Restak, Richard. 2011. Optimizing Brain Fitness. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses.

Restak is (or was) Clinical Professor of Neurology at the George Washington University School of Medicine. He has written over 20 books on the human brain.

The scope and purpose of the lectures is to improve one’s brain but, in order to do so, it is important to know how it works. There are images of the various parts of the brain and their functions but there is also an emphasis on diet, exercise and sleep—in general what is good for the heart is good for the brain.

“In humans, sensory and social deprivation early in life leads to decreases in intelligence, emotional health, and adaptation” (1), although this is not limited to early age. However, by challenging our brain with new information throughout our lives we can build up what is called “cognitive reserve”.

There are 12 lectures, organized as follows:

  1. How the brain works: The four lobes of the brain are associated with different functions: controlled brain processing (frontal lobe); and automatic processing (parietal, temporal and occipital lobes).
  2. How your brain changes: exercising the brain enhances the efficiency of cell to cell communication and provides a basic remapping of the functions so that alternative circuits can be established. Various exercises help: visual, auditory, motor and peripersonal space exercises.
  3. Care and feeding of the brain: the harmful effects of obesity; proper exercise and sleep.
  4. Creativity and the playful brain: “Creativity is based on 3 thinking patterns: verbal language…music and math…and visual thinking” (16). “Puzzles, riddles, and jokes enhance the brain by encouraging reasoning, logic, visual imagination, special thinking, working memory, and creativity” (18, 19).
  5. Focusing your attention: The author claims that multitasking is a myth because the brain operates sequentially, not concurrently.
  6. Enhancing your memory: The most important feature is on focusing attention on what you are trying to learn. A powerful short term memory exercise involves the digit span exercise. Repeated testing is also the key.
  7. Exercising your working memory: Transferring information from short term memory to long term memory. “If working memory is a scratch pad, then long term memory is its filing system” (28). Exercises: backwards digit span, etc. that involve creativity.
  8. Putting your senses to work: using memory pegs, e.g. places in the neighborhood or room of your house; watching a TV drama and then playing it backwards; record a game and then try to say what happened in sequence. “We are visual creatures: The more vivid, dramatic, and bizarre the image, the more likely we are to remember it” (33).
  9. Enlisting your emotional memory: Exercise: facing a partner sit together on the floor and ask the person, with eyes closed and then open, to imagine a sad then happy scene, but not with facial expressions. Then debrief to see if there was someway you could tell what the person was thinking.
  10. Practicing for peak performance: “The goal of deliberate practice is the formation of a flexible memory representation….In essence, people with extraordinary abilities learn to use their brains differently” (37). Experts practice for long periods of time.
  11. Taking advantage of technology: “Culture, rather than biology, is now the greatest influence on brain development” (40). The dark side of technology is that it can lead to decreased attention and focus. A study showed that those who play violent video games are more likely to be aggressive in their lives. There are pros and cons to video games—given on p.42.
  12. Building your cognitive reserve: “You improve your cognitive capacity in later years by acquiring education and knowledge throughout your life and feeding your curiosity” (44). But this is achieved only with practice. Optimize brain fitness by means of sufficient sleep, eating properly, exercise, increasing finger and hand dexterity, less TV, humor, art, and different styles of music.