Tag Archives: memory

Successful Aging

Oh dear, yet another large print book. I have nothing against the concept of large print, ideally this makes it easier to read for people with vision issues. However, I wish the publishers did a better job with layout and leading, the latter essentially being the spacing between lines. Lines of large type clumped on a page does not, actually, make for easier reading (for me).

John W Rose, MD, and Rober L Kahn, PhD, compiled the results of a MacArthur Foundation Study on aging and the result is the 1998 book, Successful Aging. Given that this book was published 14 years ago, there was nothing new in it that I had not already seen in some other format.

There were, however, two items that did particularly strike me. The first was the wonderful optimism the authors exude in describing both the results of the long term study and what the findings could mean for the future. While they break down the study and discuss multiple aspects of aging, I think the book’s message can be summed up quite simply. To paraphrase Carol Dweck’s findings about mindsets, those with growth mindsets will find it easier to deal with aging and, as such, will likely have a positive impact on their own aging process. Those who have a fixed mindset will find that when the going gets tough, they may be less flexible in managing repercussions, which will likely have a less positive – and perhaps negative – impact on their own aging process.

The idea of mindsets holds true, as well, for younger peoples’ perceptions of older people. As a teacher, I have always believed that students rise or fall to the level of expectations held for them. Similarly, if younger people can have a positive mindset about older people and the process of aging, this is more likely to have a beneficial impact on their interactions with older people and on their own aging process.

Due to the date of the book, 1998, I tended to question some of the statistics the authors noted, especially regarding the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the aging population. I am reasonably confident that the numbers of people with, and expected to exhibit some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s is far greater than what they forecast back in 1998. You can read more about the Latest Alzheimer’s Statistics in the United States in this article on the Texas Alzheimer’s Research and Care Consortium site. In any case, both resources note that dementia and Alzheimer’s are not part of the normal aging process.

Similar to what I have gleaned from other books on aging, and from attendance at various Learning & the Brain conferences, Rose and Kahn note there are several factors a person can engage with to help their brains and bodies age normally. Turns out we do have  some control over how we age, it’s not all in the genes.

  • engage in physical activity – good for the body and for the brain, as exercise helps stimulate BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • fertilize your social network – showing care for and an interest in others, and allowing them to do the same for you makes for a strong support system
  • believe that you can manage whatever comes your way – while this may not always be the case, having a “cup half full” approach to aging can help you handle the blips

According to research, focusing on the above three elements will help an individual age successfully. Essentially, this approach translates to preventive care, and preventive care can aid with (in the words of the authors) “avoiding disease, maintaining high cognitive and physical function, and engagement with life.” Alternatively,

Disability in older people results from three key factors: 1) the impact of disease, or more commonly, many diseases at once; 2) lifestyle factors, such as exercise and diet, which directly influence physical fitness and risk of disease; and 3) the biological changes that occur with advancing age – formally known as senescence.

For more on healthy aging, here are some of my prior posts plus an article by Elkhonon Goldberg.

Music & Memory ~ Alive Inside Documentary

For as long as I’ve been interested in the brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks has been someone who has stood out. He is an author of many books, in particular one with an intriguing title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and one that directly relates to a topic of great interest to me, Musicophilia. If you’ve been following my blog posts, you’ll recall I am reading Dan Levitan’s This Is Your Brain On Music (just one chapter to go!)

The video clip below is from Alive Inside, a documentary about the impact of music on people who live with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The movie is being screened next week in New York City at The Rubin Museum of Art. You can read more about the program of bringing music to nursing homes and people with Alzheimer’s at Music & memory.

[Update April 22: My friend Ann sent me a link to NPR's eight minute interview – For Elders With Dementia, Musical Awakenings – with Dan Cohen, the person who started the process of crafting individualized song lists for folks with dementia and Alzheimer's, around which the Alive Inside documentary is based. In my Seated Sunday Yoga Songfest at The Pavilion, I have seen similar connections reblossom when a familiar song plays. There is often the added piece of a personal connection, as my hands connect with another's, we move and sway and sing, we smile and look into each other's eyes.]

Last post – Music; this post – Dance

For me, they are linked – I hear music, I start to move. And if it’s a certain kind of music, my body starts to dance. The only thinking I do is split second, wondering if it is okay to start dancing in my current surroundings.

Music has an amazing impact on the brain, influencing neuronal impulses to cause movement. This Facebook wall post says it all. In fact, there are instances where dancing helps the brain to think.

