Published on July 26th, 20160
Need Motivation For Going to the Gym? Read This Book by NYU Neuroscientist.Happy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D and Billie Fitzpatrick Dey Street Books 320 pp
There used to be the belief that once your brain developed into old age, that was it.
There was nothing you could do but witness its deterioration.
Your memory gets worse, your thoughts get slower.
But now brain science tells us that the brain can always train itself. It can get better, sharper. Albeit, as we age, we may think more slowly, but that does not mean that the regions of our brain responsible for certain intellectual functions, like language or memory, need to shrink and suffer from atrophy. The brain, neuroscientist tell us, is plastic.
Happy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better is a fun read and an easy to understand introduction to brain science. Combining personal narrative, self-help and a lot of information, NYU Neuroscience professor Wendy Suzuki explains why we should care about the health of our brain and our body, and she effectively connects the state of one to the other. She describes, without the need for flamboyant metaphor, the current theories of neuroscience, including plasticity.
No matter how old you are, no matter what rut you may find yourself in, you can train your brain to be sharper, stronger, and more focused, and Suzuki argues that one of those ways is through aerobic exercise. There seems to be a definite connection between exercise and brain health, and along with a shift of attitude and perception, Suzuki found that she could live a happier, more fulfilled life.
In an epiphany moment, she tells how she realized she was too out of shape, too weak, too unhappy. She began to exercise, and along the way she discovered a new approach to aerobic workouts called intentSati, which is named after two words, Intention and “santi,” the later a Pali word for mindfulness. Pali is an Indian language, in which much of the early Buddhist texts are written in, and some of those values are embedded into the workout, such as chants and meditative moments. The word “Intention” evokes the ideas popularized by New Age guru Wayne Dyer, that what we think will create the physical reality in which we live. You attract into your life what you think about. This may also invoke “The Secret” and the “Law of Attraction.”
IntenSati is dancing, martial arts and yelling out confirmations during the exercise, such as, “I am strong now!”
What we tell ourselves, what we constantly think about, will be our reality.
When we are in a dismal mood, those things that happen which reinforce our perspective are encoded into our long-term memory more so than those good things that happen to us, and therefore, our moods influence our memories; and frankly, what we remember helps us understand our reality. If we take charge of our moods, what we say to ourselves, what we think of others, we take charge of our lives.
Moderate the brain; moderate the universe.
We have all had that friend who believes everything is horrible, and, of course, horrible things always happen to that friend. Or I have known people who have claimed that they are bad at relationships, and each relationship reinforces how bad they are at it, unaware that they are creating their own situation by their thoughts.
In one touching passage, she writes about the doorman who works in her Manhattan apartment building, how she was convinced that he hated her, and every day she was confronted with confirmations of that hatred, the way he looked at her, the things he said. Or didn’t say.
When she convinced herself that maybe she was wrong, she spoke to him about his feelings, and he had no idea what she was talking about. He thought she didn’t like him.
Her reality shifted immediately, and she no longer felt the distance or animosity from this individual. She changed her life by changing her attitude.
Suzuki argues the connection between exercise, positive outlook and to a lesser degree meditation, can lead to a more fulfilled, satisfied life, and she often backs it up it with research, although sometimes in its initial stages.
In many ways this is a transformation narrative, wherein the protagonist comes to a point in her life where everything has changed and she gains greater personal insight. She is happier, healthier, and has stronger relationships.
At times it reads like a self-help book rooted in positive thinking or the power Intention, but it is saved by the research.
Like a true professor, as Suzuki researches her ideas, she brings them into her classroom as well, and for the first time at NYU, she offered a course in exercise and neuroscience, which literally included a physical component. The students came to class in gym clothes and worked out.
She includes boxed sections intertwined within the narrative, wherein she explains the science to the layperson. She describes the parts of the brain, the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, parts of the neurons, providing us language that will help us to understand the metaphorical system within which we are entering.
She also includes sections she calls “Brain Hacks,” suggestions on how you, the reader, can improve your brain in small, easy-to-do activities. For example, you can do something as simple as play hula hoop or tag with children, for only four minutes a day. This activity, of course, will not change your life, but it’s a start.
There were a few informative chapters on memory, along with some easy to follow guidelines on how to improve yours. She exposes one of the myths many of us believe, that some people just have a good memory and others don’t. There’s nothing you can do about the hand you’ve been dealt.
The truth is that anyone with the will to achieve it can have a good memory, as long as your hippocampus and the surrounding tissue are in normal working order. You just need to practice pneumonic techniques.
For example, if you attach an emotion to what you want to remember, it will be easier, because research shows that memories with high emotional content are more readily encoded in the brain.
As in any transformation narrative, Suzuki comes to a place wherein she is able to help others who want to achieve the same or similar goals, and perhaps that is why the book delves into the self-help genre, my least favorite part.
In the final chapters, she invokes Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra, and although she doesn’t articulate their ideas and support them, the association in itself is significant.
I’m not suggesting that Dr. Suzuki is waving a spiritual banner, nor does she ever get too preachy and make you feel she has any other agenda than to share her research and tell her own memories.
This could be a groundbreaking book in that it could lead others to connect the metaphors of neuroscience to spirituality, like many did with physics a few years back, e.g. Fritjof Chopra’s controversial book, The Toa of Physics, wherein he essentially argued that quantum mechanics proved his religious beliefs, or the spiritual movement articulated by the pseudo documentary What the Bleep Do We Know?
Suzuki never compromises her science for her faith. In fact, she approaches her own spirituality like a scientist, and her conclusions are still pending. I recommend this book to anyone interested in brain science, health, and personal narrative. The writing is good.
Also, the argument is frankly convincing, so if you need motivation for going to the gym, this may be the book for you.