Our Top 10 Stories of 2011

From Civil War mustaches to Mayan lost cities to myths about the brain, here are the most-read stories of the year

Articles about beer and web memes are featured in our top 10 but which article is the most popular? (Clockwise from top left: TongRo Image Stock / Corbis; Library of Congress; Landon Nordeman; Dave Yoder)

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It’s true, some cognitive skills do decline as you get older. Children are better at learning new languages than adults—and never play a game of concentration against a 10-year-old unless you’re prepared to be humiliated. Young adults are faster than older adults to judge whether two objects are the same or different; they can more easily memorize a list of random words, and they are faster at counting backward by sevens.

But plenty of mental skills improve with age. Vocabulary, for instance—older people know more words and understand subtle linguistic distinctions. Given a biographical sketch of a stranger, they’re better judges of character. They score higher on tests of social wisdom, such as how to settle a conflict. And people get better and better over time at regulating their own emotions and finding meaning in their lives.

8. Ten Unforgettable Web Memes

In May, the magazine published an excerpt from James Gleick’s The Information, a New York Times Notable Book of 2011 about information and the means by which it travels. In conjunction with the story, we also published on our site a survey of ten humorous memes that have gone viral on the web. Dancing Baby, anyone?

From the story:

Before high-speed Internet connections allowed the transfer of videos and large image files, animated GIFs (graphics interchange format) were how memes spread virally. The lithe dancing baby, alias Baby Cha Cha, was born in mid-1996 and its ten-second set of boogaloo moves became one of the earliest Internet sensations. Created by software publisher Kinetix, the silent animated GIF was re-imagined by some early web developers as a Rastafarian. Other web-savvy surfers designed a version of the baby tossing back a drink while others set the original animation to music. Television executives took note and incorporated the baby into the hit-1990s show “Ally McBeal” as a hallucinatory reminder that the title character’s biological clock was ticking—but to that driving “ooga chacka” beat from Blue Swede’s cover of “Hooked on a Feeling.”

9. Top 10 Books Lost to Time

There are many books that were penned at one time and yet no copies survive. We know that the works existed only because other books make reference to them. William Shakespeare, for instance, wrote a play called Cardenio, based on a scene in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, of which no copies exist. And Ernest Hemingway had his only working draft of a World War I novel stolen in 1922. The list, we admit, is a bit of a tease.

From the story:

Homer’s Margites

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