The Care and Feeding of the Brain

Tom Shipka

The human brain, which weighs only three-pounds, is on duty round the clock whether we're awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious. Electrical and chemical messages fly around it constantly. It regulates all the other organs in our body and makes possible every action that we perform.

Fortunately, there are steps that we can take to make and keep our brain fit. In fact, as science writer Guy P. Harrison points out in his new book entitled Think, they are the same steps that benefit our overall health. (1) According to Harrison, here is what we should do for our brain:

ONE: Eat well. (2) Since the food that we consume is the brain's fuel, the performance of the brain can be helped or hindered by the quality and quantity of its fuel. So, we should eat the right foods in moderation. Specifically, he suggests...

  • that we reduce red meat, alcohol, and candy;
  • that we avoid hot dogs, sausage, fried potatoes, and sugary soft drinks; and
  • that we increase wild salmon, baked chicken, green vegetables (especially spinach and broccoli), fruit (especially blueberries and blackberries), nuts, trail mix, and non-sugary soft drinks.

TWO: Exercise. (3) Harrison likens the brain to a "three-pound vampire" which craves blood. (4) Exercise stimulates blood flow and delivers nutrients to the brain. It causes the brain to grow new cells and, over the long haul, it helps us cope with "stress, anxiety, depression, and age-related problems such as dementia." (5) Harrison offers these recommendations on exercise:

  • Exercise at least twenty minutes a day at least six days a week;
  • Select the type of exercise which works for you, whether it is walking, running, swimming, cycling, sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks, or a combination;
  • Lift weights twice a week to strengthen bones and muscles; and
  • Avoid prolonged sitting at home or at work; stand up and move about regularly. (6)

THREE: Get plenty of sleep. (7) According to Harrison, science has shown that a rested brain functions well and a tired one doesn't. Too little sleep reduces alertness and concentration, and diminishes the ability to learn, to solve problems, and to remember. (8) When it comes to sleep, Harrison concedes, one size doesn't fit all. For some people, six or seven hours may suffice; for others, eight or more may be necessary. Harrison therefore recommends keeping a sleep diary in which you log how many hours you sleep on a given night and how you feel and function the next day. (9) He also recommends brief naps when circumstances permit; and (10)

FOUR: Use it or lose it. (11) Harrison cites studies which show that active brains prosper while inactive ones "wither and weaken." (12) So, it is essential that we keep thinking, learning, and solving problems. According to Harrison, if you want to be good at running, then you must run, and if you want to be good at thinking, then you must think. The secret to a healthy brain, he assures us, lies in reading and writing, learning new skills (especially a second language), exploring nature, studying the universe, travelling (preferably to distant places), and visiting museums. (13)

Harrison challenges us to accept responsibility for the well-being of the most important organ in our body. For those of us who are couch potatoes, the start of a new year gives us a perfect opportunity to take up his challenge.

  1. Guy P. Harrison, Think: Why You Should Question Everything, Prometheus Books, 2013. Although Think is a primer on critical thinking that deals with the usual topics found in a book on critical thinking (see below), it could be subtitled The Care and Feeding of the Brain because of the attention which it devotes to the brain. See especially Chapter 2, "Pay a Visit to the Strange Thing That Lives Inside Your Head," pp. 55-85, and Chapter 4, "The Proper Care and Feeding of a Thinking Machine," pp. 167-183. Chapter 2 does a fine job of pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the brain. On the latter, he notes: "Unfortunately, most people know little or nothing about how the brain operates so they make incorrect assumptions about its reliability. The brutal truth is that human brains do a poor job of separating truth from fiction. This leads to many false beliefs." Think, p. 55. Harrison's four main recommendations to promote the efficiency of the brain are given in Chapter 4.

    The topics covered in Think which are often found in books on critical thinking include the value of skepticism, the importance of science, the need for intellectual self-reliance, our susceptibility to common thinking errors, the gullibility that pervades all strata of society, examples of unproven or discredited beliefs that remain popular, and the rewards of effective thinking.

    Harrison's previous books are 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (2008), Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know about Our Biological Diversity (2010), 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True (2012), and 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian (2013). Think incorporates some material from his previous books.

  2. On food, see pp. 170-173.
  3. On exercise, see pp. 173-176.
  4. Think, p. 173. Although the brain weighs only three pounds, it uses twenty percent of the body's blood.
  5. Think, p. 173.
  6. To those who protest that they don't have the time to exercise, Harrison observes that "the average American spends nearly forty hours per week watching television." (pp. 174-175) He adds: "If nothing else, do jumping jacks and push-ups in your living room during one thirty-minute episode of your favorite TV show every evening." (p. 175)
  7. On sleep, see pp. 176-178.
  8. Think, p. 177. Further, Harrison notes that sleep deprivation over extended periods has been linked to "significantly higher risk for heart attack, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and obesity." (p. 177)
  9. Think, p. 177.
  10. Think, p. 177.
  11. On Use it or Lose it, see pp. 178-182.
  12. Think, p. 179.
  13. Think, pp. 178-182. Harrison recommends combining several of these experiences when possible. He writes: "One of the best things you can do for your brain on a regular basis is join exercise, thinking, and nature into one outing. The closest thing to a miracle tonic for the brain might be something like a vigorous walk/run on a previously unexplored mountain trail or along a new stretch of beach, during which one notices and photographs an unusual plant or insect to research after returning home. That would be a good day for any brain." (p. 181) In this same segment of his book, Harrison insists that those who believe that they can help their brain through products sold at a health food store or promoted on infomercials are wasting their time and money.