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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iStock
18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
iStock
iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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