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?
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.