FIRST TWO CHAPTERS OF “A User’s Guide to a Healthy Brain”

Chapter One –  Introduction

I’m a user of a brain, my brain.  My brain had been taking a beating over the years.  I didn’t know it until it I was really hurting and its ability to function was threatened.

I had accepted bad memory as the result of a severe hit in the head I got when I was young and the viral encephalitis I had in the late 80’s.  It wasn’t until I was told that my speech problem was due to “… an incurable, but possibly manageable, nervous disorder emanating from my brain …” that I even connected talking with my brain, and I had long since given-up on memory.

Sure, I knew that my memory had something to do with my brain, but I just thought that was the way it was, and that’s the way it will be forever.  You are capable of doing what you can do and no more, and your brain dictates that capability.  Once it’s damaged, it’s damaged and mine had been damaged.  I had to accept who I was and what I could or couldn’t do.

I didn’t know that the wiring in my brain kept changing based on what I did and didn’t do.  I didn’t know that my brain’s ability to function either got better or worse as I aged.  It didn’t just stand still.  That’s particularly true of cognitive skills.

I was lucky.  Everything came together for me at the right time, and my motivation to learn what was happening to me not only helped to solve my problem but provided me with an understanding that I had never had before.  It was an understanding of how my brain functioned and why.  That understanding gave me insight into my cognitive problems and provided me with the information that I needed to solve them.

Up until the late 90’s we lived with an incomplete understanding of the brain.  But it wasn’t just incomplete.  It was incorrect causing doctors and neuroscientists studying the brain to look down the wrong roads.

Based on that earlier understanding it was felt that the human brain was pretty much a passive organ that simply absorbed information and distributed it to various parts of the body.  That led to the conclusion that the human brain was all about the past.

That understanding of the brain changed in the late 90’s when neurogenesis in adults was discovered.  Learning that the brain is continuously generating new brain cells (neurogenesis), from the day you’re born to the day you die, and adapting its structure based on what it knows and doesn’t know (neuroplasticity) brought with it the understanding that the human brain is dynamic.  It was realized that the human brain is about the future, not the past.  True, the human brain maintains a data storehouse about “… what was…”, but only as it pertains to what “…will be …”.  It was clear at this point that the human brain functioned to survive, and to function effectively it must be healthy.  We are unique because of our cognitive abilities, and to remain unique we need to maintain our cognitive health.  And that’s what this book is all about.

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Chapter Two – Something About Me

I’m not a medical doctor.  I’m a secondary researcher, writer and presenter that has developed a very deep and personal understanding of the brain.  I took my brain for granted for a log time.  I took it for granted until I really needed it, and it seemed like it was leaving me.  Because of my personal experiences I now understand the importance of good cognitive health and our ability to achieve it at all ages, but it wasn’t always like that.

I was born into a first-generation American family.  I was the first child, the first male, and I was the son of the first college graduate in the family.  Yes, I was also the son of the first professional in the family.

Expectations for my future were high.  I was supposed to be just like him if not smarter.  Maybe one day I would even be President, and that’s how I was treated.  They didn’t know back then that anyone that had brains really didn’t want to be President.

All was well with me, and going according to plan, assuming, of course,  that they had a plan, until I was about 8 years old.  Some friends and I  were playing keep-a-way in the back alley, but we didn’t have a ball so we were using a brick, a logical thing for an 8 year old to do.  The last thing I say for 24 hours was the smile on my friend Humphrey’s face and a full size, red brick coming right at my head.

I don’t remember when I woke up, and I really didn’t remember anything else for quite a while.  There was a major change though.  Now I was considered to be fragile, and the things I could and couldn’t do were closely monitored.  To me the biggest loss was that I couldn’t ride a 2-wheel bike like my friends until I was 13 years old.  I can’t tell you how embarrassing that was.

The incident with the brick not only produced a pair of very frightened and attentive parents, but almost immediately afterwards started having seizures.  That was why they wouldn’t let me ride a 2-wheel bike.  They first had to be sure that the seizures were under control.

Imagine how my poor brain felt in all of this.  First, it takes this terrible hit.  That had to do some damage.  There was probably some internal bleeding, badly damaged brain cells and cell networks.  That had to have affected my cognitive abilities.  Then on top of that came the seizures.  They do their own damage.

Fortunately, I did reasonably well at school.  Went to college, graduate school, got married, raised a family, and ran my own business, but I wasn’t a shining star or a professional like my dad, and I never became President.  I was just an average person with an average brain doing what I needed to do to move forward in life.

That was who I was, and I never gave my poor, hurting brain much thought during any of this.  I’m sure that I treated my pet dog much better than my brain.

My brain was up there perched on my shoulders and resting comfortably in my skull.  I was just taking it along with me for the ride.  How was I supposed to know that my brain had the ability to rewire itself to accommodate lost cells and cell networks.

When you’re young, physically active and constantly learning you’re generating a lot of new, experience-dependent cells and creating new, functional cell networks.  I didn’t know, and no one told me, because apparently no one else knew either.

There was one thing.  Regardless of whether my brain could generate new brain cells and restructure itself to accommodate them, I never had a good memory after the brick incident.  It wasn’t particularly bad.  It wasn’t particularly good.  It was OK, but just OK.  That made things difficult, but I didn’t give it a second thought.  After all, I was banged in the head with a very hard brick.  What could I expect.

Life went along.  My brain and I went right along with it.  That is, until the late 80’s when I was hospitalized with viral encephalitis; a virus of the brain.  They say that viruses like to attack the weak point in the body.   I guess, before attacking, the virus evaluated me, and picked my brain as the best point of attack.

My poor brain!  It was bad enough that it had been damaged with a brick, and had suffered through seizures, now this viral stuff, and more seizures.  They pulled me and my brain through, but it wasn’t easy.  At this point I didn’t even have my just OK memory.  It was pretty well shot, and I was living in a fog.  I was in that fog at home for 6 months.

Then one day my brain and I were standing in the kitchen, and the fog lifted.  Everything around me looked different.  I remember that it was a bright sunny day, perfect for such a coming out event.  The first thing I did was call my doctor who promptly told me that he knew I wouldn’t die.  What a terrible response to such a great event.  Then I called my wife who was just as excited as my brain and I.  There was only one thing though, as time went on it became clear that even though the fog had cleared my memory had not gotten better.  In fact, it was worse than ever.

I had little, if any, working memory, and my short-term memory was not far behind.  You know the kind of working memory I mean.  When someone says dial this phone number.  The phone is within reaching distance, but I had to write it down.  By the way, for those that don’t remember, there was a time when people didn’t have cell phones with quick dial numbers.  They had to rely on those things that were on a stand or mounted on the wall and didn’t move around with you.

Now, my brain and I were handicapped, but we didn’t let that get us down.  We used available technology to supplement our memory.  I went out and got spiral notebooks with 3-5 separations, and some really neat mechanical pencils that came 24 to a box.  I just started writing everything down that I felt needed remembering.  I would date the page, and I tried to keep subject matter separated but that didn’t always work too well.