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.

 

Out of Our Minds by Sir Ken Robinson

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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.