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.


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.

The Globe and Mail — “The Face of Chinese Cost-Cutting”

Today’s Globe reports that Chinese citizens are dying due to toxic contaminants in their food and medicines and that Chinese authorities are unwilling to make companies pay for their infractions. Guo Ping, whose young daughter Liu Sichen was killed by contaminated antibiotics, complained that the authorities “don’t think that ordinary people are important.” No investigation was made as to the cause of her death.

The Globe says cancer has become the number one killer in China due to pollution, contaminated foods and the non-regulation of industry. It could happen here too, if we are not vigilant in protecting the rights of the individual and the rights of the Earth. Now there’s an idea…

Defining the Earth as a being with legal rights is a concept worth considering. If the Earth were a legal entity the way a corporation is, it could sue. It would have a legal right to protection. It might even stand a chance against the humans who grow astronomically each day, both in numbers and in their consumption of natural resources. If the Earth had a right to some of the profits made off its back, those profits could be used to undo some of the damage caused by human activity.

There has to be a way of making human life on earth sustainable without sacrificing the advantages of modernity. Individuals need to think in the long term and rally others to exert their democratic rights within their own countries as well as supporting international organizations who would have the power to prosecute and mete out penalties against environmental offenders. Think of it as a war crimes tribunal, in the war against Earth’s profit-minded persecutors.

Here is a link to the original article, while it lasts: Chinese Cost-Cutting

For an analysis of the laws which protect corporate rights and profits, I highly recommend the documentary series, The Corporation. Isn’t it odd that something as important and fragile as our planet has less rights than a corporation?

The Selfish Gene — Richard Dawkins

Now reading: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I took out the 30th anniversary edition of this book from the library. I’ve only read the first 80 pages and already it’s changing my view of evolution. Dawkins uses game theory and mathematical models to prove that many of the evolutionary advantages we might assume are conferred at the species level should actually be measured in terms of advantages to individuals within the species. Each animal, for example, is driven by the ‘selfish genes’ which contain the instructions to create it. Each gene, since the primordial soup that began life on earth, tries to survive indefinitely, despite the short lifespan of it’s (animal) hosts. More later…

Other reads:

My son is devouring the Captain Underpants series and the first Bone graphic novel.

Of course my big read right now is the Let’s Go Guide to France. I’m planning on starting with Americanna sublime: EuroDisney, Paris. Next, I go to see friends from Bayonne. I lived with them for three months when I did a grade-twelve French exchange. From Bayonne, I’m sure to go to the beach in Biarritz and investigate the Basque country. My Bayonne friends are also taking me, with my son and mother-in-law, to see the French Pyrenees and the Altamira cave in Santander, Spain. He will love the dinosaur fossils there.

A friend, whom I am visiting after all of this luxury travel, joked that my son will ‘think he’s in the third world,’ when he arrives in Marseille. Bayonne is picturesque, true, but I’ve been to Marseille. It’s lovely! Of course, meeting my friend’s two kids for the first time will be even better. Could I get much luckier?

Looking forward to doing more travelling and writing (and even less blogging.)

Next stop: South Carolina. I wonder what famous books were written about that area? I don’t know the names of famous South Carolina writers offhand, so I’m very open to reading suggestions…

Seriously Spoiled Cereal Girl

Theatre of the Mind

Currently reading: Theatre of the Mind: Raising the Curtain on Consciousness

You may have seen Jay Ingram co-host Discovery channel’s science magazine, Daily Planet. It’s my son’s favorite show. What would he think of me if I confessed my other favorite is something called “Ugly Betty?”

I am enjoying Ingram’s book, which initiates the layman into current scientific debate about consciousness. I say debate because nobody seems to have the answers. Even our equipment isn’t precise enough to map consciousness in terms of brain activity. Then there are those who postulate that consciousness isn’t really in the brain at all…

Topics of discussion include: dreams, the evolution of consciousness, animal consciousness, right and left brain functioning, dreaming, freewill, illusions of consciousness and delusions of perception. In each case, Ingram gives you the bare bones of the most interesting arguments, along with a few of his own observations for illustration.

The prose is a little dense at times, but if it weren’t he wouldn’t be doing his subject justice. I’m enjoying it.

Happy reading!

