Saturday, July 24, 2010

Making your Brain Work

The book ‘Making a Good Brain Great’ by Daniel Amen makes the case that a person’s psychological makeup or ethereal qualities like personality are impacted by the state of your biological brain. The mind’s condition can be determined by brain scans which depict the health of your grey matter. The scans can tell whether one has ‘psychological’ problems like attention deficit syndrome or obsessive compulsive behavior or cognitive problems by looking at one’s brain scan. It’s the logical outcome of the scientific method that shows the link between brain deterioration and mental problems like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. It’s the scientific explanation of relationship between the mind and/or personality and the brain.

In other words, a person’s personality, attitude and/or outlook in life are determined by your brain health. It is no longer one’s will or determination or other quirks of your personality that drives you to succeed but your brain state. Of course not all can be explained by the biological reality as the mind can transcend one’s biological limitation. For example, brilliant people who excel at a high intellectual level despite brain damaging flaws like alcoholism, drug abuse, excessive lifestyle and lack of sleep. I guess these are exceptional people but their intellectual capacity does not tell the full story: these brilliant people maybe difficult to live with, mean and destructive due to their brain abuse. A well adjusted or balanced personality may have a healthy brain.

The author says that a healthy brain is very rare. Coffee, tea, excessive alcohol, cholesterol, bad fats all affect the performance of the brain as well as sports like soccer or tackle football or motorcycling or other such activities that may cause brain injury. Lack of sleep is also important - at least 7 hours; some commentators say that the nation is sleep deprived - all indicate the difficulty of maintaining a healthy brain.  This entails daily exercise, 7-8 hours of sleep, good diet and supplements like fish oils are important. According to the book, this will determine your success – in work and personal life. It’s a holistic viewpoint that combines mind and body theory. It’s more important for people in their declining years because the mind and body are not as strong as in their youth.

In the weekend, I watched the Martin Scorsese film ‘Shutter Island’. It’s a movie about insanity and the best movie I have seen that clearly expressed a person’s insanity. Trauma – both psychological and physical – and chronic stress can cause one to be mentally unbalanced that the mind creates its own scenarios in order to survive. Trauma trips the mind to be constantly churning delusions or unhealthy thought patterns which cause ‘insanity’. Applying the theory of the Amen clinics: cures can be had by fixing the biological component of the mind like having a good diet, proper sleep, exercise and medicines like Serotonin (to address moods) to make the biological brain healthy. Psychological measures like talking to a psychiatrist or staging helpful scenarios (as done in the movie) is not the main solution.

Holistic cures can be meditation, calming techniques like Tai Chi or Yoga, journaling, and cognitive therapy can help address the psychological component. But one needs the biological component as well especially supplements like fish oil (Omega 3) or serotonin to complete the picture. Eckhart Tolle mentioned that modern society show signs of having ‘mental disease.’ His lectures during the aftermath of 9/11, terrorist attacks and wars seem to prove his point. Aside from the information overload and other such ‘psychological’ stimulants that affect mental health – the biological component such as poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise and lack of sleep all contribute to the ‘mental disease’. Sleep I believe has a major impact on mental health and the ‘sleep deficit’ experienced by a lot of people today needs to examined closely. Perhaps this is the most important aspect that is overlooked that could easily improve mental health – have at least 7 hours of sleep to be mentally healthy.

Applying all these lessons is important for the ‘knowledge worker’ today. It maybe the predictor of one’s success. Writers are especially vulnerable because it entails a lot of mental activity done in isolation. Its lonely work that requires creativity, discipline and organization.  A disorganized mental state will not help the writer achieve his goals. Earlier this week I watched a biography of Ernest Hemingway. Young writers usually admire his work and especially his life of adventure. But he was a heavy drinker and he suffered a concussion when his plane crashed twice in Africa. I guess in the last years of his life, his brain was damaged because of the accident and years of abuse and ended with his suicide. But in his early years, he had an excellent brain that produced masterpieces but was destroyed by his lifestyle. Unfortunately one can be fooled into thinking that Hemingway’s success was due to his excess.

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