Spark Book Review: The Science of Exercise and the Brain

Exercise and the brain

Changing thinking about exercise and the brain

Written by bestselling author and psychiatrist John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain is a positive book that looks at how exercise can improve neuroplasticity, learning, and executive function. It suggests exercise as a helpful addition to medication, or sometimes even a replacement for medication in the treatment of depression, addiction, and ADHD.

Exercise and the brain

I found Spark to be full of practical advice for improving education, lifting depression, alleviating addiction, improving student achievement, managing ADHD in adults and children, increasing mental performance, and reducing the likelihood of cognitive decline. If you didn’t think exercise was a panacea before reading this book, Doctor John J. Ratey will make a believer of you by the end. His book is chock full of case studies, statistics, and experimental data that both convince and encourage. Exercise may not cure everything, but it seems to optimize the brain by re-balancing the brain’s chemical and electrical signals and triggering new connections.

Why exercise and the brain?

People evolved as hunter-gatherers who were always on the move. Similarly, our brains need the chemicals released by moderate and intense exercise to function best. People typically exercise to improve their health or extend their lives but Ratey says these motivations are secondary to the more important benefits: improving the brain.This book will change the way you think about your workout. I found myself reading it on the stationary bike.

The only negative aspect of this book is that it gets very technical for the average reader, especially in ebook form. The references to clinical trials and case studies make Ratey’s style is appropriate for a cutting-edge expert in his field. As a non-expert, I could have used some brain diagrams to help me absorb the scientific names for various brain regions, growth factors, neurotransmitters and so forth. There was a lot to learn and while Ratey explains things well, it would have been nice to have a cheat sheet or visual organizers.

Who should read Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain?

I read this book with interest because of my work with children. The book leads off with a couple of fascinating studies relating how exercise can improve student achievement, contentment, and behaviour. There are sections devoted to ways in which exercise stimulates new learning and helps students with attention challenges. That said, there are sections on a wide range of maladies that affect adults from depression to Alsheimer’s Disease to addiction. This book will be useful to a broad range of readers, including those interested in practical suggestions to help stave off mental decline with age.


Robert J. Sawyer — Quantum Night

Robert J. Sawyer at book launch for Quantum Night in Toronto
Robert J. Sawyer at the jam packed Toronto launch of Quantum Night with David and Maaja Wentz

Book Launch

There was such a snowstorm March first for the Toronto launch of Quantum Night, that some feared attendance would be sparse, but Canadians are hardy. Returning home afterward I saw one cyclist on the road, riding through blowing snow.


Despite the blanket of flurries, Lansdowne Brewery was packed, even before the advertised start time. Rob offered up his seat so my husband and I could eat sitting down at the bar. Meanwhile, Rob Sawyer stood to sign autographs. A scholar and a gentleman indeed!

Quantum Night

Quantum Night is a suspenseful read, although the plot is based in philosophy and theories of consciousness. For some reason this book hits all the right notes for me, right down to the David Chalmers quote that prefaces the story:

It may be a requirement for a theory of consciousness that it contains at least one crazy idea.


I found I could relate to the realistic characters, but it’s ideas that make science fiction interesting. Perhaps it’s pure coincidence that I read a stack of books on psychopathy this summer, or perhaps it’s just the zeitgeist and Rob Sawyer is reflecting what preoccupies people right now.


The book is topical and political. At the launch, Sawyer told us he had to make last-minute changes to the manuscript to reflect the results of the Canadian federal elections. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was considered a long shot for much of his campaign.


The other topic of fascination for me, so crucial to the plot of this book, is consciousness/ free will. Any book in which a character references The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, is my kind of story. The question of when and how our prehistoric ancestors started to develop conscious thought is fascinating and contentious. Sawyer’s story dives right into this controversy.


Sheep or Individuals?

The premise contends that the majority of people aren’t conscious, but follow the lead of others like sheep, and that psychopathic leaders delight in manipulating the herd. For Sawyer there is another group he calls the quick, who are both conscious and ruled by their conscience. I bet all Science Fiction readers assume that they, of course, cannot belong to the unconscious “philosopher’s zombie” group.


By the way, the sheep people who make up the majority are perfectly capable of holding down jobs, marrying and having children, and going out on Friday night like everyone else. To an outside observer it is impossible to prove whether a person who goes along with the crowd is making conscious choices or not.


