New Year’s Resolution: Work the Brain

Brain and gears

I generally don’t believe in making resolutions. I can’t be trusted with them, never could. The day after I come up with one, I start to feel rebellious. That’s because I hate it when people try to tell me what to do — even me!

But a resolution to work my brain is different. This one doesn’t require a trip to the gym or giving up something I’m not really prepared to live without. This resolution will be fun and it’s already working. I can feel the wheels turning in my brain right now as it starts to think about all the new things it’s going to learn. First of all, it’s going to do some research, because it loves doing research. Long before there was an Internet, this brain of mine spent hours looking up words in the dictionary. When my parents bought a set of encyclopedias — not the Brittanica, but the Americana —my brain and I thought we’d died and gone to heaven. The library was our candy store. And it was my trusty old brain that told me to pay attention when someone suggested I become a reporter — a job that required me to ask questions about anything and everything.

So … now I’m multi-tasking, because my brain has tricked me into thinking I’m actually capable of doing two things at once. I’m researching brain facts and writing about them at the same time, sort of. Here’s something I just read about subliminal messages. You know, a message that is embedded into an image or a sound that is supposed to penetrate our subconscious brain and influence our behavior. My husband tried it on his sister when they were kids. While she was sleeping, he whispered in her ear that she wanted to play monopoly and he swears the next day she said, ” I want to play monopoly.”

A market researcher named James Vicary coined the phrase subliminal messaging in 1957. He claimed that he inserted 1/3000th of a second messages into a movie that told viewers to drink Coca-Cola and eat popcorn and the result was the theater saw an 18 percent increase in Coke sales and a whopping 57 percent increase in the sale of popcorn. Only he later admitted it was a lie. Subsequent studies showed that subliminal messages have no effect on people. Try convincing my husband.

a picture of Diane Atwood and her father Robert Swett

My dad and me — is that not a big head?!

Here’s a brain teaser for you. Does a big head mean you have a big brain and does a big brain make you smarter? I have a big head — kind of a big square head if you look closely enough or come across one of my baby pictures.

Now this is interesting: The farther people live from the equator the bigger their brains. Researchers from the University of Oxford determined that it didn’t make them any smarter, only helped them see better. The closer you get to the poles, the less light there is. In order to compensate, people’s eyeballs and the regions of their brains that are linked to vision have apparently adapted and become larger. Huh.

Did you know that our brains have shrunk over the past 5,000 years? So I guess bigger doesn’t mean smarter, because I don’t believe any evidence has shown that our bigger brained ancestors were any brighter than we are today. Although, sometimes I think we humans act as if we don’t have any brains at all!

Let’s see if I can find one more tidbit. Here’s one from the book Another Day in the Frontal Lobe, a memoir written by neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik: “The brain is soft. Some of my colleagues compare it to toothpaste, but that’s not quite right. It doesn’t spread like toothpaste. It doesn’t adhere to your fingers the way toothpaste does. Tofu — the soft variety, if you know tofu — may be a more accurate comparison.” Now your brain might be sending signals to your gut right now that are making you feel a bit queazy at the thought of tofu brain. My brain loves this kind of stuff!

I recall a story I did about Walter, who had Parkinson’s disease and was having brain surgery to stop his tremors. Dennis Doyle, a videographer at Channel 6, and I traveled to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in NH to witness and record the surgery. Walter was awake the entire time — can you imagine that? Awake while you’re having brain surgery! Anyway, the surgeon removed a square of skull to expose Walter’s brain and then touched a pre-determined target with an electrode. When he did, Walter’s tremors stopped cold. The surgeon asked him a question — about the Red Sox, I think — and the two of them had a little chat. He completed the procedure by implanting a small device in Walter’s brain that would deliver electrical stimulations to control his tremors. Walter did well for several years, but more than ten years have passed and I don’t know how or where he is today. The image of his brain is still firmly etched in mine.

Enough of the storytelling and on to the resolution: work the brain. Read my article Brain Fitness: Use It or Lose It in the recent issue of My Generation and you’ll get some tips from neurologist Dr. Eric Dinnerstein. For instance, did you know that an active social life is good for your brain? I’d say it’s high time we got started. Let’s ring in the new year and show our brains a good time. Happy New Year!

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