One lazy Friday night last winter, my husband and I watched TV on the couch while our infant son slept upstairs. During a commercial, an image flashed on the screen—a New York City train station. I smiled, because the place was so familiar. I had been there many times, traveling there for conferences or for fun. I could picture the outer façade, the stars on the ceiling, the brass clock. Ah, that station. That old place where the trains parked. That—
“What the heck is the name of that train station?” I asked my husband.
He gave me a funny look. “Grand Central?”
“Yes!” What was wrong with me? Even though I’m just 32 years old, this kind of thing had been happening more and more often and it was getting annoying. The forgetting of words—especially names and places that I obviously knew but couldn’t conjure up—began a few years ago. I’d had a brief return to my old sharper self during my pregnancy, but soon after my son was born, my brain slowly sank back downhill. Why wasn’t it working like it used to? Would it ever come back? Was there something I could do to drag it back to peak performance? What was it about pregnancy that had made it better?
I’m not the only one trying to figure out how to get smarter. Looking for ways to boost our brain power is big business. In addition to ever-popular alertness boosters like coffee and Red Bull, pills like Focus Factor and Brain Advantage are hot items, with customers shelling out $70 per month or more to stay on top of their mental games. Ginkgo biloba, an herbal supplement billed as a memory enhancer, generates nearly $1 billion in annual sales in the U.S. alone. Some folks go even further: as the prestigious journal Nature recently reported, 20 percent of scientists responding to a survey admitted to taking so-called cognition-enhancing drugs like the stimulants Ritalin (to aid focus) and Provigil (to stay alert without caffeine’s jitteriness), without apology. “It is my duty to use my resources to the greatest benefit of humanity,” said one respondent. One-third said they’d even feel pressure to give their own children these drugs if other kids in their circles were also using them.
Though I wasn’t ready to pump myself with drugs in order to remember a name more quickly, I did want to regain control of my mind, and, if I could, head off cognitive decline. The brief lift of brain fog during my pregnancy—a time of heroically conscientious eating—gave me hope. Could improving my diet help? I began scouring the science to find out. I also wondered whether the American diet I’ve been spoon-fed (and am currently spoon-feeding my son) was to blame for my mental malaise. I wanted to figure out whether a smart menu at each stage of life could fend off dullness and make me—and my family—sharper.