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by Richard Restak
Three Rivers Press, 2001
Review by James Sage on Mar 4th 2002
In this highly readable, hands-on
volume, Richard Restak presents 28 chapters to help you improve your brains
performance, to develop a super-powered memory, and to become more
intelligent. Contrary to recent trends,
Restak argues that a key component of intelligence is a good memory. While mere memorization has been deplored in
education circles, Restak reminds us that having a super-powered memory is an
important part of any highly intelligent persons abilities. In each chapter, Restak shares numerous
examples of how to improve memory and cognitive functioning from basic
memorization exercises (such as memorizing the layout of your living room and then
forming a mental image of it) to advanced logic puzzles (such as probability
assessments and other brain teasers).
While the books premise is
relatively straightforward (better memory leads to improved intelligence), the
strength of the book lies in its abundance of mental exercises, sprinkled with
detailed explanations of the neuro-physiological basis of each exercise. I cannot list each exercise here (there are
too many), though I can attest to their effectiveness (I tried numerous of
these activities and found them very useful).
While each reader will have different needs and abilities, Restak
provides so many exercises there is surely at least a dozen or so for any
reader. Overall, this is a wonderful
volume for anyone looking to improve his or her memory. I also recommend this book for children: the
exercises in this volume are crucial to cognitive development and, at the same
time, they are fun enough to keep children interested.
With this in mind, Restak first
encourages us to learn as much as we can about how our brains work. He provides a brief introduction to the
basic operation of the human brain, emphasizing the multi-leveled, highly
inter-connected, functionally-specialized parts of the brain. By understanding how the brain works, Restak
claims that we will be better suited to make improvements in our cognitive
abilities. With this knowledge, we can
choose activities that exercise our brains and in turn reinforce the
neuro-connections that form the basis of a strong memory. Next, Restak tells us that the brain is
susceptible to disuse atrophy a kind of breakdown of neural pathways
symptomatic of Alzheimers patients.
And whats more, while most of us incorporate some sort of physical exercise
into our daily (or weekly) routines, Restak argues that we should incorporate
some form of regular mental exercise into our routines as well. Specifically, Restak emphasizes that the
brain is an organ that actually improves with use.
Knowledge, according to Restak, is
a kind of networking in the brain in which connections are always
changing. The brain, in other words, is
a work in progress. Throughout our
lives, our brains are constantly changing.
Restak recommends that we choose memory-enhancing activities that
maximize connections within the brain.
As a result of this insight, Restak recommends a variety of activities
to maximize neuronal connections. Some
of these involve physical activities that force our brains to coordinate the
prefrontal cortex and the primary motor cortex. These activities include playing sports that require fine motor
control (such as ping-pong), and playing sports that require general motor
control and balance (such as tennis or basketball).
A variety of Restaks learning and
memory exercises involve recall of lists of items (for example, grocery lists
are memorized and then recalled as best as possible without consulting the
list) and also word-pair lists, number sequences, spelling words backwards, and
listing groups of things by category (for example, listing mammals in Africa,
or animals that live in the ocean these are particularly fun activities with
children and helps build the connections in their brains). As a variation of this idea, my friend,
David, has invented a game in which you must generate a list of items that fits
two or more distinct categories. For
example, generate a list of all edible white foods that begin with the letter M
(mayonnaise, macadamia nuts, menonita cheese, milk, etc.). Again, children will find these activities
fun and challenging and this develops and reinforces neuronal connections in
Part of the overall strength of
Restaks book is his intimate knowledge of the brain and its sub-systems (he
has written 12 other books about the brain and how it works). Throughout, Restak reminds us that some
cognitive activities utilize the same part of the brain (that is, a variety of
tasks use the same tissue-localized brain region). Among the various macro-level sub-systems that he emphasizes are
language, visualization, and motor control.
Each of these can be activated simultaneously without much difficulty
(though even this takes practice).
However, when we try to perform two language tasks, we find ourselves
frustrated and our proficiency lacking.
For example, when having a conversation with one person, you may have
noticed how difficult it is to listen carefully to a different
conversation. This is because you are
attempting to utilize the same language processing system to monitor two
distinct things. However, if you are
having a conversation, say, over the phone, youll probably find it easy to
read a short note on your desk, for example a short phone message. Talking on
the phone and reading a short message uses auditory and visual language systems
and is easier that trying to listen to two conversations simultaneously. We get frustrated precisely because we are
trying to use the same auditory language system for two distinct activities. Recognizing this conflict is part of
understanding how the brain works and suggests several strategies. For example, when combining two or more
tasks, understanding how the brain works will help us to avoid frustration and
find greater success. Suppose you want
to listen to the radio and read a book at the same time. If so, then dont listen to talk radio shows
(such as Car Talk on National Public Radio.
Ive tried it and it is very hard to do!). Reading while listening to Jazz, however, is much easier. These kinds of insights are what Restak
means when he encourages us to understand how the brain worksit allows us to
be more efficient and more successful at the tasks we choose to perform.
