Increasing brainpower is about “changing the inherent way we perceive and respond to the world,” Shlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway write. Their recent book, Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom, is an in-depth look at that marvelous mass of tissue between our ears, how it works, how it responds, and what affects it in both negative and positive ways. In a very engaging and enlightening manner that is also easy to understand, the authors show how we can not only protect and preserve our brain, but also cultivate it in ways that maximize its potential.
Breznitz, a renowned cognitive psychologist, is the founder of a method of brain training and development called Cognifit. Hemingway is a writer and technologist who has co-authored other books as well, most notably one with Microsoft’s late CEO, Bill Gates. Together, they show us the role that experience plays in learning, as well as how it can set us up for cognitive failure.
While experience may very well be the best teacher in some cases, sometimes its very existence causes us to not even attempt to look for other perspectives or solutions, the authors state. They propose that much too often we use our brain as “nothing more than a huge storage bin of precedents.” This filing-cabinet approach results in our resorting to a process called “satisfycing,” which causes us to stop searching for solutions when we arrive at one that is “good enough.” We do this on a regular basis, especially with our daily routines. The speed at which satisfycing automaticity occurs leaves us with no opportunity to intervene and change the process. These “good enough” solutions, combined with inadequate or inconsistent reinforcement, lead to mental rigidity, which then causes our routines to become difficult to eliminate.
“Maximum Brainpower” touches upon many related topics, including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, dementia, cancer, depression, memory, education, experience, and technology. Perhaps most influential in our cognitive well-being, the authors tell us, is the role of stress. In itself, the process of stimulating our brains sometimes brings stress that falls into the beneficial category; a lack of stress can actually foster cognitive decline and rigidity (as in “good enough”). Research conducted by Breznitz demonstrates seven ways we typically deny stress and convince ourselves that it’s unnecessary to worry about its underlying cause. The authors challenge the reader to think about which of these behaviors they see in themselves:
- Denial of personal involvement (“It cannot happen to me.”)
- Denial of urgency (“It can happen, but not for a long time.”)
- Denial of vulnerability (“If and when it does happen, I can cope with it.”)
- Denial of anxiety itself (“I know something is happening, but I am not worried.”)
- Denial of emotion (“I acknowledge my emotion, but I deny its source.”)
- Denial of threatening information (“I filter the information so that I do not perceive any threat.”)
- Denial of all information (“When presented with the truth, I deny it exists.”)
This denial of stress, Breznitz and Hemmingway say, reveals how our brains can know something and not know it simultaneously—something referred to as “middle knowledge.” We can be aware of a suitable amount of information that causes us to put up our defenses, without even consciously being aware of doing so. The authors provide new approaches to take us out of the comfort zone of our routines and help us view the world in new ways, think differently, and build the brain.
While I was reading “Maximum Brainpower,” a news story aired on ABC World News that illustrated how we sometimes accept as truth that which we may never have investigated for validity—again, “good enough.” According to the news story, 47 percent of teachers and 66 percent of Americans believe we use only 10 percent of our brains. I am sure you recognize that “fact” just as I did. The truth is that we use 100 percent of our brains, but that the neuronal cells we don’t use, die, as in the adage “use it or lose it.” Breznitz and Hemmingway put it this way: “Neurons that fire together, wire together; neurons that fire apart, wire apart.”
While you could just go right to the end of each chapter for a summary of the book’s contents, doing so would cause you to skip an abundance of fascinating research and subsequent conclusions. Don’t “satisfyce”—instead, read the whole thing. It will be a no-risk investment with significant returns.
Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom
Ballantine Books, June, 2012
Hardcover, 288 pages