Tim Flannery — Making waves about weather

Canada’s investigative journalism magazine, W5, did a recent expose on Canadian climate change skeptics. Of these, many are paid by the oil and gas industry, many have not published recently in peer-reviewed scientific journals and some are linked to the same American publicity firm that tobacco companies hired to question evidence linking smoking with health risks.

There is no direct link to this story on the CTV webpage but there are many other stories exploring different global warming issues, notably Canada’s decision to emulate the U.S. stance on the Kyoto accord.

In response to the false debate which has clouded the issue in the media , Tim Flannery’s book takes a conservative (in the politically neutral sense) look at climate change science. He demystifies predictions and measurements made by mainstream scientists and suggests practical solutions.

I am still reading The Weather Makers: How we are changing the climate and what it means for life on earth, but I thought I would post a quote or two.

Flannery’s book explains that the scientific practice of publishing calculations with a margin of error makes these findings more legitimate, not less so. A calculated degree of doubt does not excuse inaction.

Flannery says we are “committed” to a certain increase in habitat loss, extreme weather and climate change already, because of atmospheric CO2 accumulated since the industrial revolution. This CO2 is not going to go away.

The question is not if there will be damage but how great the damage will be and whether the earth’s warming will escape our control as various heating effects create feedback loops which reinforce each other. Like I said, you have to read the book to check out effects such as loss of albedo and altered ocean currents.

Flannery explains the science with nuance, but in layman’s terms. Despite potential disaster, he remains hopeful that we can avert the worst.


“…if we act now it lies within our power to save two species for every one that is currently doomed. If we carry on with business as usual, in all likelihood three out of every five species will not be with us at the dawn of the next century.”

“… Earth’s average temperature is around 15°C and whether we allow it to rise by a single degree, or 3°C, will decide the fate of hundreds and thousands of species, and most probably billions of people. Never in the history of humanity has there been a cost-benefit analysis that demands greater scrutiny.”

Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How we are changing the climate and what it means for life on earth, 2005.

Survey, Carbon Dioxide and a Street Writer

I was delighted when, in reference to my previous post about flash fiction, anocturne said:

“i have seen this in circulation on the blogworld – a bunch of folks i visit have something called the “friday fifty-five” and one is supposed to post a 55 word piece every friday. it’s a good idea – maybe we could start a “saturday 65″ and take off, eh? like you said, it would be good discipline, and i know a couple of folks who would jump right in.”

A Saturday 65 feature would be paragraph stories of 65 words (or a little less). The challenge would be to make a real story in so few words.

Wikipedia has a fair bit to say about flash fiction. I want to know what you have to say:

  1. Would readers of this jump right in and submit?
  2. Is this the place to post these 65 word entries? I usually post reviews, not fiction.
  3. Should I include 65 word quotes from classic literature?
  4. Should I include my own 65 word stories or non-fiction once in a while?
  5. Should the format be free or should I impose a form, say, satirical back-of-book blurbs to go with the overall ‘reading’ theme?
  6. How often should I post these 65 page pieces? Monthly? Weekly?
  7. Who would read them? Check out the page views button at the bottom of the page. This is a non-profit, low volume blog.

I would be very interested in some feedback. If I no one responds, that will answer all my questions.

If you want to reply, why not send me a 65 word piece to encourage me!

Currently reading:

Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid
by: Evelyn Lau

The Weather Makers: How we are Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth
by: Tim Flannery

CANSCAIP — Research for non-fiction

Last night I attended the monthly CANCAIP meeting. The atmosphere was, as always, very friendly. I enjoy meeting people who have actually “done it” before — published a children’s book, that is.

The special topic for October was research for non-fiction.

Editor and writer Gena Gorrell talked about predicting unforeseen problems, filing and obtaining photo rights, interview techniques, chapter organization and following leads. She also amused us with stories about police dogs and fire fighting.

Sydell Waxman talked about organizing research, using primary and secondary data and choosing subjects for biographies. It made me realize how much time and effort go into tracking down primary sources and verifying information. Definitely not a job for the lazy.

I came away with plenty of good tips. Fiction writers need to do their research too!

If you are interested in writing for children, the Canadian Society of Childrens Authors, Illustraters and Performers offers an annual workshop series called “Packaging Your Imagination.” Click on my permanent CANSCAIP link for more info.

Favorite Book — non-fiction

At word on the Street, readers and writers named their favorite books.