Parkinson’s Disease – Dance for PD

I have been training, via Dance for PD, to teach dance to people with Parkinson’s. At some point, a person who has Parkinson’s winds up having difficulty controlling their movement. Their body parts function just fine, but the signal that is sent from their brain to their legs, for instance, gets lost in translation. The signal never arrives, or it arrives late or in a discombobulated form.

It turns out, though, that when someone with Parkinson’s participates in these Dance for PD dance classes, something magical happens. The music permeates their minds and provides rhythmic accompaniment for their movement signals to traverse from the brain to the body part. Feet and legs can move, indeed, dance, often gracefully and fluidly, facilitated by the music.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Very powerful it is, this dance! Especially in a social setting. Bringing people together to touch hands, figure out who leads, who follows, and how to create movement through music and footwork – all of this requires thought, concentration, focus and quick planning ahead. According to this article by Richard Powers, a dance instructor and presenter at Stanford University, dancing makes you smarterIt’s not just about the physical exercise provided by dance or the release of endorphins that ultimately makes a person feel good, it’s the social aspects that benefit cognition.

Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter. A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one’s mind can ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit.

Fact is, when dancing with a partner, you have to pay attention and be one step (always figuratively and sometimes literally!) ahead of what they will do next. This causes your brain to build synapses and continually rewire itself the more you dance. All of this synaptical building is creating cognitive reserve, a mental buffer. The more neuronal connections you have, the better, so that if one portion of your brain malfunctions, the other portions of your brain can co-opt some of that cognitive reserve.

Dance is FUN and HEALTHY and SOCIAL and just plain GOOD FOR YOU!

Notes from a 6th grade session on Stress

There are three 6th grade sections at the school where I currently teach. These sixth graders have an enlightened and passionate Science teacher who makes study of the brain their main focus throughout the year. Among the many topics explored, she guides the students to learn about how they learn – metacognition in real time! She invited me to do a session with each section about stress and relaxation. Below are my notes.

If anyone has suggestions for improving this session, please leave a comment. Thanks!


Room Setup – this was done in the Science classroom where all the furniture was movable. We moved the tables to the perimeter of the room and placed the chairs in a semi- circle (a large C shape) on the inside of that perimeter, facing the board. We tried to have equal room between the chairs to facilitate movement activities. My chair was part of the circle and near the board for easy access.

The movement portions were accompanied by music played on my laptop using external speakers.

How’s everyone feeling? Introductions

Talk about how there are butterflies in my stomach due to: not knowing any of the students and being excited to teach a topic of huge interest to me. Further note that, due to nervousness and excitement, I will likely not remember everyone’s names.

Nonetheless, to try and help me recall names, please introduce yourself and tell me something about you. (Depending upon the time – for the first two groups we had 45 mins, for the third group we had 90 mins – have the kids also make a movement with their arms or body as they introduce themselves.)

Synovial Joint Warmup to music (Wade in the Water – about 4 mins)

  • toes & ankles
  • shoulders
  • gentle neck roll – avoid dropping head back
  • wrist rolls
  • squat knee circles
  • hip circles
  • empty coat sleeve twists
  • hokey-pokey right arm, then left arm
  • hokey-pokey right leg, then left leg
  • mouth & eyes
  • whole body

What happens inside your body when everything is pretty much feeling fine?

  • HOMEOSTASIS (homeo = same; stasis = stable) – a fairly stable balance in your body between the energizing & calming chemicals inside you
  • the SYMPATHETIC (activates “fight or flight”) & PARASYMPATHETIC (activates relaxation response) nervous systems are in synch with one another

Stress, anyone? What happens in your body when you fall out of homeostasis? i.e. out of balance –> you experience STRESS

  • “fight or flight”
  • release of CORTISOL
  • confusion
  • a sense of learned helplessness
  • a sense of feeling threatened

What’s the deal with CORTISOL?

