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!

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