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by Richard Restak
Review by Anthony R Dickinson, Ph.D. on Aug 4th 2009
Aimed at helping to develop and maintain the optimally functioning brains of his readers, Restak's latest volume contains welcome advice and practical exercises based upon advances in neuroscience research. Although many of the key research claims offered here are not always well embedded in the text with respect to their original sources (hopefully to be rectified in the forthcoming published version?), the key proposals for supporting the growth of brains with increasing (or at least not decreasing) learning potential with advancing age, are mainly centered around nutrition, exercise and sleep. As is the case with our musculo-skeletal developments, Restak (correctly) introduces the brain as being capable of significant morphological plasticity as we "sculpt our brains according to our life experiments" (p. 7), whilst supporting the view that we develop new patterns of organization as we do, imagine, and learn new skills and abilities. This is not to say much more than 'we get good at what we spend most of our time doing', but the main contribution of this volume is to be found in its presentation of several chapters of additional (if not extensive) sets of relatively simple tips and practices for enhancing our intellects, and for immediate implementation.
Organized in six parts, the early chapters discuss our newly emerging knowledge of the ways (and reasons why) the human nervous system evolves and develops the way(s) that it might (within the ontological lifetime of an individual person). Consistent with Edelman's thesis of Neural Darwinism, Restak briefly (yet appropriately) covers the necessary ground of environmental enrichment studies, the significance of adequate sensory stimulation opportunity, and normative maturational stages, taking the reader through adolescence to adult brain development using very accessible language. Personally, I would have preferred to learn more of the differential neurological pathway developments with respect to specific activities and their correlate outcome for neural connectivity(ies), but the text reads no less coherently for this exclusion.
Part two is mainly concerned with nutrition, and it is for the 'Brain Diet' that I suspect many readers will reach for their pencils to form their first shopping list. The familiar territories of reduced caloric intake, obesity and detailed correlates of optimisable brain functioning are discussed, but for those looking here for the 'item list', say goodbye to trans-fats, and hello to anti-oxidants, fruit juice, and fish, just as grandma always used to advise. The jury is still out with regards the benefits of red wine consumption for mental alertness according to Restak, but in non-inebriating quantities still appears in the running. Number two in the brain-boosting ability stakes is exercise, and here we read little new, but find reinforcing evidence for increasing attention being needed for our general activity levels (both physical and mental). Later sections of the book (especially part 3), deals in some detail with specific recommendations for mental agility exercises designed to enhance memory, attention, and general smart thinking skills (many of which will be familiar to aficionados of IQ test items and lateral-thinking activity genres).
Perhaps a little surprising to some readers (especially teachers and parents of seemingly gaming-addicted children), in the fourth part we find in Restak a clear advocate of the use of edutainment learning platforms for enhancing executive thinking skills and mental dexterity opportunities. Not only are we presented with some of the best evidence for improved mental agility and intellectual fitness for problem solving as a result of computer-gaming exposure (of particular kinds), the research findings discussed include such outcome measures as determined with student populations, adults in occupational settings, and even some early data concerned with possibly preventing (or at least delaying) early onset dementias in the elderly. Whether or not such edutainment platforms can indeed have this effect remains to be empirically determined (though see the literature concerned with the online e@Leader program for some early indicators), but if such activities are helping prepare more capable and efficient airline pilots and keyhole neurosurgeons, then there is surely something of value here for the growth and maintenance of the brains belonging to the rest of us too.
The final two parts of this book are concerned with creativity and the development of compensatory behaviors for dealing with impediments to optimal brain functioning, and although proceeding with decreasing pace towards the conclusion (in epilogue), make good use of, and build upon, the content of the earlier sections. In such a way, this book really does go quite a long way to providing a 'prescription for improving brain performance' (as suggested by the volume's subtitle), remaining both accessible as new knowledge/information concerning the mechanisms underlying the developing brain, and practical in utility in keeping it developing,... for those willing to put such advice into continuous daily practice !
© 2009 Tony Dickinson
Dr. Tony Dickinson, Academic Research Laboratory, GCP, People Impact International Inc.