  • a little bit is helpful for energy
  • helps enhance long term memory, i.e. learning
  • LIMBIC system is the Drama Department of your brain – memory & learning are enhanced when there is an emotional component
  • however, too much emotion in either direction results in more cortisol, which is detrimental towards learning b/c too much cortisol can kill neurons in the hippocampus, which is a major player in forming memory i.e. in learning
  • insufficient sleep can increase cortisol

Long-term effects of too much cortisol include:

  • decreased immune system, i.e. more likely to get sick
  • reduces memory ability, i.e. ability to recall existing memories & form new memories
  • impacts social skills & creative skills

What can cause stress? (below is a generic list –> rather than share these, do the BALANCE ACTIVITY listed below) 

  • lots of excitement
  • deadlines (school work, being late)
  • intense competition
  • hectic environment
  • really fast music
  • strong feeling of impending failure
  • surprises
  • being held accountable
  • feeling out of control
  • trying to accomplish something but not having what you need
  • an unusual challenge
  • insufficient sleep

Positive and Negative Stress – BALANCE ACTIVITY

  • talk about the Balance Scale (like the scales of Justice – one cup on either side of the center) – discuss what the balance represents
  • hand out index cards to each person and have them write down the negative stressors in their lives and the feelings associated with those stressors
  • ask the kids to each share one item from their list, and explain that it is quite possible that some kids will have the same or similar stressors
  • have the kids come up and place their Negative Stressor index cards on one side of the scale – what happens to homeostasis?
  • leave the cards in place on the balance and hand out a second set of index cards to each person – have them write down the positive stressors in their lives and the feelings associated with those stressors
  • ask the kids to each share one item from their list
  • take the negative stressor index cards off the balance and place them to the side – have the kids come up and place their Positive Stressor index cards on the other side of the scale – what happens to homeostatis?
  • kids will often quickly comment that the negative stressors need to return to the scale in order to return to a balance – discuss what this means in terms of themselves

How to deal with stress  (below is a generic list –> rather than share these, do the SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY listed below) 

  • exercise (but not if it’s 4 hours or less before sleep)
  • eat a light, non-spicy dinner
  • get sufficient sleep
  • drink plenty of water –> there’s more water in your brain than anywhere else in your body (followed by muscles, then kidneys) and the stress response kicks in if access to water is restricted; within 5 mins of drinking water there is a noticeable decline in corticoids
  • lack of water is #1 reason for daytime tiredness –> hits your muscles and your brain
  • and try these relaxation techniques (we did a yoga session that includes various poses, breathing techniques and guided relaxation AFTER we did the SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY noted below)

Dealing with Stress – SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY

  • go around the room and have kids share what they do to destress
  • keep a running list on the board
  • do not judge the ideas (for instance, if they resort to eating comfort food that is filled with sugar)

Follow-up activities

  • using the list of kid-generated destressors as the basis, discuss positive ways to deal with stress
  • go further into the LIMBIC system
  • lead into a discussion/lesson on the Teen Brain

Thank you, Julia

Thanks to a comment by Julia on my post earlier this month, I purchased the DVD “I Remember Better When I Paint” and watched it this past weekend with my soon-to-be 20-year old son. The documentary is a little over an hour and a half, yet the time flew by as we watched interviews with health care professionals and viewed footage of art therapy in action. The film highlights some specific programs and contains seven additional shorts that complement the documentary: Recreating Social Bonds, The Importance of Physical Exercise, The Hearthstone Way, Art and Care in the Later Stages, Organizing an Outing, The Memory Garden, and Organizing a Creative Workshop.

I cannot stress enough the importance of sharing this information with anyone you know who is associated in any way with someone who has Alzheimer’s. As John Zeisel’s book title so aptly states, I’m Still Here – and that is why it is of paramount importance to inform families and caretakers about the various approaches and art therapies that can help people with Alzheimer’s let their loved ones know they are, indeed, still here.

Zeisel is responsible for ARTZ is Artists for Alzheimer’s, a wonderful program that opens the world of artistic expression to people with Alzheimer’s. I first learned of ARTZ (and blogged about it) in June, 2009, while attending a Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity conference. A few days later I finished reading Zeisel’s book and wrote another blog post.

One of the video shorts of particular interest is The Memory Garden (Les Jardins de la Memoire), which describes a residence in a suburb of Brussels, Belgium, for people who have Alzheimer’s. If you do not read French, thanks to Google Translate you can read an English description about Les Jardins de la Memoire. The DVD introduces The Memory Garden with extensive footage, and interviews with two therapists, as well as with Christian Englebert, the founder.

Ready for Prime Time

[5/3 UPDATE: A number of my posts have referenced Frances Jenkins, and she is included in the slide show below. On March 1, 2010, NPR's Morning Edition had a five minute interview with Jenkins about The Teen Brain: It's Just Not Grown Up Yet.]

