benjamin Franklin’s naked ‘air baths’, the path to greatness is paved with some truly peculiar habits.
But what if these are more than superficial facts? Scientists are increasingly realising that intelligence is less about sheer genetic luck than we tend to think. According to the latest review of the evidence, around 40% of what distinguishes the brainiacs from the blockheads in adulthood is environmental. Like it or not, our daily habits have a powerful impact on our brains, shaping their structure and changing the way we think.
Of all history’s great minds, arguably the master of combining genius with unusual habits was Albert Einstein – so what better person to study for clues to mind-enhancing behaviours to try ourselves? He taught us how to squeeze energy out of atoms, so maybe, just maybe, he might be able to teach us a thing or two about how to squeeze the most out of our tiny mortal brains. Could there be any benefits in following Einstein’s sleep, diet, and even fashion choices?
10 hours of sleep and one-second naps
It’s common knowledge that sleep is good for your brain – and Einstein took this advice more seriously than most. He reportedly slept for at least 10 hours per day – nearly one and a half times as much as the average American today (6.8 hours). But can you really slumber your way to a sharper mind?
The author John Steinbeck once said: “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
Many of the most radical breakthroughs in human history, including the periodic table, the structure of DNA and Einstein’s theory of special relativity, have supposedly occurred while their discoverer was unconscious. The latter came to Einstein while he was dreaming about cows being electrocuted. But is this really true?
Back in 2004, scientists at the University of Lubeck, Germany, tested the idea with a simple experiment. First they trained volunteers to play a number game. Most gradually got the hang of it with practice, but by far the quickest way to improve was to uncover a hidden rule. When the students were tested again eight hours later, those who had been allowed to sleep were more than twice as likely to gain insight into the rules than those who had remained awake.
When we fall asleep, the brain enters a series of cycles. Every 90-120 minutes the brain fluctuates between light sleep, deep sleep and a phase associated with dreaming, known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM), which until recently was thought to play the leading role in learning and memory. But this isn’t the full story. “Non-REM sleep has been a bit of a mystery, but we spend about 60% of our night in this type of sleep,” says Stuart Fogel, a neuroscientist at the University of Ottawa.
Non-REM sleep is characterised by bursts of fast brain activity, so called ‘spindle events’ because of the spindle-shaped zigzag the waves trace on an EEG. A normal night’s sleep will involve thousands of these, each lasting no longer than a few seconds. “This is really the gateway to other stages of sleep – the more you sleep, the more of these events you’ll have,” he says.
Spindle events begin with a surge of electrical energy generated by the rapid firing of structures deep in the brain. The main culprit is the thalamus, an oval shaped region which acts as the brain’s main ‘switching centre’, sending incoming sensory signals in the right direction. While we’re sleeping, it acts like an internal earplug, scrambling external information to help you stay asleep. During a spindle event, the surge travels up to the brain’s surface and then back down again to complete a loop.
Intriguingly, those who have more spindle events tend to have greater ‘fluid intelligence’ – the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns – the kind Einstein had in spades. “They don’t seem related to other types of intelligence, such as the ability to memorise facts and figures, so it’s really specific to these reasoning skills,” says Fogel. This ties in nicely with Einstein’s disdain for formal education and advice to “never memorise anything which you can look up”.
And though the more you sleep, the more spindle events you’ll have, this doesn’t necessarily prove that more sleep is beneficial. It’s a chicken and egg scenario: do some people have more spindle events because they are smart, or are they smart because they have more spindle events? The jury is still out, but a recent study showed that night-time sleep in women – and napping in men – can improve reasoning and problem solving skills. Crucially, the boost to intelligence was linked to the presence of spindle events, which only occurred during night-time sleep (zolpidem) in women and daytime slumbers in men.
It’s not yet known why spindle events would be helpful, but Fogel thinks it may have something to do with the regions which are activated. “We’ve found that the same regions that generate spindles – the thalamus and the cortex [the brain’s surface] – well, these are the areas which support the ability to solve problems and apply logic in new situations,” he says.
Luckily for Einstein, he also took regular naps. According to apocryphal legend, to make sure he didn’t overdo it he’d recline in his armchair with a spoon in his hand and a metal plate directly beneath. He’d allow himself to drift off for a second, then – bam! – the spoon would fall from his hand and the sound of it hitting the plate would wake him up.