It’s perhaps the hardest part of the book to swallow, but also what makes it so much fun. What’s the point of fiction if you can’t suspend disbelief?

(I am experimenting with this affiliate links to Amazon Canada. The other links are to the publisher.)


Near Future Thriller

It’s a convention of the thriller genre that there will be unbelievable feats or technology or events. The fact I remain skeptical of some speculative elements of the premise didn’t make the story any less exciting. There is even a guilty geekish pleasure to be had in speculating that the in-crowd from high school to Hollywood might actually be made up of brainless zombies.


The intrigue centres around blind followers, psychopaths, and persons of conscience. The premise is that a device is invented which can change a person’s makeup from one type to another. You can just imagine what might happen if this device were to fall into the hands of psychopaths, and of the difficult choices that must be made when it is discovered that the transformation is along a continuum. There is no way to use this power without plunging some conscious people into a state of sheepy unconsciousness.


In a world where one individual could press the reset button and change the makeup of humanity, will the result be our salvation or damnation? I leave you to read this very enjoyable book and conclude for yourself.


Ideamancy – Ideas for Back-To-School Magic

A running start to Fall.
A running start to Fall.

The first week of school is over. Routines are starting to gel, kids are on their best behaviour and starting to make friends. Teachers are breathing a sigh of relief. It’s the honeymoon period for elementary teachers. This glistening doorway of opportunity, lit by September magic, will not stay open long.

Invite all the kids in, before that dull ‘day-to-day feeling’ arrives. Hook them with creativity. Kids love to be stimulated and challenged to imagine. They want your teaching to take them places they could never go on their own. Surprise them and help them stretch their minds, and they will know you are on their side when things get harder.

With this goal in mind, here are a few book suggestions for September:

Steal Like an Artist. Long books on creativity can be counterproductive. This short book by Austen Kleon is full of art, poetry ideas and inspiration for teacher-artists, or anyone who wants to live more creatively. I recently reread it and find it excellent for visual, material, dramatic and literary artists.

Kleon suggests that you take whatever artistic thing you do to procrastinate and do more of it. He gives practical advice for artists like ‘learn about money,’ and describes ethical ways to draw inspiration from the work of others. One of his big projects is Newspaper Blackout, a website which begat a bestselling poetry book.

You could have a lot of fun doing newspaper blackout poetry with your students. How? Students take fat markers and strike out words on a newspaper page, until the remaining words form a poem. The result might be a simple message like “Eat your vegetables!” More sophisticated students could juxtapose the title of the original article against their ‘secret’ message. For example, they could take an article about war and block out words to reveal “give peace a chance,” or “support our troops.”


Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends appeals to boys and girls. It’s not new material but his poem, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” is a guaranteed giggle. I introduce it by telling kids how my Dad used to recite it to me when I was little. “Sylvia Stout,” is a good model for student ‘chore’ poems or poems about garbage. With Green Philosophy paramount in modern schools, it’s time for young Silversteins-in-the-making to write recycling poems. If you like his style, there are videos of many of his poems and songs available on YouTube. “I’m Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor,” is fun to sing with young children. Just be careful, not all Silverstein material is safe for school. Ever heard “Never Bite a Married Woman on the Thigh?”


Make your own crazy character mix and match flip book. Have you ever played this game? Fold over a small stack of paper and staple to make a booklet. Make two scissor cuts to divide the book in three, top-to-bottom. Students draw the head of a character or creature in the top box, the body in the middle and the feet at the bottom. Students open the booklet to the next page and pass it to the next student. This student continues by drawing another monster, athlete, animal or character, aligning the head, body and legs in the correct box. This process continues until all pages are filled and the books are returned for sharing, flipping and discussing. This little art and creativity project can be a jumping off point for writing “What if” stories or just a fun get-to-know you activity. Enjoy!


‘What if’ story starters:

  • What if you woke up with the legs of an Olympic runner?
  • What if you had the chest of a fish and could breathe under water?
  • What if you had the body of a bird and could fly?
  • What if your head was an octopus, legs and all?
  • What if you woke up with a hairy gorilla body?
  • What if you woke up with the pitching arm of a pro baseball player?


Here are some examples of different flip books:


This one is just for writers. As a writing book junkie, I procrastinate by reading about writing. What better way to goof off and still feel productive? In my home office, I have a bookshelf of reference and writing advice books. Other titles I’ve purchased as ebooks or borrowed from the library. I’m not proud of my addiction, but it puts this next statement in context.

Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, is the best book on fiction editing I have ever read. Reading it feels like having an editor at my side, pointing out potential flaws and providing techniques for reworking and deepening the second draft of my novel-in-progress. The chapters on polish and proofreading are short compared to those on style, craft and characterization. This is no grammar book for beginners.

If you want to do more substantive editing before you submit your work to a professional, this book is an excellent reference to read, and reread. The checklists at the end of each chapter help diagnose weak points and prioritize the complex processes of rewriting: adding, subtracting and re-imagining to enrich voice, style and emotion.

Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson

Book Review

Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative with Sir Ken Robinson

When you research creativity in education, it is impossible not to come across Ken Robinson’s provocative work. His book, Out of Our Minds, published in 2001, revised in 2011, is still fresh and powerful. In part a scathing critique of the factory model of education, Robinson supports individual educators, and acknowledges that many of us are working within the system to support student creativity.

Part of his work is a well-researched attack on academic hierarchy. While he champions literacy, Robinson asks why mathematics and Language should be considered supremely important, while drama and dance are treated like expendable extras. Unless the goal of all students is to become university professors, he argues, this approach is wrongheaded.

Threatened by global and ecological crises as never before, he says humanity is going to need creative thinking if we are to thrive and survive as a species. Globally, the rate of change of technology means children we teach today will work in industries that haven’t been invented, use tools we’ve never seen, and interact in ways we can’t imagine. The outsourcing of well-paid high tech work is only one reason I agree with Robinson’s arguments. As adults, today’s children will compete globally to earn a living.

‘Back-to-basics’ teaching focussed on rankings and standardized testing is not preparing students for employment. According to Robinson, business leaders want “thoughtful, creative, self-confident people… who are literate, numerate, who can analyze information and ideas; who can generate new ideas of their own and help to implement them; who can communicate clearly and work well with other people.”

Before you ask how writing poems is going to help with that, consider Robinson’s definition of creativity. He suggests we should recognize more forms of human intelligence than those measured by I.Q. testing or the SATs. For Robinson, these outdated tests only reinforce modern society’s harmfully narrow view of intelligence. He claims the unemployed high school dropout and the underemployed college graduate were both let down by the education system, because neither discovered their creative potential.

Human beings think and exert intelligence in diverse ways depending on the medium of our creative work.

When people find their medium, they discover their real creative strengths and come into their own. Helping people connect with their personal creative capacities is the surest way to release the best they have to offer.

Robinson calls for a celebration of diversity in human thinking which will alter societal attitudes to ability and disability; and also help humanity adapt to exponential population growth, unpredictable technological change and growing environmental concerns.

He calls creativity “applied imagination,” and “a process of having original ideas that have value.” This value cuts across all domains from pure science research to filmmaking.

Robinson’s chapter, “Being Creative,” provides practical tips on how to boost innovation through technique. All people are born imaginative, but this ability can be enhanced or squelched by one’s environment. Unlocking the “constant promise of alternative ways of seeing, of thinking and of doing,” is essential. Educators, parents and community leaders can do a lot to foster diverse talents, instead of feeding the myth that creativity is just for ‘special people.’

There is a saying among teachers in my school that ‘gifted teaching is just good teaching.’ Robinson’s book reinforces this idea. We must interact with all our students in ways that bring out their gifts and talents, and be open to exploring domains that allow them to think, whether they think best through drama, dance or mathematical equations. It’s a tall order and no educator can do it on his or her own, but informing our teaching practice with a philosophy that nurtures creativity is an excellent place to start.

Word on the Street Toronto

I visited Word on the Street this past weekend. It’s my favourite celebration of booky goodness. The weather was sunny and warm, the crowds large and cheerful. There was even some fun street theatre to compliment the books, talks, signings, sales, giveaways and concerts. I came away with too many books but why not? As vices go, a book fetish isn’t so bad. Here is a little video of my impressions. It’s shot with a flip camera and edited with Adobe Premiere Elements.

There is no Dog — And his name is Bob

I found Meg Rosoff’s There Is No Dog in the YA section of a Chapters store. Teens should find the book funny for its irreverent philosophy but I wouldn’t expect every adolescent boy to appreciate it. The premise is that God is incompetent and apathetic because he is a teenage boy. The job is foisted on Bob when his goddess mother loses a poker game.

