Saturday, April 30, 2005

Exercise Your Brain

I don't think I will get Montaigne posted today. I'm reading the longest essay he wrote which is 200 pages and it is taking me longer than I expected to get through it. So to appease you, here is a bit about a book I have finished during my extended book binge weekend. Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot by Richard Restak is supposed to teach the reader, according to the back cover of the book, to

  1. Take advantage of the interrelationships of learning, memory, and intelligence
  2. Increase mental acuity and develop your emotional memory
  3. Improve your powers of attention and concentration
Tall orders for a book of just over 200 pages. Did it work? Am I smarter? Is my memory better? I can't honestly answer yes. I can, however, say that I enjoyed the book. I didn't read the book for its self-help qualities anyway. I read the book because I wanted to learn more about how the human brain works and maybe pick up some tips on how to keep it fit along the way. In that regard, the book succeeded. The premise of the book is that your IQ is your IQ and whether it is average or above average can't be changed and doesn't necessarily matter all that much. What does matter is cognition. Cognition "refers to the ability of our brain to attend, identify, and act." Included under the cognition umbrella are thoughts, moods, inclinations, decisions, actions, alertness, concentration, perceptual speed, learning, memory, problem solving, creativity and mental endurance. All these things depend on how well our brain is functioning and all these things can be improved. The brain is a fascinating thing which we are only beginning to understand. Restak provides a simple explanation on the basic workings of the brain. The whole right brain/left brain thing has pretty much been debunked. There are indeed specialized areas in each hemisphere but they do not work alone. It is turning out that the brain is a very plastic and ever changing thing. It was once thought that after childhood the brain started losing brain cells and the older we got the more we lost. Not true. The brain is indeed busy when we are young forming all kinds of synaptic connections. A new experience lurks around every corner and the brain is engaged daily in learning new things. A lot of us graduate from high school and then go on to college and continue to grow our brains. A few years after college we might notice ourselves forgetting things and attribute it to too many frat parties. Then we say it's because we are getting old. What is really happening is that the synapses we worked so hard to build when younger are beginning to atrophy from lack of use. That's right, it's not because we are getting old it's because we stop using our brains. Our brains like very much to be challenged and learn new things. When we learn our brains are happy and busy growing synapses and making connections all over the place. It is easy to keep our brains happy when we are in school, but once out of school we tend to stop challenging ourselves. We establish routines and habits--get up at six, go to work for 8 hours, come home, have dinner, watch television, go to bed, get up and do it all over again the next day. The older we get the more difficult it is to challenge ourselves to learn something new especially if we are older and caught in the trap of believing that you "can't teach and old dog new tricks." The good news is that it is never too late. Those old synaptic paths that we established so long ago are not gone, just a little dusty. As soon as you start using them again they wake up and if you challenge yourself to learn something entirely new you create synaptic connections that didn't exist before whether you are 40 or 60 or 80. This being a book that is supposed to help you get those synapses working, Restak offers lots of advice, some of it useful some of it silly but all of it designed to help give your brain a workout. Some of the more interesting advice Restak gives involves books and reading. He suggests reading as an antidote to stress (which by the way causes brain damage) and re-reading as an antidote to information overload. He suggests keeping a reading diary and explains in great detail how to do it. His explanation is obviously meant for people who don't read much and haven't thought about what they read before, but I couldn't help but be annoyed by his prescriptivist approach: do it this way, instead of offering a variety of possibilities. Wide and varied reading, along with reducing stress, also increases mental acuity. Restak suggests reading Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, William and Henry James, Dickens, Montaigne (!), Proust, Conrad, Jose Saramago, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch among others. He also suggests that if you were schooled in the humanities you should step outside your safe zone and read some science and if your area of expertise is in the sciences then try learning about the arts. It will make your brain happy. Exercise also makes you brain happy. While all exercise is good, exercise that requires balance and strengthens your legs is even better. Restak recommends tai chi, but anything that requires balance is good--dancing, yoga, tennis, cycling. Such exercise is not only good for your overall health but strengthens your cerebellum as well. Other things that make the brain happy, positive thoughts, tasks/skills that require good eye-hand coordination--model building, tennis, and knitting--working in concert with your body's natural rhythms, and music, particularly classical music, specifically Mozart. Our brains, scientists are discovering may be wired for music just as they are wired for language. While Restak warns of information overload in this age of the internet, he fully advocates making technology your friend and using it to your brain's advantage. Buy yourself a laptop he says. Take it with you wherever you can. Turn it into a second brain. Don't make it your main brain, but use it to augment your natural brain, use it to help you think. Paper notebooks and journals are nice, he says, but they are not as easy to organize and retrieve information from as a laptop with file searching abilities. I agree but I am not about to give up my paper journal. The sensualness of it makes my brain happy and even Restak can't argue with that since he encourages sensual development. If you are interested in the brain Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot is a good place to start. It is an easy and enjoyable introductory user's guide to the brain. If nothing else I have a strategy for the next time I have a song stuck in my head. It is hard to get rid of that song or any other stuck thought because we not only have the original thought but the metathought bouncing around our noggin. Trying to force yourself to forget "The Girl from Ipanema" only makes it worse--not only are you thinking about the song but you are thinking about not thinking about it. The key, according to Restak, is to let the thought ramble on, embrace it and resist the urge to suppress it, soon enough you'll be thinking about other things and the song will be forgotten. Now the trick is to remember that bit of advice next time my brain gets trapped in a thought loop.