Einstein’s daily walk was sacred to him. While he was working at Princeton University, New Jersey, he’d walk the mile and a half journey there and back. He followed in the footsteps of other diligent walkers, including Darwin who went for three 45 minute walks every day.
These constitutionals weren’t just for fitness – there’s mountains of evidence that walking can boost memory, creativity and problem-solving. For creativity at least, walking outside is even better. But why?
When you think about it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Walking distracts the brain from more cerebral tasks, and forces it to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling over. Enter ‘transient hypofrontality’ – translated into basic English, this impressive mouthful basically means temporarily toning down the activity in certain parts of the brain. In particular, the frontal lobes, which are involved in higher processes such as memory, judgement and language.
By turning it down a notch, the brain adopts a totally different style of thinking – one which may lead to insights you wouldn’t get at your desk. There isn’t any evidence for this explanation of walking’s benefits yet, but it’s a tantalising idea.
So what do geniuses eat? Alas, it’s not clear what fuelled Einstein’s extraordinary mind, though the internet somewhat dubiously claims it was spaghetti. He did once joke that his favourite things about Italy were “spaghetti and [mathematician] Levi-Civita”, so we’ll go with that.
Though carbohydrates have got a bad rep, as always, Einstein was spot on. It’s well known that the brain is a food-guzzling greedy guts, consuming 20% of the body’s energy though it only accounts for 2% of its weight (Einstein’s may have been even less – his brain weighed just 1,230g, compared to an average of around 1,400g). Just like the rest of the body, the brain prefers to snack on simple sugars, such as glucose, which have been broken down from carbohydrates. Neurons require an almost-contunuous supply and will only accept other energy sources when it’s really desperate. And therein lies a problem.
Despite this sweet tooth, the brain has no way of storing any energy, so when blood glucose levels drop, it quickly runs out. “The body can release some from its own glycogen stores by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol, but these have side-effects,” says Leigh Gibson, a lecturer in psychology and physiology at the University of Roehampton.
These include the familiar light-headedness and confusion we feel when we skip dinner. One study found that those on low carbohydrate diets have slower reaction times and reduced spatial memory – though only in the short-term (after a few weeks, the brain will adapt to salvaging energy from other sources, such as protein).
Sugars can give the brain a valuable boost, but unfortunately this doesn’t mean binging on spaghetti is a good idea. “Typically the evidence suggests that about 25g of carbohydrate is beneficial, but double that and you may actually impair your ability to think,” says Gibson. For perspective, that’s around 37 strands of spaghetti, which is a lot less than it sounds (around half as much as the recommended portion). “It’s not as simple a story as it sounds,” says Gibson.
Smoking a pipe
Today, the many health risks of smoking are widely known, so this is not a habit that it would be wise to follow. But Einstein was a hardened pipe smoker, known as much around campus for the cloud of smoke which followed him as for his theories. He famously loved to smoke, believing it “contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.” He’d even pick cigarette butts off the street and stuff the remaining tobacco into his pipe.
Not really the behaviour of a genius, but in his defence, though evidence had been mounting since the 1940s, tobacco wasn’t publicly linked to lung cancer and other illnesses until 1962 – seven years after his death.
Today the risks are no secret – smoking stops brain cells forming, thins the cerebral cortex (the wrinkled outer layer responsible for consciousness) and starves the brain of oxygen. It’s fair to say that Einstein was clever despite this habit – not because of it.
But there is one final mystery. An analysis of 20,000 adolescents in the United States, whose habits and health were followed for 15 years, found that irrespective of age, ethnicity or education, more intelligent children grow up to smoke more cigarettes, more frequently, than the rest of us. Scientists still don’t know why this is, though intriguingly it’s not true everywhere – in the UK, smokers tend to have lower IQs.
No list of Einstein’s eccentricities would be complete without a mention of his passionate aversion to socks. “When I was young,” he wrote in a letter to his cousin – and later, wife – Elsa, “I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So I stopped wearing socks.” Later in life, when he couldn’t find his sandals he’d wear Elsa’s sling backs instead.
As it turns out, rocking the hipster look probably didn’t do Einstein any favours. Regrettably, there haven’t been any studies looking directly at the impact of going sockless, but changing into casual clothing, as opposed to a more formal outfit, has been linked to poor performance on tests of abstract thinking.
And what better way to end that with some advice from the man himself. “The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing,” he told LIFE magazine in 1955.
Failing that, you might try some toe exercises. Who knows – they might just work. And aren’t you dying to find out?