This is the slide show that will accompany three interactive sessions spread out over April and May with a class of high school students. The sessions will cover The Teen Brain, followed by the limbic system, and finishing with the impact of drugs and alcohol on the teen brain.

I tend to not include many transitions in slide shows, but the transitions in this slide show are part of the impact of the presentation, and wish they transferred upon the upload to slideshare. For instance, the revealing of slides 17 to 20 helps bring home the point of the limbic system, and slides 24 through 29 display one word at a time, each with an effect related to the meaning of the word. After each new word is displayed, the high schoolers will be using their laptops to take self-portraits of themselves making a face to represent the emotion.

Slideshare houses my presentations, though I have yet to figure out how to get the presentation notes to display. Below are the URLs for the video clips and web sites. Hmm, just thought of a creative exercise to use with my Presentation Communication class next fall – here is a slide show without the presentation notes, now you make up the oral component!

slide 5 video clip

slide 8 video clip

All of the Frances Jensen video clips can be accessed from:

slide 23 video clip comes from Tom Wujec’s TED Talk at:

and the Wizard of Oz clip comes from:

While not referenced in this presentation, I highly recommend Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk at:

and for entertainment while learning, Pinky & the Brain explain the parts of the brain at:

Brain Power from the New York Times

Throughout 2009 the New York Times published a series of six articles that discussed the latest findings in brain research. Here they are, starting with the most recent.

  • Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them – explains how our brains learn math. It turns out there are optimal developmental times and methods for introducing our brains to math, and they aren’t when/what you might have expected.  The following comment got me thinking about when and how we teach reading:

A similar honing process is thought to occur when young children begin to link letter shapes and their associated sounds. Cells in the visual cortex wired to recognize shapes specialize in recognizing letters; these cells communicate with neurons in the auditory cortex as the letters are associated with sounds.

The process may take longer to develop than many assume. A study published in March by neuroscientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands suggested that the brain does not fully fuse letters and sound until about age 11.

  • Surgery for Mental Ills Offers Both Hope and Risk – talks about psychosurgery and its impact on those with O.C.D. (obsessive compulsive disorder). To paraphrase Shakespeare: To intervene via surgery or not to intervene via surgery. That is the question.
  • After Injury, Fighting to Regain a Sense of Self – reminded me of anecdotes shared by V.S. Ramachandran in his book Phantoms in the Brain (probably THE book that pulled me in to the world of our brains). Essentially, injury can cause the brain to play some cruel tricks on itself, including fiddling with one’s sense of self. Is there a spot in our brains that defines who we are?
  • In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable –  Call it intuition, a hunch, a feeling in your gut, but most likely you’ve experienced that sensation where you just “know” something to be so. While this article discusses the sensing of danger, it made me think of how we size up people in general, for instance, being “street smart”.

But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before other’s do.

Experience matters, or course: if you have seen something before, you are more likely to anticipate it the next time. And yet, recent research suggests that something else is at work, too.

Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do.

  • At the Bridge Table, Clues to a Lucid Old Age – An avid bridge player, my 78 year old Aunt Joan would love this article! The article discusses the 90+ Study, which “has included more than 14,000 people aged 65 and older, and more than 1,000 aged 90 or older.” The question seems to be, which came first – being cognitively active and thus having a sharp brain, or having a sharp brain and thus being cognitively active. One area in which all scientists agree is the importance of social connections for maintaining brain health.

In isolation, a healthy human mind can go blank and quickly become disoriented, psychologists have found.

“There is quite a bit of evidence now suggesting that the more people you have contact with, in your own home or outside, the better you do” mentally and physically, Dr. Kawas said. “Interacting with people regularly, even strangers, uses easily as much brain power as doing puzzles, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is what it’s all about.”

  • Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory – This title opens up all sorts of questions related to ethics. On the other hand, what about a brain that has some unhealthy parts? I did enjoy one possible way of thinking about how our brain keeps memories:

…brain cells activated by an experience keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell. The brain appears to retain a memory by growing thicker, or more efficient, communication lines between these cells.

On Brain Fitness Programs – from someone in the field

The following is a guest post by Martin Walker of Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro. About a month ago he and I exchanged comments, and I am delighted that he was amenable to writing this post discussing some of the research behind his company’s brain fitness program.

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” – Socrates

Anyone who has read Plato’s Socratic dialogues, by choice or otherwise, knows that puzzles and mind-twisters are nothing new. Thousands of years ago, Socrates encouraged his fellow Greeks to think more logically by coaxing and goading them along elegant spirals of reasoning. I would imagine that the modern concept of neuroplasticity would confirm in Socrates the belief that the mind is malleable and trainable.

