Thursday, February 2, 2012

Save Your Brains!

No, a zombie apocalypse has not begun, thank God.  For now, your brain will remain safely inside your skull.  But what condition will your brain be in?

This week at the public library, I found a book titled, THE PLAYFUL BRAIN by Richard Restak, with puzzles by Scott Kim.  The subtitle of the book is, "The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind."

I'm not very good at crossword puzzles or sudoku, but I love mazes--the kind you solve with a pencil, not the kind where you wander until your run out of water and a minotaur eats your face.  While the initial idea of exercising my brain with puzzles didn't appeal to me, the science behind it did.

In the book's introduction Dr. Restak writes, "Gradually I became convinced that puzzles can help enhance specific brain functions and, as studies suggest, actually help ward off mental deterioration."  In the past, doctors and scientists could really only learn what parts of the brain did what by looking at injured people.  If some poor guy had a railroad spike through his head, what parts of his vision or memory or math skills did it affect?

However, the use of PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) has changed brain studies.  Now we can see which parts of the brain 'light up' when they're working on a certain task. 

Restak writes about a fascinating study of London cabdrivers which revealed that learning the complex grid of streets actually enlarged part of their brains, and that portion continued to grow based on the number of years a cabbie drove the city.  So the brains of adults are flexible enough to grow in response to the tasks they're given.  Which makes solving puzzles, or most any unfamiliar task, an opportunity to keep your brain tuned up and even improve it.

I haven't finished THE PLAYFUL BRAIN yet (the puzzles slow me down), but reading it triggered some thoughts on brain health you may consider.

1.  Brain deterioration, often in the form of Alzheimer's or dementia, is very scary, and it's a good idea to sit down with your older relatives and learn about your family history.  If these conditions are common in your family tree, it's important to know so you can be prepared to deal with them.

2.  Alcohol and drugs damage your brain.

3.  Keep track of your concussions.  If you play (or played) contact sports and suffered concussions, keep track of them and talk to a doctor if you have lingering symptoms.  For students of martial arts or those in combat sports, if you take a hard shot to the head in sparring and go home with a severe headache, you may have done some damage.  Also, learn to tap out.  Chokes work by cutting either the blood flow or oxygen flow to the brain.  Getting choked out in practice is probably bad for your brain. 

4.  If your daily work is repetitive, think about ways to exercise your brain.  Take a different route to work.  Try learning a musical instrument.  Make your peanut butter and jelly sandwich with your opposite hand.  Whatever.  Just keep learning.

5.  Read those long, dull printouts of the prescription medications you take.  And keep a close eye on your elderly relatives' prescriptions.  Drug interactions can leave people confused and 'out of it,' which can seem a lot like Alzheimer's but isn't.

6.  Exercise.  Eat as best you can.  Stay hydrated.  Get as much sleep as you can.  These are good rules for general health, but they can also help your brain.  If you're sleepy, dehydrated and you haven't eaten, I guarantee your brain won't work well. 

In life, we're all fighting our genetics, injuries, bad habits and the lure of the couch and television.  Take care of your brain and keep exercising it, so you can take care of yourself and the people around you.

(The pic is from a UCBerkeley page and shows how the brain lights up when they asked the patient to remember a face, think about the face, and compare it to another face.  I think it looks like a rabbit.  On fire.)

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