Among other cognitive activities
that Restak contrasts are linguistic activities and various types of
visualization. Restak suggests a number
of mental exercises meant to reinforce the power of visualization by shutting
off the internal dialogue (or self-talk) we may find that we are better at
certain visualization tasks. For
example, Restak recommends a simple activity that can also be very challenging:
study a photograph for one minute, then put it away, and try to imagine all of
the details of the photograph. When you
cannot recall any more, return to the original photo and study it again for
another minute. Put it away and try to
construct a mental image of the photo (try to shut off all self-talk during
this processrely only on mental imagining).
Once again, try to reconstruct, as vividly as possible, all the details
of the photo. Repeat this process five
times or until you can accurately visualize the photo. Eventually, work up to more and more complex
photos or increase the time between putting away the photo and generating a
mental image of it (for example, hours later, try to reconstruct the image with
as much detail as possible). Since most
of us tend to be very language-based, emphasizing the visual system of your
brain will help train parts that tend to go unused in modern life.
That said, we should also be aware
of how powerful the brain can be, and how quickly it can adapt. If our goal is to provide the brain with a
challenge, then we mustnt let it get bored.
Reporting on memory studies using PET scans, Restak tells us that people
who engage in repetitious actions have highly active brain states when first
learning the routine or pattern (such as sorting mail by hand or using a 10-key
adding machine). But very quickly, the
brain shuts down and automates most of the routine or pattern. As a result, very little brain stimulation
is taking place. In order to increase
brain stimulation, Restak recommends changing tasks periodically. For example, if you are employed in a
factory setting, try to switch tasks with other employees, or change up the
task just enough to stimulate your brain one easy example is to use your
non-dominant hand when performing tasks.
With all of this talk of mental
exercises and activities, Restak is careful to emphasize the importance of rest
and relaxation. He suggests several
activities to help us slow down such as listening to a book on tape (while
reading along with it) as well as controlling our breathing. But even here, we can achieve a refreshed
state while we still stimulate the brain.
For example, if youve been busy all morning reading or writing (highly
language-based activities), an excellent refresher is a brisk 10-minute walk or
any other form of exercise utilizing the legs (calling into use balancing and
motor control). The physical exercise
will activate different parts of the brain, oxygenate the blood, and allow the
language regions of the brain to relax.
Restak also emphasizes how effective standing on one leg can be the
amount of neuronal activity jumps when our brains are forced to maintain
balance on one leg. So, if you dont
have time for a long brisk walk, try standing on one leg. That would be quite the scene in the
corporate world! But whos going to argue with solid medical science?
Another form of a brain break is
to choose activities that stimulate regions of the brain other those youve
just been using. In my own case, I find
that after hours of reading or writing, doing something that is visually
stimulating is perfect playing a flight-simulator video game or other visual
activity (photography, painting, etc.) provides just the right sort of break
from language processing (so long as you can silence self-talk during these
activities). Within only a few minutes,
I can return to reading for another couple of hours. Afternoon naps are also among the recommended strategies for
relaxation, and a personal favorite of mine!
Restak recommends a number of
language-based activities meant to enhance connections in your brain. One easy activity is to re-trace a
conversation you just had with someone (the other person can help too, adding to
the fun). More advanced activities
include re-tracing your thoughts (for example, set a timer to go off in 10
minutes at which time try to re-trace your thoughts in the last 10 minute
period). As a variation on this
activity, have someone set an alarm to go off later in the day. When it sounds, stop what you are doing and
recount your thoughts for the last 10 minutes.
These thought re-tracing activities help to reinforce your ability for
recall and to integrate your thought processes. Restak also suggests keeping a journal (he highly recommends
keeping your journal on a laptop or similar computer-based medium). Keeping a journal (of your thoughts, what
youve read, your dreams, etc.) will assist you in finding continuities between
various periods in your life. Using a
computer word-processor to keep your journal allows you to search for recurring
themes (this is related to the psychoanalytic technique known as
self-analysis). In addition, Restak
presents a variety of free association activities meant to enhance mental
acuity, recall, and creativity.
Finally, Restak suggests a few more
general strategies to enhance memory and intelligence. These strategies including: training your
powers of logic (doing brain teasers or timed crossword puzzles); enhancing
your sensory capacities (noticing colors, textures, shapes, etc.); becoming
more attuned to your daily rhythms of alertness (do you work well in the
morning or at night?); improving fine motor control of your hands (through
playing video games, performing magic tricks, or knitting); and improving your
active memory threshold (utilizing memorization techniques such as chunking
or memory pegs to increase the amount of information you can sustain in
All in all, Richard Restak has
presented a must-have volume for any reader who is interested in improving
memory and intelligence. Mozarts
Brain and the Fighter Pilot is a great collection of mental activities
mixed with just the right amount of neuro-physiological insights. Best of all, Restaks book can be used by
children and adults alike. I will
certainly continue to utilize the various activities and strategies Restak
describes and I look forward to trying out some of these activities on my family,
especially niece and nephews.
2002 James Sage
Sage is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Utah. His
interests include the evolution of mind and rationality, philosophy of science,
and naturalized theories of knowledge.