Posted by: Robin | June 4, 2008

Quest for a Healthy Brain

One of the mildly interesting things about observing my generation, the baby boomers, is the lengths we will go to in order to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” and refuse to go gently “into that good night,” as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas ordered us. One of our greatest fears is the deterioration of our minds, and I am right there with the rest of my peers. Alzheimer’s Disease claimed my paternal grandmother, and my paternal uncle is now deteriorating from another rare brain illness that is baffling his doctors. I have spent a large portion of my life living in my head; ergo, if I lost that capacity, would I be alive or dead? I am still young enough that these thoughts rarely intrude, and if I’m honest, I’ve retained enough of my adolescent self to think that I’m invincible where brain health is concerned. Anything else is incomprehensible. Still at lunch with friends this past weekend, my ears perked up when the discussion turned to a recent documentary on our local PBS affiliate called “Change Your Brain; Change Your Life.” It is based on the book by the same name by Dr. Daniel Amen.

The discussion was very disconcerting. One of the ways I’ve consistently heard to keep my brain agile and healthy is to keep learning new things and do crossword puzzles. I learn new things all the time, and have my Astronomy Picture of the Day to make sure of it. I don’t do crosswords all the time, but I do them regularly enough in spurts, and it is at the top of my things to do daily once I hit sixty. Dr. Amen puts a major qualifier on these oft uttered prescriptions. My friend Mary informed us that because she has done crosswords her whole life it will do little good. That’s a real blow because I’ve clung to the hope that a close family member can’t be mentally deteriorating as much as it appears because she’s done crosswords her entire adult life.  My friend Julie chimes in that learning new things only helps if it is stuff that you aren’t used to learning. This is another major blow, because almost all of my new learning is of the liberal arts variety. Then she throws me a lifeline. According to Dr. Amen, learning new languages is good, and I am in my dilatory fashion learning Welsh and its variations historically. Whew!

I leave our luncheon with the conviction I am doomed to reading regularly the works of Enlightenment philosophers, especially Kant (I was so relieved to abandon my extensive library of them after my Master’s thesis research on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley I came close to burning them), certain schools of poetry, and depressing postmodern fiction (all of which give me brain sprains), doing Sodokus involving numbers (because of a mild learning disorder my brain is like a skipping record when it comes to processing strings of numbers) and becoming a mad linguist (at least I’ll kind of enjoy the latter). But before I begin my regimen, I decide to learn a little more about the credibility of Dr. Amen and Google him. My friends trust him because they saw him on PBS, and that is a point in his favor, but I’ve had a little too much experience with doctors on their crusades of one.

His books come up, but I can’t find a PBS documentary. So I go to PBS and do a search on “daniel amen.” Nope. Then I put in “Change Your Brain.” The following link came up:

It is fascinating reading. Turns out that this was not a PBS produced or vetted by PBS documentary. Many things our independent local PBS affiliates show us are not. Our assumption that the place we can get the straight scoop is PBS has a fatal flaw. There is no oversight of individual affiliates because it is a system rather than an organization as we understand it. As for Dr. Amen’s credibility, the PBS columnist presents the comments of a respected neurologist who challenges the claims and is a columnist for, an online magazine, and then quotes Dr. Amen’s rebuttal. For the entire conversation in context we are referred to Salon.

So I’ve learned another new thing: PBS only vouches for those programs that have the PBS logo on them, even if a non-PBS program is used for fundraising and donor rewards. Unfortunately, though surprising, my brain isn’t resisting this knowledge, so it looks like I’m going to have to dust off my Kant, Locke, Hobbes, Hume and Rousseau; dose myself with Modernist poets like Ezra Pound; try again to lower my embarrassing 12 minute-time for the easy level of online Sudoku; and make my list of languages I’ll be learning. To be safe I better include a non-Indo-European language or two. Meanwhile, “Sut Mae! Pwy d’chi?”



  1. One of my liberal frustrations is the commercialization of PBS by conservative congresses and presidents the past thirty years (yes, Clinton was a conservative). Commercial advertising is up on PBS because government funding is down. PBS, under conservative leadership, is rushing headlong into FOX territory where nothing can or should be believed as true without independent confirmation.

    One of PBS’s primary saving graces is Bill Moyers on Friday nights. though PBS did boot him a couple years back. He was finally allowed to return, but for one half rather than one full hour.You want to learn about intelligent progressive and critical thinking and how they relate to governing a country and building good citizenship, watch Bill Moyers. He was the press secretary for LBJ and would have made a terrific president. But you were talking about memory, weren’t you…I forgot!

  2. I met Dr. Amen at a lecture he gave and then participated in his brain study of injured and uninjured brains. I learned a lot about the damage that can occur even from normal children’s bangs to the head – the kind that happen to most kids who engage in sports.

    If you are interested in the brain and how it works, I highly recommend reading “”My Stroke of Insight”” by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. It’s on the NY Times Bestseller list and it’s a wonderful book. Dr. Taylor’s talk at TED dot com is also AMAZING! Oprah interviewed Dr. Taylor and you can check that out on And Time Magazine named Dr. T one of the 100 Most Influential people in the world. Having read her book, I can see why all the attention.

    Dr. Amen’s book is brain science and it’s great at that. Dr. Taylor is a Harvard Brain Scientist, but what she writes about is the science and much more. She really cracks the code to understand how our brains (right and left hemispheres) work and she explains how we can get into our right brain and be happier and more joyful. Aside from any of the science, My Stroke of Insight is also just a great story.

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