Richard Restak on Thinking Smart

The liveliest of the three Learning and the Brain opening keynote speakers, Richard Restak took us on a tour of the many ways we can keep our brains going strong. Restak is an accomplished author and presenter, and I suspect his talk, Think Smart: Improving Brain Performance, was a summary of his book by almost the same name, Think Smart – A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. As many of the reviews on amazon.com noted, Restak’s book does not cover new territory. What his book does, and what he did in his talk, is compile the known research in a manner that is digestible, interesting and entertaining. If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, then the sugar is Restak’s talk (and based upon the reviews, his book).

Restak touched on each of the following, which are also topics that have periodically been in the news. While they are not new, they are important to maintaining strong cognitive function, and thus worth their weight in repetition!

  • “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”
  • Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
  • Sleep is necessary for consolidation of learning.
  • Power naps are powerful.

After reviewing the above, Restak went on to discuss his prescription for keeping our brains strong. To a certain degree, you have to accept what neuroscientists like Carol Dweck have been saying for awhile, that intelligence is not fixed. Rather, intelligence is fluid and we have the power to foster that fluidity. To be sure,  impediments such as heredity and injury can sideline attempts to improve brain strength, but in general we have the power to change our brains for the better, just as in general we have the power to improve the healthiness of our bodies. Restak’s list of “Specific Steps to Enhance Brain Performance” include the following areas in which he says we should focus our efforts to strengthen our brains:

  • Attention: the equivalent of physical endurance
  • Memory – sensory memory, long-term memory, and working memory: correlates with intelligence
  • Mental exercises: you choose [which ones to do] because mental exercises are benefit specific
  • Visual Observation
  • Fine Motor Skills
  • Tactile perception
  • Logic
  • Numbers
  • Imagination
  • Visual-spatial thinking

There are any number of ways to exercise your brain, including online games. Here is one of the more comprehensive sites, aptly titled games for the brain, which comes from one of the reviews on amazon.com for Restak’s book.

In the youtube video interview below SharpBrains CEO Alvaro Fernandez highlights some of the ways technology can be used to assist with brain training. His comments are appropriate given that the focus of the Learning and the Brain conference was Enhancing Memory and Performance in this Distracting Digital Age, and Restak also briefly touched upon the use of video game technology for strengthening some aspects of the brain. Disclosure: I have never met Alvaro, but I have exchanged emails with him and written a number of blog posts for the SharpBrains blog.

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