Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review and Give-Away! Think Smart by Richard Restak, MD

Richard Restak is the author of 19 books about the brain. I am reviewing, today one of his most recent publications, Think Smart.

I liked this book and found it an exciting read. I even made a list of "things to do for my brain" from his suggested activities. However, I found the book to be a bit ironic. From page 69, "Mental exercise differes from physical exercise in that it provides specific limited benefits while physical exercise bestows generalized benefits."
Really? Because Dr. Restak goes on to talk almost exclusively about mental exercises for over 200 pages. He provides almost COUNTLESS mental activities to help increase brain function and gives physical exercise only a casual mention. I know there are so many books about exercise on the market already, but there really are NOT many books about exercise and the brain. Since you can't change a brain without moving, I am disappointed that Dr. Restak didn't at least lay the foundation of physical exercise.

Now for some of my favorite quotes from Dr. Restak in Think Smart
Page 8, "We create new patterns of neuronal organization according to what we see, what we do, what we imagine and most of all what we learn."
All these "what we . . ." are sensory input. Yes, sensory input is how our brain gets information and OF COURSE that will change the patterns of activity. However, few of us pay attention to how important the see, do, imagine and learn are---hopefully understanding that we are changing our brains will help us understand a little better.

Page 25-26, "Sixty-five years of animal research confirms that in every animal in which it has been tried so far, caloric restriction slows the onset of degenerative diseases such as dementia, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses associated with loss of brain function. As a rough rule of thumb, a 35% decrease in calories equals a 35% longer life"
This is so clear and sounds pretty simple. The hard part, however, is putting it into practice. I suppose on my deathbed I won't be wishing for another bowl of ice cream, but another day to spend with loved ones. Definitely something to consider.

Page 44 ,"Anyone who walks three times a week for 45 minutes will reap the following benefits; sustained levels of cerebral blood flow; an improvement in focused attention; increases in gray matter volume in regions of the front & temporal lobes; restoration of some of the losses in brain volume associated with normal aging. In anyone over 60, the benefits are even great. A daily one-mile walk will reduce the likelihood of dementia by 50%."
Coupled with the previous paragraph, I think Dr. Restak is telling us to push ourselves away from the table and get off the couch. Solid advice for any setting I can think of. However, most of us think this advice is just about looking better. This couldn't be further from the truth---the brain controls everything and it desperately wants us to get in good shape---exercise and diet. Nothing new, but vital nonetheless.

Page 54 "For reasons that are not entirely clear, sleep serves to improve one's overal performance by selectively enhancing those areas that are most in need of improvement."
Sleep is listed in importance ONLY behind nutrition and exercise. Eat well, exercise and now get good sleep. Dr. Restak is beginning to sound like my grandmother. Who knew how right Grandma was??

Page 66 "Stamina and concentration are two sides of the same coin."
Ahhhh, there he goes with that exercise bit again! Have you measured your stamina and then compared it to your ability to optimally concentrate?

Page 67 "People with good memories don't necessarily store more information in their long-term memories---they're just better at accessing it."
Page 68 "Some psychologists argue that general intelligence consists of sharply-honed working memory skills."
The two previous quotes again lead back to exercise. Have you ever felt overwhelmed or foggy or like you just need "to get your head straight"? Then you take a walk---a good, long, vigorous walk. As you are walking, you begin to see your situation more clearly and perhaps even arrive at conclusions or solutions. This ability to organize and easily access information is greatly improved with exercise---specifically cross-pattern forms of exercise. For most adults, this is most easily achieved by walking or running. This organization begins as infants with creeping and crawling.

Page 137 "For the superior performance in any field, the goal isn't just repeating the same thing again and again, but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That's why they don't find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time."
Excellence---this the the level of practice that comes before excellence. We should be striving to get better than we are, no matter what we are attempting or how good we are at doing it. This is what I see in athletes and scholars at the top of their field.

Page 146 "Research confirms that exceptional performers aren't endowed with superior brains. Rather the brain, thanks to its plasticity can be modified by deliberate practices and the use of innovative strategies. That combination will enable you to achieve high levels of performance in the area of YOUR CHOICE----IF you are willing to put in the effort required to achieve mastery."
The best football player, the best violin player, the most-respected researcher, the captivating orator----they were NOT born that way. The plasticity of the brain allowed them to become what they wanted. That is truly the most freedom a human can have---the freedom to become. What a tremendous gift---that gift removes the excuses and reveals them for what they truly mean, "I don't want to try that hard."

Page 207 "At the moment, scientists lack an objective measure of wisdom."
Okay, I guess that is over-stating the obvious, but it does lead you to think about the limits of science.

Page 220 "Brains of deceased elderly patients were examined. Many were found to have Alzheimer's disease. 1) 25% of cortical neurons reduced---they appeared like rusted cables in a sunken ship, 2) degenerating nerve endings enclosing homogenous central core. An UNEXPECTED find was that some brains showed Alzheimer's disease in patients who functioned perfectly normally even in the last years of their lives. Investigation of these exceptions to the plaque-tangle-dementia association turned up a common trait: increased levels of education. The subject matter of their studies did not appear to matter."
Education at increased levels---an excellent idea if you are considering your brain. Notice it did not say "formal" education. You can be self-educated at an increased level.

Page 224 "Social isolation and the loneliness that usually accompanies it are now recognized as significant hazards to healthy brain function."
Social interaction takes a great degree of brain power---continuing to practice those skills of listening, conversing, making eye contact, physical gestures in conversation, etc. are very important for our brains.

Page 227 "The brain is a social organ that operates by concerted activity of millions of neurons linked together by means of circuits---there is no such thing as a solitary neuron. Similarly, none of us exists in isolation nor are we capable of optimal functioning unless---like a neuron within the brain's circuits---we become part of a wider social network."
Intentionally find friends, build those friendships and maintain them carefully. Of course, positive relationships are assumed---but remember that your friends are worth the effort in many, many ways.

Page 243 "A 2006 study published in the journal Neurology compared 5,000 people over age 55. Increased television watching was associated with a 20% increase in cognitive impairment."
YIKES! We all know tv isn't good for our brains, but did you know how much it is truly hurting your neurological capability? Of course, if we are carefully watching our nutrition, exercising, getting increased levels of education and spending time with good friends, then perhaps the tv will not be necessary.

Page 246 "Have a hobby and develop expertise outside your vocation---this stimulates and develops brain networks outside the norms."
So now we've added hobbies to the list of nutrition, exercise, education, and friendships. Sincerely, this sounds like a person I'd like to know---and one I'd like to be.

So the contest is now open and will conclude October 20,2011. All those leaving appropriate comments will be entered into a random drawing for a free copy of Richard Restak, MD's Think Smart. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.