Mozart’s Brain

Sharpen Your Brain and Relax

Reading the book Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot got me thinking about hemophilia and the caretaker. I mentioned last week I was reading this book. I found it very enriching and motivating: three stars out of four. Its premise is simple: the functioning of the brain is dependent on coordination between its many components (e.g. memory, problem solving, speed, perception) and each component can be improved if you work at it. In other words, you can make yourself smarter. Author Richard Restak, a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist, presents fun and challenging ways to stimulate your brain while teaching you that it’s never too late to exercise your brain to make it stronger and better. And when you do that, you will enjoy life more.

It’s a great message for parents caring for children with chronic disorders, like hemophilia. I know from experience long ago that we tend to get over focused on the daily care of hemophilia. When we do this, we experience burn out, mental fatigue and sometimes despair. Restak has a solution: we need to exercise the parts of the brain not involved in the things we do routinely–like infusions and hemophilia care. He presents the geography of the brain–locations on the brain where various mental and physical activities are controlled, and how hormones affect the brain. He then shows how we can neglect certain areas of the brain, leading to a deterioration overall in its functioning, and subsequently, in our mood and thoughts.

The brain functions best when it networks with itself. So if one part is overused, and another is underused, the whole brain suffers. If we dwell on certain thoughts as well, especially negative ones, we also risk deterioration in sharpness, memory, and flexibility.

The cure is to exercise various parts of the brain routinely. You won’t know what to exercise if you don’t know where the functions originate in the brain. For example, balance and coordination reside in the cerebellum, at the base of the brain. Restak puts big emphasis on this part of the brain, since as we get older we tend to not use balance and gross motor much. He makes a great case for getting up and getting active! It can actually help you get smarter. I think people who run, jog, dance, play sports well into their middle age know this already, but for those of you who have given it up in favor of caretaking or due to exhaustion, think again. Restak says force yourself to exercise the brain though gross motor movement: you will feel better both physical and mentally.

Restak also advocates many other activities: chess, art, walking, touring. All of these will positively affect very different parts of the brain, stimulating in turn all the brain. Painting or piano playing stimulates parts of the brain that control the hands, where a heavy concentration of nerves lie. Developing manual skills leads to creation of new nerve circuitry, too. Keep a journal of observations; read the same book several times (over the course of a few years, even). I am glad to hear that as I always read books a few times each (good ones, that is).

I only object to his emphasis on Mozart (one of my least favorite classical composers). Music is fabulous, to both listen to and to play, and any music will do. But classical music does have a depth to it that is lacking in contemporary music. So if you have not listened to classical music, pick up some Bach or Rachmaninoff for a real emotional and mental experience. You may find it both relaxing and stimulating, and I think that is part of Restak’s message. When you stimulate new areas of the brain through new and/or varied activities, you actually will feel more relaxed, because your brain will function better as a whole. A wise message for those caretakers with daily stress.

I do love Restak’s upbeat and can-do attitude. You will read this book feeling that you must and will want to get more active, and try new things, perhaps the things you once loved to do as a child. Tree climbing, beach walking, piano playing, crossword puzzle solving, reading, acting, literally smelling the roses… these are not just things that make us happy, they actually alter our brains and get us thinking better. And I am so glad he advocates reading the same books several times, because for the life of me, I don’t recall reading anywhere anything about a fighter pilot in this book. I think I need to work on my memory a bit more!

Try This for the New Year

My last blog for this year comes with a wish for our community: for good health, good parenting and hope. And above all, turn off your television, take charge of your precious time and read!

As an author, reading is essential for my line of work, but I absolutely enjoy it. Reading educates, entertains, motivates and inspires me. From the jungles of Africa to the mesas of unexplored America, to the polar caps, I love to read about explorers; I also love to read about the history of science and disease, how physicians uncover clues about its etiology and treatment. I love to read about the psychology of communication, and child development. And I love history. Nothing can take the place of reading in my life.

Sadly, most Americans miss this kind of joy. Newsweek reported this year that 25% of adults have not read anything this year. And the average American reads only 4 books annually.

I also fell into the trap of not reading much at one time. But since 2000 I have tracked every book I have read, each month, just to study my own habits of reading. The more I tracked, the more it became a competition to see how many I could finish. I’ve been shooting for 25 a year, but I think I can do better in 2008.

It’s incredibly stimulating to meet up with someone who has read the same book you have read. You feel immediately like you’ve both stumbled onto a secret! When you read a great book, you feel like you want to share your discovery with the world.

I am going to try to do that here. As much as I focus on hemophilia-related subjects, I am also going to include a blurb at the bottom of each blog letting you know what I am reading. This puts the pressure on me to read each week for sure! And to read well. I’ve been delighted that people have emailed me to tell me that they read Crime and Punishment for the first time because of my recommendation, or Mayflower, both excellent books.

So give it a try! First, determine how many you read a year on average. How many do you think you could read if you made a conscious effort? Set a goal in 2008 of how many books you will read, and check in monthly to see how you are doing. Do better than the average four, and let me know what you are reading, too.

Just today I received this email from friend and colleague Richard Atwood, who also writes a book review on hemophilia-related literature for my newsletter PEN: “Now is the time of year to pause and to reflect, and it is not too late to make the resolution to read more hemophilia literature in the upcoming year. By reading hemophilia literature, you can smugly realize that you are stimulating parts of your brain that are not stimulated by other activities, and that you are bucking the disgraceful national trend towards less reading by adults. So by all means, read more creative literature to be a better person. And where else other than a romance novel would find a character of Irish descent named Lori Kelly?”

You know, I kind of like that character’s name!

Happy new year, everyone, and make reading a priority in 2008!

And, here’s the current

Great Book I am Reading: Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot. I picked this up because a) it’s about how our brain works and how to sharpen it to make it work better, and 2) I love the catchy title! I’ve only read the first two chapters, but this looks to be a great book about the physiology of the brain and how to make it work better for better results in life. I’ll let you know next week how I liked it.

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