Bob has a middle-aged adviser, Mr. B., whom he mistreats as only a spoiled teen can. Bob is too selfish, easily distracted and sex-obsessed to be bothered to look after Earth. He even flubs Creation because he rushes it in six days. Bob’s genius consists of creating humans with a built-in desire to worship him, so he’ll always be adored. It also gives him a whole planet of girls to chase.
Mr. B, who feels slighted to be passed over for the top job, does his best to alleviate some human suffering. In the end, he also fails, overwhelmed by a paperwork tower of prayers and problems.
This clever novel reads very quickly at 240 pages. It’s one of those ‘candy’ books that affords simple pleasure but leaves little aftertaste. I don’t recommend it to the extremely devout, unless they can tolerate a lot of playfulness in the premise. Reader know thyself.
Happy reading!

Margaret Atwood – Live from Word on the Street

Margaret Atwood celebrated the 20th Annual Word on the Street festival with a technological twist. Known for her invention of the LongPen, a multimedia device which allows her to remotely sign autographs and talk to fans, Atwood has gone one step further on the book tour for her latest novel, The Year of the Flood.

Sunday September 27, she appeared virtually in Vancouver and Halifax from the Scotiabank Bestsellers Stage at Word on the Street, Toronto. After a reading from her novel, Atwood answered questions from fans in Halifax, Vancouver and finally, from the live Toronto audience.

The images of Vancouver and Halifax looked grainy and there were some difficulties with the sound in Vancouver but the experiment inspired plenty of applause. As Atwood put it, the LongPen is “a way of connecting with people across space.” For her, all technology is “neutral,” an extension of “human bodies, human desires and fears.”

Atwood has taken to blogging and to composing Twitter Tweets to promote this latest book, a companion to her Oryx and Crake which came out in 2003. With her characteristic wit, Atwood promised those participating in the coast-to-coast reading: “You will all be mentioned in this blog, although possibly not individually.”

Flood revisits the same post-apocalyptic world as Oryx and Crake, but this time, the point-of-view characters are female. Part of the inspiration, Atwood said, came from people asking her why she had used a male protagonist in that novel.

When asked a general question about sources of inspiration, Atwood hesitated. Instead of giving the usual laundry-list of influences, she cited all the books she read between the ages of five and sixteen as triggers for the desire to write. Once you begin writing, she explained, it becomes less a question of inspiration than being immersed in the process.

Where do her characters come from? She is often inspired by a plot that seems to be going somewhere. Beginning with a situation and using a kind of actor’s improvisation, Atwood builds, layers by layer, until the character emerges.

Made to Stick

I enjoyed Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The subtitle, Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, explains much of its appeal. If you want to get across a message that people will understand, remember, and act on, this is your book.

A lot of the Heath brother’s advice is common sense but there are surprises. In an annual experiment Chip does at Stanford, he gives his students a set of crime statistics and asks them to make a one-minute persuasive speech. The speeches are then rated by the class.

The speeches are always excellent and the smoothest, best talkers are preferred by their peers, but are the best speakers the best communicators? Ten minutes after the speeches are given, the content of even the best statistic-heavy speech is forgotten. Regardless of speaking ability, the one student in ten who decides to tell a story, passes on information which is remembered.

Here are some Velcro clad tips to make your ideas (or your teaching) stick.

SUCCESs is the Heath brother’s acronym for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Emotional, Stories. They promise that if you use these principles, your ideas will be understood and remembered, just like perennial urban legends. First, simplify the idea to first principles, then use unexpected images or situations to make the idea memorable. Next, stimulate an emotional response in the receiver and don’t forget to use stories, because stories, told even tolerably well, are more memorable than other forms of information.

They cite the ‘Kidney Heist,’ an urban legend where, after a drink with a woman in a bar, a traveller wakes up naked, packed in ice in his hotel bathtub. He has a fresh surgical incision. Just within reach is a phone and instructions to stay still and call 911 for help because his kidney has been removed. Does this story sound familiar? We remember stories like these because they are simple, shocking, emotional and full of concrete details like ice and incisions.

Now to get my French students to remember their possessive pronouns as easily as they remember all those ‘Alligator in the Sewer’ legends…

Made to Stick is an amusing book full of anecdotes and mnemonics so that the take away message really does go with you. I recommend it if you want to write better or teach better. Their methods also show how a democratic-minded leader can sidestep the buzzwords and create an inspirational mission statement employees can really use to make day-to-day decisions.