Philosophy led me to brain training. As I culled the news for interesting subjects for my philosophy blog I kept bumping up against the new science of the brain. Study after study seemed to confirm that scientists had been wrong in their model of an adult brain that didn’t change. Here were rodents learning to use rakes, and monkeys controlling robotic arms with their minds. And fMRI scans showed that these neat tricks were accompanied by changes in the animals’ brains.

But the report that converted me from an interested bystander to an active participant in what I can only describe as a revolution came from a joint study by scientists from the Universities of Michigan and Bern. With a rigorous nineteen day program of brain exercise the team showed that training one executive function – working memory – transferred to improvements in another executive function – fluid intelligence, or problem-solving ability.

These improvements weren’t just statistically interesting; the fluid intelligence of the study participants (measured by administering timed IQ test questions) increased by a whopping 40% more than that of a control group. Imagine, a training method that can make someone smarter. Less than two months later my newly formed company had a faithful version of the study’s “dual n-back” training protocol available for sale to the general public. [For more on "dual n-back" see the bottom of this page.]

Why and how does such training work? How can we be sure that the results aren’t an illusion or a temporary boost? And what can other brain training products do for us?

There’s currently a bit of a backlash against brain training from within the scientific community, attempting to mute the hubbub of enthusiasm. This is natural. There will always be inertia against radical innovations. Many scientists are habitually and commendably cautious. Skeptics tried to stop the first polio vaccine from being introduced in a national program, for instance; but the risk proved well-worth taking, saving thousands of lives while the ‘safer’ vaccine was under development.

It’s long been known that working memory capacity in particular – how many things we can hold in our mind at once – plays a key role in executive function. Working memory has been correlated to IQ and academic success. Studies have also shown that a powerful working memory helps us with impulse control. The Michigan / Bern study proposed that strengthening working memory capacity may leave the brain with more processing power. This theory was borne out by the study’s results.

Although the Michigan / Bern team didn’t perform brain scans on the participants before and after working memory training, a more recent study at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet has done just that, showing that intensive working memory training increases the number of dopamine receptors in the trainee. In simpler terms, it changes the brain. The results are long lasting, and can be sustained or increased by further training.

Prior efforts to show increased intelligence with training had been unsuccessful. The “dual n-back” approach works because it’s deliberately tough on working memory, demands incredible focus, and trains two working memory functions simultaneously (visual and aural).

Not that other brain training programs don’t have merit. Offerings by the well-respected Posit Science, for instance, have been endorsed by the Australian Alzheimer’s Association, and are being used by tens of thousands of people in therapeutic and preventive programs.

Potential consumers of brain training software must keep in mind several critical aspects of a worthwhile brain training program: It should be founded on good science. It should demand focus and attention (if it’s too easy, it won’t do anything). And it should be rewarding. A sense of achievement or satisfaction will help stimulate the brain to produce new nerve cells.

Not that brain training holds the franchise on cognitive improvement and neurogenesis. Physical exercise is essential to maintaining good brain health. Regular social interaction and involvement in life-long learning help, too. And the usual advice on a healthy diet and avoidance of narcotics applies. But I firmly believe that brain training should be and will be better understood and more widely used in the future. It can help people stay mentally alert in middle and later life. It can be used to correct or mitigate learning dysfunctions. And it can improve people’s quality of life at any age by allowing them the pleasure of increased brain power.

The practical advantages that customers report from using our training program give me the most pleasure and satisfaction – the man who can spend more time with his kids because he’s more focused on his work, for instance, the high school student who is excited to take his college entrance exam because he’s feeling more confident doing the practice tests, the elderly woman who has restored her self-confidence after feeling that her memory had started to fail her. These are the kinds of benefits that change people’s lives.

Martin Walker is a member of The British Neuroscience Association, Learning and The Brain, and MENSA. His company, Mind Evolve, LLC, publishes free information on the field of neuroscience and brain fitness, as well as one of the most effective, affordable brain training software programs available — Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro.

