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.


Flipped Classrooms and the Cardboard Challenge

Here are a couple of creative back-to-school ideas to get excited about. The first is the story of one little boy’s ingenuity which became a movement schools worldwide can participate in. It’s called the Cardboard Challenge and it combines play, creativity, technology and community in a heartwarming way. If you are looking for a way to bring your school and community together with a pro-science, pro-environmental, pro-fun event, take a look. The movie on the Imagination Foundation website explains it best so I’ll just link to it here and let you watch for yourself: Imagination Foundation.

The second item of back-to-school interest is this great info-graphic on the flipped classroom. If you wanted to argue the case for the flipped classroom or if you wanted a quick rundown of the what and why behind it, take a peek. If your students have online access at home, this looks like a really good teaching model to try, and with resources like Khan Academy, teachers can implement a flipped classroom with the support of some really well thought-out, free online resources.

Flipped Classroom

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Naked to Nature

I’m a fan of the The Naked Scientists podcast with Chris Smith. This is a fun, English podcast with features such as ‘kitchen science’ experiments for kids to try at home and quizzes for listeners.

For weekly podcasts on Science with a more serious tone, my new favorite is Chris Smith’s Nature podcast. Many of the topics are related and the sponsers are the same. The difference is more in-depth interviews with scientists on their latest discoveries.

Happy listening.

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.