Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Brain training

I have written before about the time when my friend answered a question about his interests in retirement.  He is a smart and alert person and I was interested in how he saw his retirement.  He answered that he had always been interested in the human brain.  I probably have one of those myself but I didn't pay much attention to it or the subject of brains until he said that.  But over the years, I have come to pay quite a lot more attention.

The two books by Norman Doidge, MD on the brain, "The Brain that Changes Itself" and "The Brain's Way of Healing" have been the most helpful, memorable and exciting books about the brain that I have read.  I have a friend who is a little older than me who suffers from Meniere's disease, a disorder of the inner ear.  He saw some specialists in the condition recently and was advised to do two things as exercises: walk backwards for a while and walk down a hallway with his eyes closed while trailing his fingers along the wall.

It seems that one of the things we think about these days is that a problem might be caused by one's brain.  There is a ton of information about brain training these days.  Some friends and I read about the mirror box, invented by the neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran in his book "Phantoms in the Brain".  The problem of a missing limb causing bad pain has plagued and mystified people for centuries but this man figured a way to speak to the brain and inform it that the limb is gone and that it is ok not to "worry" about it.

More recently, I read in "Cure" by Dr. Jo Marchant about the surprising developments in treating chronic fatigue syndrome, where the body feels and acts exhausted at the least provocation or action.  Marchant describes physiologists doing calculations of energy expenditure by athletes such as marathoners.  They found that while the runners were totally exhausted, the figures showed their bodies still had lots of energy.  They realized that some part of the brain told the body it was too tired and needed to rest.  The investigators thought that a person suffering from chronic fatigue might have a brain governor that was too sensitive, that called an emergency too soon and sent shut-down signals too early.  Various methods of training the brain's fatigue governor to accept higher levels of energy expenditure before signaling dangerous levels of tiredness are being developed, now that attention has shifted to brain retraining.

I was surprised that the TED talks guidelines for local talks explicitly mentioned brain science and neurology as areas especially likely to attract charlatans and silly science. It may seem easy to figure a way to retrain one's operating system, whether or not it really is.

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