Get Smart: How to Build Brain Power

Quickie novelist Dan Hurley finds there’s no fast track to brain power.

Wise Guy: To research his latest book, author Dan Hurley test drove the latest brain-tuning tactics, such as learning an instrument and meditating.
Photos: Courtesy of the publisher

In a 30-year career, Dan Hurley has written some 50,000 novels. That’s no small feat—even for a guy who bangs out works of fiction in 60 seconds. “I thought it was like performance art,” says the 56-year-old Montclair resident, describing the first day he sat bow-tied on the streets of Chicago with a typewriter and a sign offering novels “while you wait.” His instant fiction, based on the lives of people as disparate as the homeless and the 1 percent, proved lucrative “and a good way to meet girls”; he met his wife, Alice, that way.

Hurley’s unique sideline—he rightly claims to be the world’s only Sixty Second Novelist—has made possible his more serious output, including books on diabetes and the vitamin-and-supplement industry, along with articles on everything from genetics to the neuroscience of sarcasm. (There’s also a 1999 book that includes about 60 of his favorite miniature novels, The Sixty Second Novelist, What 22,613 People Taught Me About Life.)

His most recent work of nonfiction, Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power (Hudson Street Press, 2014), is the central topic of conversation as we sip Turkish coffee at his local French-Lebanese bistro, Uncle Momo—a wise move, I remember from my reading, given that besides breast milk, coffee is “the only food proven to improve cognition.”

Hurley’s path to imaginative and intellectual prowess hardly looked like a sure thing early on. Growing up in Teaneck, he was in the slow reading group until discovering comic books.

It’s an experience that is at the heart of Smarter. Navigating the breakthroughs and controversies in the field of intelligence training, he casts himself as guinea pig, sampling a few of the purported smartening-up methods that have emerged in recent years. He “bootcamps” in Brookdale Park, takes up the Renaissance lute, plays digital brain games and tries meditating.

Is there anything he didn’t try? “Food. Food is something that everyone wants to hear about: blueberries and fish oil and the Mediterranean diet, and there’s simply no good data.”

Hurley created a regimen for himself as a kind of Consumer Reports for readers, a let’s-take-this-car-and-drive-it approach. Hurley assessed the results of his research by repeat performances on various tests, including those given by Mensa, the high-IQ society. So, is IQ a number we should care about?

“I don’t think that anyone should be worried about what a number consigns them to,” says Hurley. “There are a lot of people who have high IQs sitting in a local pool hall doing nothing.” Rather than IQ, which he says represents acquired intelligence, today’s researchers are interested in the more dynamic capacities of mind—the ones we can, it seems, improve.

I mentioned that my favorite take-away from the book is the idea that “you should do things you suck at.” He nodded: “Here in New Jersey, you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who’s playing old Bruce Springsteen songs on a guitar. That stuff makes you feel good, but it’s not going to help you improve your abilities.”

Over his second cup of Uncle Momo’s deep brew (“Do you think they have Turkish taffy?”), Hurley waxes passionate about the promising results for kindergarteners, the elderly and even those with serious mental illness using brain-training programs. This enthusiasm and compassion for the scientists and patients he has encountered comes through in his writing. In the article that spurred Smarter, Hurley wrote about the quest for a pill to improve the abilities of those with Down’s syndrome. The science was lucid, but it was Hurley’s portrait of the lead researcher, the father of a teenage daughter with the condition, that stayed with me.

Hurley says his years distilling random lives in 60 seconds taught him, “that people are absolutely the coolest thing.” And when it comes to their brains, we don’t know the half of it. “Our understanding of the brain is where our understanding of the physical body was in 1800,” says Hurley. “I look forward to being awed and shocked at what is to come.”

Elly Schull Meeks wrote about comedian Vince August in the December 2013 issue of New Jersey Monthly. She lives in Montclair.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown