By Ken Korczak
By slicing up the brains of an obscure order of Catholic nuns in Minnesota, scientists are unlocking the secrets of long life and higher intelligence.
It seems that nuns belonging to the School Sisters of Nortre Dame, a branch of which is located in Mankato, live an average 20 years longer than the rest of the population — and also stay happy, active and mentally lucid right up the end.
The Sisters, devoted to education and the pursuit of spiritual and scientific knowledge, donate their brains to researchers, who carve them up and examine every facet of brain structure and brain chemistry.
All evidence points to the same thing: these nuns are remarkable!
Gerontologist David Snowdon of the University of Kentucky in a recently told the Associated Press: “My impression of the sisters whom I first met in 1985 when I began the study has not changed. It shattered all my stereotypes of how 80- and 90-year-old people are supposed to behave. They seem so mellow after a lifetime of contemplation. They are living saints and sages.”
Snowdon compares the sisters to the mystics of Eastern religions, saying these nuns should be viewed as mystics of the Catholic tradition.
Most of the Sisters of Notre Dame stay vital and active well into their 90s. There are almost no symptoms that are typical of age-related brain disorders, such as senile dementia, strokes and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Amazingly, some of the nuns maintained clear healthy minds even though their brains showed the scars and deterioration characteristic of severe brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and strokes.
In the case of the brain of one Sister Mary, who died well into her 100s, scientists were astounded to find large-scale deterioration of brain tissue, and even lesions associated with strokes and progressive Alzheimer’s Disease — yet she remained clear-headed and lucid to the end of her life.
Sister Mary’s brain apparently defeated the effects of these brain diseases by countering them with an unusually rich growth of interconnection between her brain cells, or neurons. Her extra dendrites and axons were able to bypass damaged areas of her brain to keep her lucid and healthy.
In addition to providing remarkable scientific data, the Sisters had a powerful personal effect on the supposedly cold and analytical researchers who studied them. Here are some of the published comments of the scientists:
“These women radiate beauty and a special serenity, even into their 80s, 90s and 100s.”
“It’s difficult not to feel very good just to be around them — they have a spiritual energy that is palpable!”
“Sister Mary at age 101 could still talk about her first Mother Superior as well as she could talk about the book she was reading that afternoon.”
“They have a sense of enjoyment of life and of each other. They’re like anybody else–they laugh, they get annoyed, have political opinions, read novels, enjoy sewing and going to the mall. They have been very open and warm with us.”
“I now understand what is meant by being blessed … these women have led stoic, disciplined lives, yet they show none of the hardness of deprivation — just the opposite! They are soft, intelligent and blissfully happy.”
After examining and dissecting dozens of brains, scientists have come to several conclusions. Interestingly, the secret to the long lives and clear minds of these nuns may be attributed to a couple of simple things.
After looking at dozens of different variables, researchers discovered that the Sisters of Nortre Dame all did one thing that the majority other people do not do — they kept a daily personal journal recording their deepest thoughts, emotions, impressions and ideas.
Also, the Sisters Of Nortre Dame condemn “mental idleness” as sin. They did not allow themselves the frills of mental down time. Most of the Sisters have college degrees and some graduate degrees. They also play a lot of brain teaser games, solve puzzles and engage in rigorous debates at weekly seminars.
Keeping a rigorous daily journal is also required by the Order, and is considered as important as daily prayer, work and devotion to their primary vocation, the education of children. The Sisters believe in thorough, critical self examination.
The journaling aspect of the nuns intrigued scientists so much, some went looking for independent confirmation that daily journaling or diary keeping may be the secret to defeating the brain diseases of old age, and longer life.
Well, they not only found confirmation, but some scientists determined that frequent journaling may be a sure way to raise the IQ of any person, and may even springboard some people to genius level.
• A woman by the name of Catherine Cox studied the habits of 300 geniuses — folks such as Isaac Newton, Einstein, Thomas Jefferson — and discovered that all of them were “compulsive” journal or diary keepers.
• A study determined that only 1 percent of the world’s population habitually engaged in daily journal writing. The study also found that that same 1 percent were almost always super high achievers, and that they almost always lived longer than the average for their time, place and era.
• Thomas Edison wrote an incredible 3 million pages of notes, letters and personal thoughts in hundreds of personal journals throughout his life.
• The brilliant cosmologist Steven Hawking contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease more than 30 years ago and was give just two years to live. Hawking is a shriveled up lump of a human being confined to an electronic wheelchair. He cannot speak, write, or even move more than just a trifle. But 32 years after contracting his disease, Hawking is considered among the world’s greatest thinkers. He recently remarried after a divorce, and shows no signs of slowing down with his contributions to cosmology and quantum relativity theory.
Although unable to physically keep a journal, Hawking has used computers and other mechanical aides to constantly record not only new ideas and scientific theories, but his own inner reflections.
Now here’s some good news: to get all of the longevity building and IQ building effects of daily journaling, you don’t even have to write down anything that is brilliant or meaningful!
This fact is demonstrated in the the journal of one of the great minds of the 19th Century, English inventor Thomas Faraday. Faraday filled thousands of notebooks with seeming utter nonsense. Many have studied the journals of Faraday hoping to discover the key to his brilliant mind. All have been frustrated. In Win Winger and Richard Poe’s recent book, The Einstein Factor, one researcher wrote:
“(His) Diaries have the irritating form of ideas jotted down, repeated and forgotten … a morass or articulated and unarticulated principles, concepts, observations and physical facts.”
Getting back to our Sister in Mankato, researchers pointed to many other facets of their lives which may have contributed to their longevity:
• They belonged to a religious order and prayed daily. Recent independent studies have suggested that people who go to church or belong to any kind of religion, tend to live longer and be happier than those who do not.
• They felt comfortable in the fact that they “belonged” to a supportive group of like-minded human beings. This longevity factor has also been noticed in independent studies on peoples in Japan, Pakistan and Crete.
• They stay physically active as well as mentally active, not slowing down when reaching ages 70s through 100s.
• They actively cultivated positive attitudes.
• They lead selfless lives, and devote themselves to caring and giving to others.
• They rarely worried or fretted over material things such as money, mortgages, taxes and the like.
• They accept death as being a part of life. Funerals for the nuns are said to be almost occasions for joy among the Sisters.
So, if you want to live a long happy life and get super smart, take a page from the School Sister of Nortre Dame — keep a journal and, maybe, wear a lot of black.