COLUMN: Improved intelligence just an outdoor activity away

Thursday, July 8, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:34 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 8, 2010

I bought a 20-ounce bottle of aloe vera this summer, which might end up a better investment than the summer school courses I enrolled in.

Recently, the American Society for Microbiology presented research that a type of bacteria found naturally in soil might increase brain functioning and reduce anxiety in mice. Mice fed mycobacterium vaccae navigated a maze twice as fast as a control group, and they continued to perform better for days after their last encounter with the bacteria.

Basically, the conclusion is that eating dirt, or even just breathing it, could help you perform better than the common mouse.

Scientist that I am, I decided to perform my own experiment. It was really complicated and precise, but I'll try to explain: I played two games on every day and recorded the scores. The first day was my control day, where I did nothing but play the games. On the second day, I ran on a treadmill indoors. On the third day, I sat around lazily. On the fourth day, I walked around outside, sucking up lots of dirt, and on the fifth day, I again sat around lazily.

The goal was to determine if I would score better on the day I walked outside and after than the days I sat around or exercised indoors. I came to two conclusions:

1. I am terrible at games on Like, really awful. It's shameful. I couldn't name all five Great Lakes, and I grew up swimming in one of them. However, I did go 1-for-1 in a second on the "Things Meat Loaf Won't Do For Love" game.

2. I am equally terrible no matter how much dirt I breathe.

I don't really know how this experiment didn't result in ground-breaking discoveries, but it might have something to do with a total disregard for the scientific method. Because I put more trust in science than my anecdotal evidence, I'll work on the assumption that the dirt can make you smarter.

When not in the Missourian newsroom, I spend a lot of time outdoors for Venture Out, my other job. Venture Out is an experiential education organization at MU. We specialize in adventure recreation — playing games outside, climbing tall things and then talking about our feelings.

After a couple hours working the Alpine Tower, I scrape off layers of dirt and aluminum stuck to melting sunscreen from my skin before walking inside my apartment. My face has taken on a permanently ruddy complexion somewhere between tan and sunburned. My arms resemble a shirt I had in middle school that was dyed to be dark red at the bottom and gradually fade to pink at the top. If I bathed in dirt, I might feel cleaner, yet I can't say I usually feel smarter.

When you escape the tyranny of air conditioning, there's a lot to be said for a sweat-soaked summer, though every time I walk outside, I feel like I'm walking through someone's mouth. It's like the Wii Fit but real. Columbia has tons of outdoor recreation space for you to actually golf, play tennis, run, jump, swim, skin your knees or spit. The sun provides vitamins D and K, and with a tanning bed tax, it might be more cost-effective to get skin cancer the old-fashioned way. You get dirt under your nails, and now, it might help you pass your next exam.

Not to say I haven't watched two seasons of 30 Rock, almost three hours of the hot mess that was Sex and the City 2 and promoted naps to hobby status this summer. Some days, I've only walked outside to retrieve the next Netflix movie out of my mailbox.

I appreciate the benefits of sleeping all day and drinking lemonade on the porch, even if the lack of dirt is doing nothing to make me smarter; however, Columbia has even more parks than colleges, and most of the time, the tuition is cheaper.

So maybe mud pies are the nutritious snack you tried to convince your mother they were — I mean, if you're going to trust the American Society of Microbiology over my online trivia games scores.

Molly Harbarger is an assistant city editor for the Missourian. She endorses the use of sunscreen SPF 30.

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