Editor’s Note:
You can learn more about the “dual n-back” process at these sites:
New Zealand’s Science Learning Hub – Student Activity – n-Back test 
Soak Your Head online open source Dual NBack Application

Mostly in Ratey’s Words

In his book SPARK, John Ratey presents the biology of what happens in the brain as a result of exercise. He described the process so clearly that I wanted to sit down and draw pictures of the brain to represent his words. (Ah, perhaps an exercise for March vacation…) He begins by stating the “the brain is flexible, or plastic in the parlance of neuroscientists–more Play-Doh than porcelain.” If you have been reading Neurons Firing, you already know this, as I’ve written extensively about brain plasticity. Play-Doh seems the perfect analogy, as it is malleable but not without initial effort at kneading and working the dough.

Ratey describes three benefits of exercise on learning.

  1. Exercise “optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation.
  2. Exercise “prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information.
  3. Exercise “spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.

cyclist2He goes on to clue us in that “you can’t learn difficult material while you’re exercising at high intensity because blood is shunted away from the prefrontal cortex, and this hampers your executive function. … However, blood flow shifts back almost immediately after you finish exercising, and this is the perfect time to focus on a project that demands sharp thinking and complex analysis.”  (Stationary cyclist sculpture, Nassau Country Museum of Art)

There are chapters specific to a number of issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, hormonal changes, and aging. But before any of these are discussed, Ratey talks about learning. It is in this chapter that he both explains what happens in the brain as we learn and provides study after study to support what he shares. I leave you with a paragraph from the learning chapter. Please note that the links below take you to posts I’ve written about specific parts of the brain. The two prefrontal cortex links will take you to two different posts.

A lot of the research I’ve mentioned in this chapter revolves around exercise’s effect on the hippocampus, because its role in forming memories makes it vital to learning. But the hippocampus isn’t off by itself somewhere, stamping out new circuits on its own accord. The learning process calls on a lot of areas, under the direction of the prefrontal cortex. The brain has to be aware of the incoming stimulus, hold it in working memory, give it emotional weight, associate it with past experience, and relate all this back to the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex analyses the information, sequences it, and ties everything together. It works with the cerebellum and the basal ganglia, which keep these functions on track by maintaining rhythm for the back-and-forth of information. Improving plasticity in the hippocampus strengthens a crucial link in the chain, but learning creates bushier, healthier, better connected neurons throughout the brain. The more we build these networks and enrich our stores of memory and experience, the easier it is to learn, because what we already know serves as a foundation for forming increasingly complex thoughts.

Exercise Lights A Spark


I recently finished reading John Ratey’s SPARK The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

I suppose one mark of a well-written book is how powerful an impression it makes on the reader. The premise behind SPARK was not a surprise – I’ve heard John Ratey make his case at last Fall’s Learning & the Brain conference, and my years of dedicated swimming have already proved the points first hand. Rather, it was Ratey’s earnest discussion of how exercise boosts the brain, and his explanation of the biology, coupled with chapters covering everything from learning to stress to depression to attention deficit to hormones to aging, all the time with his practically begging us to take notice and don’t just sit there but DO SOMETHING about it, which got me all fired up in a good way!

Ratey begins by sharing the story of Naperville Central High School in Chicago, Illinois, which implemented a phys ed program based upon PE4Life that completely changed the dynamics of school gym class. Instead of a focus on sports teams, the focus became Getting & Staying Fit. A major component of the program was the use of heart rate monitors so students could exercise at the intensity level best for their individual health. This program wasn’t about competition or comparison, but simply about what was best for each student.

Two other important pieces of the program afforded students the opportunity for choice and control over their gym classes. There are close to twenty different activities from which students can choose as they build their fitness plan to cover four years of high school. Some of the activities have always been part of phys ed programs, such as basketball and volleyball, but a climbing wall and kayaking surely weren’t options when I went to high school. The activity that makes me smile widest is their use of DDR, which stands for Dance Dance Revolution.


When our oldest son was in high school, he and two friends had jobs at New Roc City demonstrating and teaching how to use the DDR machines. Of his four years in high school, he was the most fit during the time he worked at New Roc. With his friends, they tried to convince the director of their school’s athletic center to include DDR as one of the activities, but to no avail. They participated in contests, taking bus and trains (and cajoling parents to drive them) to areas in Queens, NY, that were known to have the best DDR machines, and shared video of their routines with other DDR aficionados.

Phil Lawler, the Director of PE4life Instruction and Outreach, testified before the United States House Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Community in May, 2007. You can read his testimony here. I am going to share this pdf with faculty at my school – not because I question our phys ed program, but because I think the adults in my school community could benefit from understanding the brain~body connection, and perhaps apply this to their own lives.