Science often offers a corrective counterpoint to well-intentioned (but sometimes mistaken) folk wisdom and sayings. As we prepared this issue for you, several such aphorisms came to mind. I thought I’d set the record straight on a few of them.
Laughter is the best medicine. That phrase is far from empirically proved, but it contains more than a germ of truth. As you will learn in “Laughing Matters,” by Steve Ayan, a good guffaw has powerful physiological and mental benefits. Listening to jokes relieves anxiety. Mirth eases stress and even, as studies have revealed, chronic pain. It bolsters the psyche, making you more resilient. Just forcing a smile can lift your spirits. If that were not enough to show that being jolly improves your satisfaction with life, a sense of humor is sexy, too.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Not so. Since the 1970s research has shown that the brains of older adults are much more plastic than once believed. And as you get older, you not only can learn new tricks, you also should tackle mental challenges to help yourself stay sharp. You might, for instance, do Sudoku, crossword puzzles—or one of the growing number of brain-training software games. Our intrepid reporter Kaspar Mossman pitted his gray matter against a battery of eight games over eight weeks. See his review, “Brain Trainers.”
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. Actually the statistics aren’t lying: we simply misunderstand them—or others misuse them by preying on our fears and ignorance. We are beset by headlines about disease risks and what certain medications can do. How to make sense of it all? Although most Scientific American Mind articles provide insights into the workings of the brain and behavior, they also offer information about how to exercise better critical thinking. “Knowing Your Chances,” by Gerd Gigerenzer and his colleagues, explains what various kinds of risk mean and how to interpret statistics. And you thought your math classes were a total waste of time! Read his article to find out how to take control of those numbers.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Say So".