Brain Class

The bell has rung, and brain class has begun. Norman Doidge, MD, and Sharon Begley, authors of "The Brain That Changes Itself" and "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain" respectively, have made the idea of brain fitness common knowledge, and the marketers are flooding the marketplace with verbiage that seduces and excites.

Lots of it is aimed at baby boomers, like me, who are worried that we will lose our faculties to Alzheimers.

Boomers have all had a close call or two with our ultimate fate and hold fewer illusions about mortality than we did when we were youngsters, yet we continue to expect to be vital right up to the  end.

There is a tremendous difference between Boomers though, and their predecessors, like my parents, who expected to reach retirement age with a pension and social security and have the time for pursuit of hobbies, for example, or see the grandkids, or sleep in the hammock.

Not that Boomers are not going to do those things, but Boomers are looking at things like volunteering for example, retirement re-careering, rather a life of leisure, and that expectation is pumping a lot of purchasing energy towards staying healthy, anti-aging, and brain fitness purchases.  To counteract the marketing, we need to do some research.

Any brain class needs to start with an examination of the research out there, like the ACITVE and IMPACT studies. The products of the Posit Science Brain Fitness folks were involved in those studies, and the studies indicate that there is some real value to using the Brain Fitness Program for seniors. Neural circuits involved in processing sound were exercised and renewed their ability to fire together, which provides the older brain a cognitive reserve, or an ability to re-route signals around trouble spots in the brain, and to hear with more acuity too.

For an excellent primer on the field, I recommend Brainfit for Life Written by Simon Evans, Ph.D. and Paul Burghardt, Ph.D. at the University of Michigan.

Their book is just chock full of nuggets pulled and culled from research that say, in so many words, "There are all these neat things you can do for your brain's health!"

In their book, Brainfit for Life there is mention of research about the dual n back task, and fluid intelligence, and my reading of that research is very exciting, because the researchers are not involved in marketing any products related to their research.

Any brain class would have to include a mention of their work.

Brain Class Synopsis

All of the blogs and websites  and brain classes deal in one way or another with what Evans and Burghardt call the Four Cornerstones of Life Long Brain Fitness, which are nutrition, sleep, physical exercise, and novel learning experience, and all of the blogs are going to speak of using these tools in to enhance neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, brain abilities that we did not know about even ten years ago.

Neurogenesis is the brain's ability to grow new brain cells daily. For a boomer, that is very exciting, because I have more hope that I will not slide into a long slow decline, especially since there were some excesses in the 1960's which were not good for my brain.

Neuroplasticity, as Begley, Evans, and Burghardt describe it, is the brain constantly reorganizing itself based on my thoughts and behaviors, literally thought by thought.

While the Merzenich protocol exercises all the neurons involved in the hearing process, plasticity is particular to individual thoughts and learnings, and is my brain is aching to do this. That is how it keeps itself sharp, and is also where the cornerstone of sleep fits in for Evans and Burghardt. When I am asleep, the brain double checks the days new connections and prunes some and reinforces some. Very important that the amount of sleep be long enough for that to happen.


There is a great deal of specific information available about vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals, glyconutrients, antioxidants, and omega 3 fatty acids, and why those things must be taken daily, for the brain to do its memory, sensory processing, and analysis work effectively.

Without going into a lot of detail about the molecular specifics, neurons need to be able to talk to one another constantly, billions of them, constantly connecting so that you remember your VIP clients name at the most important moment and if they do not have all the letters in their alphabet, the neuronal communication gets garbled, and you can appear incompetent.

A word to the wise, there is a tremendous connection between low blood sugar and violence that I see in my practice. If you have a food allergy, the symptoms can mimic psychiatric conditions.

Who would have thought broccoli was so important? Well, it is, and one of its bretheren, omega 3 fatty acid is vital as well.

We usually get omega 3 from ocean going cold water fish, but they are now full of mercury, which is no friend to your brain, so an option to get omega 3 fatty acid is a supplement.

Make sure it is refined appropriately because if not refined appropriately, then you will get mercury in your supplement.

Xtend-Life makes available refining data, and the company has been in the supplement business for quite some time.

Physical Exercise

No brain class will be complete without mention of the benefits of physical exercise for your brain.

The good news is that you do not have exercise like you were training for the Olympics.

The bad news is that you do need to be regular.

In Brainfit for Life, Evans and Burghardt talk about starting off with increasing your physical activity and then moving to increasing your physical exercise.

Physical activity is what we normally do around the house, and I have worked up a sweat these days because my four year old daughter likes to come snuggle with me in the morning, and then wants me to carry her to her bath, across the basement, up a flight of stairs, and across the house,  and she is getting heavy. That might be a cross between physical exercise and physical activity, but it counts toward brain fitness, and hopefully a loving memory for her.

Good models for physical exercise are Scott and Angie Tousignant who have put together a program for couples to use at home, needing no more in the way of equipment than an exercise ball. It is called More Love, Less Fat

Please check out The Aesthetic Muscle Plan, and book, More Love, Less Fat, by Angie and Scott Tousignant. 

Novel Learning

The last section of the brain class is the new learning or novel learning challenge, which can include the computerized programs now available.

The key in this part of the brain class is novel challenge. As a counselor, I cannot read another counseling book and expect to foment new dendrites and synapses.

But if I learn a new language, or take up a hobby like painting, which will always be a hobby for me, or start a new career, there will be lots of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity and fluid intelligence as a result. (I have enough crystallized intelligence).

While I am not going to re-career today, I can include regular use of computerized brain fitness programs as part of my work to keep my Boomer Brain alive and vital. I have tried four of them, and found them all helpful. Links are to the right.

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