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Flickr: TrishaLyn
Flickr: TrishaLyn

Let's Get Neurological: 10 Contests for Mental Athletes

Flickr: TrishaLyn
Flickr: TrishaLyn

Maybe your days of physical athletic prowess are far behind you. But brains can grow more efficient over time if properly worked out. Fortunately, there are many competitions out there for those of us who have to start choosing brains over brawn. Here are a few of them—and some suggestions for how you can train with products from the floss store.

1. THE MEMORIAD

Held every four years (yes, just like the Olympics!), the Memoriad is a global memory, mental calculation, and photographic-reading competition. Categories of competition include memorizing the order of a deck of cards, adding one- to four-digit numbers seen flashing on a screen, and calculating the correct day of the week for randomly selected calendar dates between the years 1600 and 2099. And no, you may not take out your graphing calculators … or your iPhones. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded in each category.

This unique Frank Lloyd Wright Designs Memory Game could bring some fun into your memory training regimen.

2. LOLLAPUZZOOLA

Though possibly more subdued than the Lollapalooza music festival, Lollapuzzoola is a summertime crossword puzzle contest held in New York City and the second-largest contest of its kind in the United States. Competitors are broken into four divisions (two based on skill, one for rookies, and one for pairs), and are scored on both speed and accuracy. But watch out, there’s a 10-point deduction for each wrong letter. So maybe you do this one in pencil, huh?

Train for this one with Mental Floss's own book of crossword puzzles.

3. THE MOMATH MASTERS TOURNAMENT

The National Museum of Mathematics in New York City hosted the MoMath Masters Tournament this past spring. The night consisted of cocktails and challenges from three categories: Gardner Greats (questions selected from the work of math writer Martin Gardner), Math Pulse, and Math Classics. Question one:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice is wandering around the Forest of Forgetfulness, where she is unable to remember the day of the week. In the forest she meets the Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion lies on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the Unicorn lies on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. At all other times both animals tell the truth. "Yesterday was one of my lying days," says the Lion. "Yesterday was one of my lying days too," says the Unicorn. Alice is able to deduce the day of the week. What is it?

If you can puzzle this out, you’re better than I. I’d like to hear more about the cocktails.

In Einstein's Riddlephilosopher and mathematician Jeremy Stangroom has collected some of the classic riddles and paradoxes from throughout history and brought them together in a fun and visually-appealing way—we really like this book.

4. THE PUN-OFFS

The O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships have been held every year since 1977 in Austin, Texas (for those wondering, O. Henry was the iconic short story writer who gave us "The Gift of the Magi"). Competitors face off in two categories: Punniest of Show, where they have 90 seconds to recite prepared material, and Punslingers, a “shootout” between two players that ends when one competitor runs out of puns. There is a reason why pun and fun rhyme.

Train your punny bone—and learn more on the history of punning and how the author took home the Punslingers trophy in 1995—in The Pun Also Rises.

5. THE DECAMENTATHLON

Created for the Mind Sports Olympiad, the Decamentathlon is the less physically challenging version of the decathlon—you know, the Olympic event Bruce Jenner won in 1976. While mastering the Decamentathlon will not put your face on a Wheaties box and probably won’t score your family your own reality TV show, it will mean you’re pretty darn smart. It’s a four-hour test broken into 10 “events": Backgammon, Chess, creative thinking, Checkers/Draughts, Go, intelligence, Mastermind, memory, mental calculations, and Othello, or Reversi. Mind Sports Olympiad die-hards can also compete in the Pentamind, which includes half the amount of events, but categories can change from year to year.  

Sounds like your Whole Brain ought to be optimized to compete in this one—try training with the Whole Brain Game.

6. THE USA MEMORY CHAMPIONSHIP

This competition was created in 1997 by a businessman who wanted to prove to people that the brain can get stronger with age, and competitors in the USA Memory Championship fashion themselves as “Mental Athletes.” Events include the memorization of names and faces, a shuffled deck of cards, an unpublished poem, and a list of 200 words. Hopefully the event organizers keep enough Gatorade on the sidelines.

Journalist Joshua Foer spent a year training his memory as research for his book, Moonwalking With Einstein, and in preparation for this event.

7. THE WORLD PUZZLE CHAMPIONSHIPS

This three-day international competition consists of both team and individual challenges. Each participant completes a 13-part puzzle booklet in the first two days, and the leaders face off in the individual playoffs on day three. The World Puzzle Federation, which hosts this event, also runs the World Sudoku Championships.

Get your puzzle-solving up-to-speed with Mental Floss's Book of Logic Puzzles.

8. THE MENTAL CALCULATION WORLD CUP

Every two years, mathematicians gather to show off their skills in problems based on basic arithmetic principles. The 2012 Cup was held in Germany, and winner Naofumi Ogasawara of Japan broke a world record by adding 10 sets of 10 10-digit numbers in three minutes and 11 seconds. The Usain Bolt of math, ladies and gentlemen.

Prep for this one by honing your mental math skills with the book Secrets of Mental Math.

9. THE NATIONAL ADULT SPELLING BEE

As the Scripps National Spelling Bee continues to build on its reputation as the country’s most-watched mental sport, adults are getting in on the action: The National Adult Spelling Bee has been held in Long Beach, Calif., since 2006. After four years of competing, a French professor from Alabama took the 2013 competition by correctly spelling “quincunx.” The competitor in second place got caught up on “tourbillion” in the 26th round.  

Hmmmm, don't know how exactly to help you with this one—maybe you should read a lot more. Try Mental Floss: The Book—Only The Greatest Lists In The History of Listory.

10. PUZZLEHUNTS

In this scavenger hunt for puzzle lovers, each team has to first find puzzles that are hidden in secret locations, and then solve them. Each solved puzzle usually leads to the next. Puzzlehunts are fairly popular among the techy-crowd, and are held annually at institutions like MIT, which hosted its longest one (73 hours and more than 150 puzzles!) this year. Puzzles can include mind-stumpers such as anagrams and cryptograms, but really, anything goes. Some puzzles in the MIT event may not even have an answer, but organizers promise this is rare. Just keeping everyone on their toes. 

Start your brain training with a good baseline measurement using this IQ Test Kit. Prepare with the included practice question, take the test, and then mail in your answers in the included postage-paid envelope—and receive your personalized certificate and results within 28 days!

Primary image courtesy of Flickr user TrishaLyn.

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The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Warner Home Video
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Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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