Posts Tagged ‘brain’

I’m tempted to lean towards the overblown and pronounce something like, “Everyone should read this book.” But I realize that not everyone is going to read it, and that’s okay. It’s non-fiction, pretty dense and scientific, and it’s hugely interesting. Maybe you’re not into that. It’s brilliantly presented, by the way. Parts are thick, with a multitude of hormone and receptor names, other sections with references to neurological and psychological research that spreads over the last century, and parts could be construed as depressing (not in the clinical sense of the word), but only if you stop halfway through the book, because there’s hope at the end (more on that later). Sapolsky’s writing is engaging, detailed, at times humorous, and it’s accessible, despite the depth and complexity of the subject matter.

I do feel like all kinds of people should read this book: if you are a teacher (and not just if you teach science); if you have kids of your own; if you’re married; if you work; if you’re curious about how the brain works; if you’re curious about stress; if you have stress; or if you really want to know what stress does to your body at the chemical and biological level… the list goes on.

I didn’t know about Robert Sapolsky until just recently, when I read that his Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology course at Stamford was available to watch online for free (thanks to OpenCulture: Biology That Makes Us Tick 3-28-11). I’m curious about his other books, A Primate’s Memoir, and The Trouble With Testosterone, because I really enjoy his writing style, (and I teach biology, so I happen to be interested in those topics). I also find him to be a fascinating lecturer. And once you watch the intro to Behavior Bio linked above (or watch the lecture on stress and depression below), you can absolutely hear his voice come through his writing. I imagine that when you write a book about a topic in your field (and revise it twice) that it becomes pretty familiar material. Whether it’s explaining the subject in front of a class or presenting his ideas in writing, he lays the case out clearly and persuasively (down to the same examples and phrases). The lecture below pretty much summarizes chapter 14 on stress and depression, which is staggering:

It’s incredible how far-reaching are the effects of stress and its attendant chemicals. They can save your life if you happen to be running from an actual lion (like the zebra of the title), but the case of humans is a bit more complicated because we tend to overthink things; the same chemical stress-response can get your hormones and body all worked up if you’re just anxious about running from a lion (or running from some metaphorical lion in your actual life). Elevated levels of glucocorticoids (a major focus of the book) can wreak havoc on your heart, blood vessels, reproductive and immune systems, sleep patterns, and general well-being. Elevated levels of stress hormones have been shown to have the same effect on your body that years of aging has. Oh, and they can also shrink your hippocampus and screw up your memory. Great.

But there’s hope.

The last section of the book is on dealing with stress. It’s possible. People actually do it, effectively even. And with the goal of “aging well” — not letting stress beat you down — Sapolsky presents some suggestions. Some of this stuff is unavoidable, due to the circumstances (genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic) that a person is born into — we don’t have much control over those things, and they are major influences (or potential risk factors, frankly). But under the heading of “control what you can control” he presents coping strategies that include exercise, maintenance and growth of positive social relationships (which do make a difference), meditation, religion, social support networks, and the importance of maintaining perspective. It doesn’t really end with fluff, and I hope I haven’t made it sound like that. It’s not a self-help book. Throughout the book Sapolsky presents clinical research, case studies, and work with rats and baboons that illustrate in remarkable detail how our brains and hormones (and those of all mammals, really) work. I feel that understanding the ways that the body deals with changes in the outside world (stressful things) can help influence the way we approach them. It might be tough to tell a “type A” personality to keep an even keel, but it turns out that it’s one of the more important things you can do.

You should totally read this book.


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A colleague (and fellow football coach) alerted me to this story today, and it’s worth watching if you coach youth sports, or if you have children that are involved in contact sports.

Hard Hits, Hard Numbers is a segment by Stone Phillips that covers a study done by researchers from Virginia Tech on impact and the brain in youth tackle football. It follows one team of 7-8 year olds over the course of an entire season, looking at impact data from hits in practice and games by fitting several players’ helmets with accelerometers (which measure force and direction of impact). Although this study deals with hits to the head in football, the research would apply by extension to any contact sport played with a helmet, such as hockey or lacrosse.

Stone Phillips on PBSNewsHour: Pint-sized Football Players Take Big-League Hits

The full article from the study was published last month in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

It’s something we should continue to think about as coaches as we work to ensure safety for the children that we work with in youth sports.

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All interesting for different reasons.

Another article on the teenage brain, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind” by Alison Gopnik, WSJ 1-28-12: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203806504577181351486558984.html

NPR’s First Listen of Shearwater’s new album “Animal Joy,” which comes out next week. Thanks, Paul for the link: http://www.npr.org/2012/02/05/146083321/first-listen-shearwater-animal-joy?ft=1&f=1039

Free Stamford course on human behavioral biology by Richard Sapolsky. A fascinating course, dynamic speaker, and free through iTunes or YouTube. Found via @openculture: cultr.me/gg92Hk

Noah Geisel from TeachPaperless on the usefulness of Twitter: http://teachpaperless.blogspot.com/2012/01/twimpact-twitters-impact-on-my-week.html

To be filed under “fascinating reads of all kinds” and “things that make you think,” check out Brain Pickings, which is mostly book-related, always interesting. Also see their companion Tumblr bookshelf for a quick look at all the books they talk about.


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The human brain. Image from Gray's Anatomy, via Wikipedia Commons

One of the things we think about often as teachers is the development of the teenage brain. Hopefully what we learn about the brain informs our practice in some way, and can help us to reach each learner in class. If you have a teenager at home, you might also think about what’s going on inside his or her brain every so often, for different reasons than learning!

This National Geographic article by David Dobbs, “Teenage Brains,” takes a fascinating look at the development of the adolescent brain. Dobbs addresses natural selection, the tendency towards risk taking in teenagers, the benefits of such behavior, and the need for development of social connections (which are often related to risk taking in some way). It’s a complex field, for sure, but one that is shifting its approach in understanding why the brain works the way that it does. It’s not so much the idea that adolescence is to be survived in spite of the sometimes maddening tendencies of the teenage brain, but rather it works because teenagers are transitioning towards a world separate from their parents, and while their brains are still developing, important things are happening.

From the article, regarding the reasons for why the brain works the way it does:

Selection is hell on dysfunctional traits. If adolescence is essentially a collection of them—angst, idiocy, and haste; impulsiveness, selfishness, and reckless bumbling—then how did those traits survive selection? They couldn’t—not if they were the period’s most fundamental or consequential features.

The answer is that those troublesome traits don’t really characterize adolescence; they’re just what we notice most because they annoy us or put our children in danger. As B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College who has spent nearly a decade applying brain and genetic studies to our understanding of adolescence, puts it, “We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It’s exactly what you’d need to do the things you have to do then.”

Give it a read.

Teenage Brains by David Dobbs. National Geographic. October 2011

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