In Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot, eminent neuropsychiatrist and bestselling author Richard Restak, M.D., combines the latest research in neurology and psychology to show us how to get our brain up to speed for managing every aspect of our busy lives.
Everything we think and everything we choose to do alters our brain and fundamentally changes who we are, a process that continues until the end of our lives. Few people think of the brain as being susceptible to change in its actual structure, but in fact we can preselect the kind of brain we will have by continually exposing ourselves to rich and varied life experiences. Unlike other organs that eventually wear out with repeated and sustained use, the brain actually improves the more we challenge it.
Most of us incorporate some kind of physical exercise into our daily lives. We do this to improve our bodies and health and generally make us feel better. Why not do the same for the brain? The more we exercise it, the better it performs and the better we feel. Think of Restak as a personal trainer for your brain--he will help you assess your mental strengths and weaknesses, and his entertaining book will set you to thinking about the world and the people around you in a new light, providing you with improved and varied skills and capabilities. From interacting with colleagues to recognizing your own psychological makeup, from understanding the way you see something to why you're looking at it in the first place, from explaining the cause of panic attacks to warding off performance anxiety, this book will tell you the whys and hows of the brain's workings.
Packed with practical advice and fascinating examples drawn from history, literature, and science, Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot provides twenty-eight informative and realistic steps that we can all take to improve our brainpower.
"Most of us would like to be smarter," asserts Restak (The Brain, companion to PBS's series by the same name), neuropsychiatrist and clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University Medical Center. Restak claims that improving cognition is the answer. In accessible science-teacher style, Restak delineates the brain's attributes, from its weight (three pounds) to the number of nerve cells (100 billion) and its infinity of synapses, explaining what aids communication, informs memory and so forth. Knowing how the brain works is important to building its power, says Restak, and in this high-tech age, we need as much cognition as we can get. He proposes a comprehensive and handy plan to improve one's mind, literally as well as literarily. If one stops learning, one's overall mental capacity diminishes because the synaptic links shrink. Brain stimulation has been declared protection against Alzheimer's. The brain does not age; keeping it "fit" is no more difficult than keeping one's cholesterol under control. In outlining a plan including everything from exercise to learning to play a musical instrument, Restak explains how interconnections between the brain's functions keep it growing. Train your brain through logic problems, complicated games like chess, difficult jigsaw puzzles and widely varied reading. Not surprisingly, watching TV, a passive act, does exactly what your mother always said it did makes you stupid. The extraordinary range of references to literature, science, gamesmanship and even cryptograms makes it apparent that Restak practices what he preaches. This unusual, intriguing book will appeal to the health diligent and the senior contingent.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 21, 2002
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Excerpt from Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot by Richard Restak
Learn as much as possible about how your brain works.
This is the most important factor in getting smart and staying smart. In order to do this, you don't have to become a neurologist or subscribe to scholarly journals on neuroscience (the study of the brain at every operating level ranging from everyday observable behavior to brain processes taking place at the level of chemicals and molecules). Here is a useful summary of the facts you should know.
The adult human brain weighs about three pounds and consists of about 100 billion nerve cells or neurons along with an even greater number of non-neuronal cells called glia (in Greek, glia means "glue") interspersed among the neurons. The neurons are responsible for the communication of information throughout the brain. Especially important is the brain's outer wrinkled mantle, the cerebral cortex, which gives the brain the appearance of a gnarled walnut. The cerebral cortex contains about 30 billion neurons linked to one another by means of a million billion neuronal connections called synapses.
As pointed out by Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, more than 32 million years would be required to count all of the synapses in the human brain at a counting rate of one synapse per second. And if we concentrate on the number of possible neuronal connections (circuits) within the brain, we get an even more astounding number: 10 followed by a million zeros. To put that number into some kind of perspective, consider that the number of particles in the known universe comes to only 10 followed by seventy-nine zeros. Finally, consider that the glia, which exceed the number of neurons by at least a power of 10, are also believed to be capable of communication. If this is true, then the number of possible brain states exceeds even our most extravagant projections.
Any of the brain's 100 or so billion neurons can potentially communicate with any other via one or more linkages. Indeed, each neuron is no more than two or three degrees of separation from another. Linkages, once formed, are strengthened by repetition. At the behavioral level, this takes the form of habit. Each time you practice a piano piece or a golf swing (presuming you are doing it correctly), your performance improves. This corresponds at the neuronal level to the establishment and facilitation of neuronal circuits.
The cerebral cortex consists of the outer gray matter of the cerebral hemispheres and the cerebellum, the two structures that contain most of the neurons in the brain. Less than a quarter inch in thickness, this thin rind (cortex in the original Latin means "rind"), includes some 85 percent of all brain tissue. An obvious feature of the cerebral cortex is its highly convoluted surface and wrinkled appearance. This wrinkling serves the purpose of increasing the surface area of this thin outer layer without a corresponding increase in volume and size (similar to wrinkling a handkerchief so that the larger surface area can be contained in the smaller confines of a wallet or small purse).
While it's true that certain brain areas are specialized (such as the centers for processing sight, sound, touch, and other qualities and properties), the largest portion of the brain, the association cortex, is devoted to establishing networks and thereby linking everything together throughout the brain. As a result of this networking, you don't separately see, hear, taste, smell, and feel your breakfast bagel-you experience it as a unity. It's the association cortex that makes that possible. Figure B, on page 23, shows the association cortex. Notice that it makes up more than 90 percent of the brain. Figure A, on page 22, depicts the other major brain areas along with some of their specialized functions. Notice that the right and left hemispheres are specialized for different functions as depicted in Figure C, on page 24, and discussed in detail later in the book.
Below the cerebral hemispheres lies a group of nuclei (collections of nerve cells) that organize movement. These nuclei, called the basal ganglia, enable you to do such things as skillfully maneuver your way through heavy traffic while simultaneously rehearsing what you're going to say at the business meeting later in the morning. In computer terms, the cerebral cortex writes the software programs for actions and, after some practice on your part, the basal ganglia take over to run the programs that enable you to carry out the actions. When you learn the tango, for instance, you have to concentrate (i.e., use the cerebral cortex) to plan, learn, and get comfortable with the steps. But after some practice and experience, you're eventually able to tango while thinking of other things because the basal ganglia are operating that system automatically.