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Book Review of: Think Smart

A Neuroscientist's prescription for improving your brain's performance

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Review of Think Smart, by Richard Restak, M.D. (Paperback, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

Yet another fine work by Dr. Restak. In previous books, he talked about brain plasticity. That concept is behind much of this book. Over the past few years, I have watched the stupidity epidemic get progressively worse. Most of the ill have gotten that way through poor choices. This book presents a road to recovery for them, and a path of prevention for everyone else.

The book has a few flaws, where Dr. Restak wanders off the reservation of his knowledge base. For example, he recommends drinking red wine. He gets his information from "studies" paid for by the wine industry. The studies cherry pick information. I look at the subject of alcohol this way. If you find some beneficial substance in gasoline, that doesn't mean you should drink gasoline. The same is true of any beverage containing alcohol. Consumption of alcohol has net negative consequences. Any benefit derived from it can be obtained by other means, without killing brain and liver cells, without consuming empty calories, and without unleashing a storm of free radicals in your body. Yes, alcohol has all of those liabilities. And more.

The book also has strengths where Dr. Restak talks outside his area of expertise. For example, his discussion of physical health is very good. This is my own area of expertise (I haven't been sick since 1971 despite having an immunity deficiency, and it's because of how I've implemented my health expertise).

The book contains extensive discussion about the implications of the fact that the brain is a physical organ of the body. You can't have a healthy brain if you are feeding your body junk and engaging in other behavior that is leaving your body a wreck. For the typical American immersed in our country's disease-habit culture, this book is a "must read."

This book is about 250 pages long, and consists of an introduction, six chapters (called "parts"), an epilogue, a bibliography, and an index.

Chapter 1, "Discovering the Brain," brings out a summary of "what the brain is about," from Dr. Restak's previous books. For the first-time Restak reader, this brings you up to speed so you have a foundation for the rest of the book. If you've enjoyed his work previously, this chapter is a good refresher.

Chapter 2, "Care and Feeding of the Brain: The Basics," Dr. Restak essentially provides my personal diet philosophy (see www.supplecity.com for info). The information in this book needs some tweaking, however.

  • You do not "avoid" hydrogenated oils. You eliminate them. These substances are highly toxic, which is why I don't eat restaurant bread or anything else that might contain partially or fully hydrogenated oil.
  • I mentioned the alcohol thing, earlier. The human body and alcohol simply do not go together.
  • He is too benevolent toward grains. Whole grains are far better than processed ones, but overall you need to make grains a minor part of your diet.
  • Dr. Restak also errs in his discussion of fish. Wrong conclusions from too little data.

If you're on the typical American diet, you can follow the advice in Chapter 2 as presented and experience seemingly miraculous improvements in how you look, feel, and perform. But you can do even better, with a few changes as noted.

Chapter 3, "Specific Steps for Enhancing Brain Performance," is probably not going to appeal to many people. The reason is the same reason that achieving a high level of physical fitness does not appeal to most people: work. Go into any gym, and you will observe low-intensity workouts. You probably won't come across anyone in the place doing a high-intensity workout. This doesn't mean people are lazy, it means people don't like being pushed to their limits.

When it comes to mental exercise, we're the same way. We easily rise to the challenge when the challenge is at the 50% level. We solve problems all day long at work, though many of them never hit even the 50% level. When confronted with a 90 percenter, most of us will delay or engage in other avoidance behavior. Again, that doesn't make us lazy. It's just a natural response.

The reason training of any kind works is adaptation. We don't get the adaptation response until we get a challenge that either comes very close to 100% of our capacity or exceeds it. Going into that range is uncomfortable, even painful. We are almost guaranteed to fail, whereas with a 50% challenge we are almost guaranteed to succeed. So, we try to avoid those high-end challenges. The consequence of that is we don't get the adaptation and improvement.

Still, this chapter is where you'll find tips and techniques on doing exercises that make you smarter. If you decide that being smarter is worth the discomfort of working at it, then you can choose from a variety of ways to get the adaptation that results in a more powerful brain. Not sure you want to make the effort? You can scale back and do "maintenance" with the same techniques.

Chapter 4, "Using Technology to Achieve a More Powerful Brain," could easily be misunderstood. Dr. Restak clearly warns against overdoing it, so head that warning. There are benefits to video games and other technology. If used judiciously, these games can be tools to improve your reaction time, stimulate the growth of neural networks, increase your processing speed, improve your alertness, and produce other brain boosting benefits.

Video games take the same "work" of Chapter 3 and make them fun. But just as it's not good to sit around all day working crossword puzzles or math games, it's also not good to let video games replace actual life.

I can sum up Chapter 5, "Fashioning the Creative Brain," by saying it's about "think outside the box." Dr. Restak provides examples and exercises to illustrate what it means to think in nontraditional ways. He then goes into what some of those ways are, providing interesting examples. He concludes this chapter by providing four steps to increase your productivity.

Chapter 6, "Impediments to Optimal Brain Function and How to Compensate for Them," is probably the most important chapter for the typical reader. Most of us are fine with how smart we are now. We just want to keep it that way. That's what this chapter is about. Dr. Restak identifies behaviors and situations we can control, to minimize damage to what we've got.

But we can't entirely prevent decline as we age. So, what to do? Dr. Restak points out that there are two types of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. The good news is the crystallized intelligence gets better as you get older. Like the wine you should not drink, it improves with age. There's a reason for the adage, "With age comes wisdom." Dr. Restak explores that reason and provides practical advise on how to use it to your advantage.

The epilogue is titled, "The Twenty-First Century Brain." Perhaps this was "Epilogue" rather than "Chapter 7" because it's short when compared to the other chapters. It provides his recommendations. The are divided up into four areas:

  • Nutrition. This is factually flawed. The information on cholesterol is incorrect, and it comes from conclusions rather than the data. Similarly, the recommendation to "try to include walnuts and blueberries in your daily diet" comes from conclusions rather than the data. In the first case, dietary cholesterol is not the problem; excess overall fat consumption is. In the second case, walnuts and blueberries are specific examples of a general rule; the general rule isn't even mentioned. The caffeine recommendation concurs with the current literature on the topic.
     
  • Cognitive performance improvement. This is nearly all good. Again, though, he uses specific examples instead of the general rule. He gives a lengthy description of a specific exercise for dexterity, while other exercises are equally valid. He also recommends getting a GPS, though this would not be a high priority for me personally and the technology still has kinks in it so may not reduce stress to the degree he implies. Just as he understated earlier about alcohol, he understates about television. You do not "reduce" brainwashing, you eliminate it. Informed intelligence and television and are mutually exclusive. His discussion of developing a magnificent obsession, however, makes up for any other deficiencies in this part of the book.
     
  • Mood improvement. This part is all good.
     
  • Start now. Dr. Restak talks about why it's never too late to enhance brain function, and provides information to prove that assertion.

This book makes a fine addition to my growing Restak collection. Even though some of the information isn't correct and even though some of the recommendations need to be rewritten, the book can help almost anybody reach a higher level of physical and mental health. The benefits that flow from that include better relationships, better financial stability, less illness, and greater happiness. Not a bad return on an investment of less than twenty bucks.

 

 

 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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