Happy reading.

Grown Up Digital

I have to recommend Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World by Don Tapscott. I found it excellent preparation for back to school, both for understanding my students and giving extra insight into the group dynamics of my co-workers. It’s also a handy guide for those who wish to market to NetGen, a group who demand choice, flexibility, transparency, integrity and ‘fun’ as customers and employees.

Tapscott is a futurist, interested in how people born in different eras think. He divides the generations into cohorts and examines their corresponding values and favoured technologies. This book concentrates on three groups and the relationships between them: Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Net Generation (NetGen), the largest cohort in North America, also called the ‘Boom Echo.’

Tapscott’s earlier book, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, followed the childhood and teen years of NetGen, the first to grow up with ubiquitous internet access and a taste for gaming and online social networking.
This latest book concentrates on how NetGeners affect everything as they enter the workforce and political arena.

Overall the book is well-written, well-documented and easily understood by the layperson. It’s major flaw is repetition which is ironic in a book which claims drill and repetition to be anathema to NetGen. Perhaps this redundancy is intended to assist Baby Boomers? In any case, I found it tiring to read the same points in different chapters.

Tapscott uses anecdotes and interviews to elucidate his points. My favorite parts include the rebuttals NetGen have made to typical Boomer accusations. Boomers call NetGeners lazy, dishonest, uneducated and undisciplined, accusing them of stealing music, plagiarising remorselessly and failing to use correct English.

Tapscott comes down firmly in favour of NetGen. They are smarter, do more and know more than previous generations. NetGen works and thinks differently than its parent’s generation. NetGen refuses to be the passive recipient of information, it critiques authority and demands greater choice and flexibility in all areas. NetGen’s social engagement, cosmopolitan outlook and charitable works bode well for the future.

If you are interested in understanding the generation gap and generation lap and finding out how the giant NetGen cohort will affect society, I suggest reading Tapscott’s book. You can always skim over the repetitive parts and visit his project on FaceBook. It’s what Tapscott predicts the Net Geners will do anyway.

Happy reading.

Bios by Robert Charles Wilson

To inform my current novel-in-progress, I went to all the vendors at WorldCon, requesting books of biological takeover and spores from outer space. Bios was one of the recommendations.

There is a much more thorough review here, which you might want to look at, since I read Bios with impure motives. This is half-review, half encouragement to keep myself writing.

I was a little blocked on how to proceed with my story, caught in a dilemma of tone and theme. Reading something radically different in tone yet similar in topic, helped me see what I’m not trying to do. Don’t misunderstand. I think Robert Charles Wilson is a wonderful writer. His story is deft and I like the way he hints at a greater political universe, while retaining the dramatic tension of a “well-made play.” This story has a narrow focus, tight time lines and no way for his characters to escape. His world-building is impeccable.

Bios is a smallish book at 208 pages. It is set in a post-plague future, where mankind has spread to Mars and several small “Kuiper” colonies to survive. These rebellious post-Earth settlers are forced to work with each other and with surviving Earth humans on Isis. This post-colonial relationship breeds resentment and economic politics, side conflicts which enrich the classic main conflict: Man versus the environment.

Isis appears to be a planet of jungle paradises, snow-capped peaks and clear water. It is the landscape Zoe has been cloned, surgically upgraded and trained to study. Her cheerful loyalty to the “Family,” a dynasty which controls much of Earth, is maintained by an internal hormone regulator. Part of the emotional interest in this book comes from an act of sabotage. A surgeon, in an act of rebellion, removes Zoe’s “thymostat,” on the eve of her launch to Isis.

On Isis, the microbes have evolved to be so aggressive, a breath of the air liquifies a human in minutes. This high toxicity makes the planet a profitable pharmacopoeia. Unfortunately, the outside life is starting to find it’s way into the research stations.

Zoe, with her upgraded immune system and superior exploration suit, looks like she can survive this bios on her own. She is so confident, she interacts with the dominant life form, a social insectoid which reminds her of humans. This mistake, based on human prejudices, allows her to discover the spiritual secret of Isis: intelligent life in the rest of the universe is radically different from that on Earth.

I have to recommend Bios. It’s a page-turner that constructs a unique and compelling fictional world.

Happy reading.