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Modelmaking: How This Hobby Makes You Smarter

The absorbing fun of making scale models improves mental health, too.

RETIRED TEACHER Kevin Gray first fell in love with making scale models in fifth grade. He had had his tonsils removed, and his dad, knowing how fanatical his son had become about airplanes since a local pilot had taken him flying a few months before, gave him two plastic model airplane kits. One was an Albatross D.III like one that World War I ace Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron, flew before he switched to his famous triplane; the other was a Nieuport 11, like leading French ace Georges Guynemer piloted. As soon as Gray was well enough to sit, he assembled the Albatross and then the Nieuport, and then he read and reread the specifications of the actual airplanes printed on the instructions. He also had fun gluing his fingers together over and over with modeling cement.

Over the next two years he would spend every penny on model airplanes until he had more than 70 sitting on shelves in his bedroom, each created in pretty much the same way: he painstakingly assembled it by following the instructions, then memorized the facts and statistics about each one printed on the instruction sheet, and sometimes still glued his fingers together with the crusty cement.

“Then I discovered girls,” he says. That was the end of his modeling days. Until recently. Retired last year from teaching high school English and journalism in a small Kansas town, Gray received a model of the Wright Flyer from his wife Diane. Not much had changed in the world of modeling: same molded plastic pieces, same assembly instructions, same historical description to read and reread while pieces of the model dried.

Then came the moment that recovering addicts pray never happens: He began lurking the aisles of hobby stores, searching for ever more obscure historical models, then buying them and building them at the desk where he once graded papers. He also noticed side effects. “Building models helps my hand-eye coordination, and following instructions and reading specifications sharpens my mental powers,” he says.

“Scale modeling is an excellent hobby,” agrees Andrea M. Macari, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk County Community College in Long Island, NY. “Not only does the activity provide much-needed leisure, which is beneficial in alleviating anxiety and depression, but it also enhances certain cognitive skills such as concentration, visual-motor skills, and executive functions [processes the brain uses to plan, organize, strategize, and pay attention to and remember details].” Macari explains that the skills used in scale modeling are the same ones that often decline with age. “So by practicing scale modeling, your actions are mitigating any decline of those skills,” she adds.

Our Brains Love the Work. According to Professor Kelly G. Lambert of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA, the brain is programmed to derive pleasure and satisfaction when efforts produce something “tangible, visible, and—this is extremely important—meaningful in gaining the resources necessary for survival.” To find a correlation between depression and physical efforts, she took two groups of rats and trained one group to dig for treats (the “worker rats”) and the other group to expect the treats in a lump sum, despite the effort they exerted (the “trust fund rats”). Next, she placed a treat inside a clear plastic ball, which couldn’t be opened no matter how hard the rat tried. Lambert found that the worker rats spent 60 percent more time trying to reach the treat than the trust fund rats did. The moral of the story: The workers were more confident they would succeed than the trust fund rats. And there’s more.

“A lot of our brain is devoted to movement,” she says. “So hobbies and activities that use our hands are engaging in more of our brain’s real estate. Gardening, building model airplanes, and knitting could be the key to mental health because they activate a lot of our brain.”

She adds that people born prior to 1950 are ten times less likely to develop depression in their lifetimes than people born after. “What has changed? Our lifestyles. Technological advances mean that we have stopped doing a lot of basic work,” she says, adding, “I think building model airplanes could be very good for us.”

Getting into the History, Too. There’s also the educational component, says Jack Kennedy, president of the International Plastic Modelers' Society (IPMS) and former host of a half-hour TV program, Adventures in Scale Modeling. “You have to learn a little historical background for whatever you build,” he says. “It piques your interest, and you do research in books for details.”

While he’s working on a model of a B-57 bomber right now, Kennedy’s focus is building models of historical figures; in fact, he just completed a bust of Erwin Rommel, the German Field Marshall from World War II. Cars make popular models, and so do trains and ships. For Gray and Nick Filippone, a 59-year-old New York surgeon, it’s airplanes. “It’s fun to research the color scheme and markings and so forth,” says Dr. Filippone, who prefers building World War II British warplanes. “I think it’s well-established that keeping active mentally is very important,” he adds. “This is one way to do that. Concentration is good for maintaining mental function. Like exercising the body, it’s exercising the mind.”

The Social Aspect. Kennedy’s group, IPMS, has some 5,000 members across the nation, a majority of them 50 and older. “We have a lot of Korea vets, and we still have World War II veterans,” he says. “It keeps motor skills in tune, and it also keeps people’s minds going pretty well. We have a lot of doctors, too (their hand skills are excellent), airline pilots, military people

One of my close friends is a CIA agent.” They hold conventions at hotels, motels, school gymnasiums, and Elks halls across the nation; this year's annual national convention was held in Virginia Beach in August. They compete, too: In Virginia, two of Filippone’s models placed.

“We have a good time at these conventions,” he says. “But then most of the people I hang out with outside the hospital are in the hobby.”

Phil Scott has written for Scientific American and New Scientist, and is the author of The Pioneers of Flight: A Documentary History, and The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919.

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