The book Brainercize is meant to serve as companion material to the classes.
The book addresses the crisis of intelligence that the whole world faces. Information overload has swamped us. We are collectively exposed to more stimuli than ever before in the history of the earth, both auditory and visual, with television, computers and the advent of the internet leading the way for our “information overload.” Internet websites are proliferating at an exponential rate. The sheer magnitude of the information explosion presents a set of problems never before encountered by the human race. Even if by some miracle of osmosis we could take in all of the knowledge recorded in every existing medium today, in another five years we would again be ignorant of most of the information out there – and much of the information we did know would be obsolete.
Even as the bar of expected performance is raised higher, our actual performance – our ability to conceptualize, and therefore our ability to cope with this “brave new world” – appears to be, in certain key respects, decreasing. If we look at test assessments of students as a measure of our current cognitive skills, we see that that the average processing ability of information of Americans is eroding. This deterioration in the quality of the educational system is historically unprecedented. Prior to 1967, student test scores had exhibited almost 50 years of uninterrupted improvement. Since 1967, there has been a steady decline.
One of the signs of verbal fluency in a literate society is the degree to which people are interested in reading complex, thoughtful material. It takes exposition, which itself takes time, to think about and discuss complex issues. According to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer than half of Americans over 18 read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. Even a cursory look at any newsstand in the country will reveal what people are reading: magazines that are more like television than reading material; magazines that one flips through to get partial information much as one flips through television channels, just to see what is on. Dana Gioia, in his report to the National Endowment to the Arts, described this trend as "consistent and alarming."
Correspondingly, we see too evidence that our ability to think conceptually is diminishing. The virtual world may be creating a virtual brain. In the virtual world, we see spoon-fed menu options as opposed to free-ranging inquiry. Contracted text-messaging lacks the verbs and conditional structures that are essential for complex thinking. According to Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield of Oxford University, we are witnessing a decline in linguistic and visual imagination, and an atrophy of creativity. We may, as well, be seeing an upsurge about to happen of the dreaded disease Alzheimer’s. Research conducted by David Snowdon, in the study that has come to be known as the Nun Study, shows us the relationship between Alzheimer’s and thinking capability. With 90% accuracy, Snowdon was able to predict which nuns would suffer from Alzheimer’s. He looked at the nuns’ writings from when they were young women, and found that those with the simplest sentence structure, and with the fewest ideas, were the ones who were most likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life. David Snowdon was not looking at what had been learned over the course of the educational experiences of these nuns. He was looking at the very organization of the brain. He was looking at the linguistic expression of the nuns’ sequencing ability. The ability to think, to draw connections, to extend memory from the beginning to the end of a complicated sentence or paragraph, to develop a complex idea: these are all aspects of good sequencing and brain functioning.
When enough people begin to operate at a diminished brain-efficient level, then the society as a whole begins to suffer. We see documentation of this in studies of primitive cultures. The initial exploration into cultural neurological inefficiency was done 50 years ago by a team of researchers who traveled around the world and evaluated the child rearing techniques in different societies. They went into the Amazon jungles and over to Africa; then they looked at the Eskimos and the American Indians. They found a direct correlation in each of the societies between the level of function of the individuals, the level achieved by the society, and the amount of time the children were permitted down on the ground with the opportunity to go through basic developmental steps. For example, in the Amazon jungle, where the environment was so threatening that the children were essentially not permitted on the ground until they could run, the children missed essential developmental steps. The studies showed that when crawling is interfered with, there is damage to the full flowering of potential of the individual. As a result, those children grew to be neurologically deficient, and because the society was comprised largely of individuals with poor cognitive skills, the over-all level of productivity achieved by the society was very low. They had poor verbal skills, poor conceptual skills, and no written language.
In parts of Africa, however, the environment was somewhat less threatening, and the children were permitted on the ground for some time. These children had more opportunity to do some of the basic activities involving moving on the ground, crawling and creeping. The level of function of these individuals, and the societies as a whole, was higher than that in the Amazon.
Sadly, societal inefficiency affects those who are most vulnerable: our children. The number of children with neurological disorders – including Downs, autism and other less severe forms of learning disabilities -- has increased in the last ten years to an alarming rate. According to the National Institute of Literacy, 30-50% of the population has undiagnosed learning disabilities. Children with learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) compose between 10% - 15% of the school-age population and represent over half the children who receive special education services in the United States (source: National Institutes of Health). And, since 1992, the percentage of students who spend 80% or more of their time in school in special education classes increased from 21% to 45% (source: 23rd Annual Report to Congress, 2001).
As more of our children suffer from these severe forms of neurological inefficiency, the sad truth is that we have to expect that in coming years, the society, as a whole, will suffer concomitantly. Without proper remedial work, children with learning disabilities become adults with learning disabilities, and the society as a whole must go to great expense to assist these individuals who are operating neurologically at diminished capacity. It is estimated that 25 – 40% of those on government assistance programs have learning disabilities (source: Bridges to Practice). Additionally, 43% of learning disabled are living at or below the poverty level (source: Bridges to Practice). And, 48% of those with learning disabilities are out of the workforce or unemployed (source: Bridges to Practice).
As any elementary textbook in brain physiology tells us, the brain consists of two hemispheres that perform different functions. The right side is the visual and emotional side; the left side is the verbal and logical side. Largely because of television, we have become a society that functions primarily from the right side. No one seems to mind. There was even a best-selling book a few years back, Drawing From the Right Side of Your Brain, extolling the virtues of accessing the visual hemisphere, as though we didn’t do enough of that. In fact, since the advent of television, we have become a predominantly right-brain culture, and the price we pay for this is high. James Glick says in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything: “We have learned a visual language made up of images and movements instead of words and syllables.” The left hemisphere, from which comes thoughtful, “fine-grained analysis,” as Richard Restak refers to it, gets far too little exercise. One system of education, the Waldorf schools based on German philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s concepts, has understood the dangers of exposing young minds to television. Worldwide, each of these schools insists that Waldorf parents agree to restrict access to television for their children.
Restak, in his book Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot also points out the transformation our brains have had to undergo in order to master a skill that many of us use today: reading and writing on a computer. When we think of the materials we read, we think of newspaper, books and magazines. But nine-tenths of the writing today takes place in the business world, and it is done on a computer. The computer, like television, consists of a mosaic of images, backlit screens and near instantaneous speed. These attributes, Restak points out, engage the right hemisphere. Yet, when we are reading or writing, we are employing language, which engages the left hemisphere. When we use words on the computer -- reading or writing -- both hemispheres are stimulated, but not in an integrated way. Rather, the hemispheres are conflicting -- even competing -- with one another. To the brain, reading and writing on a computer is an entirely different activity -- neurologically disorganizing -- than reading and writing using paper, which is a neurologically organizing activity.
But, for better and for worse, computers and television are here to stay. The question then becomes: Can we re-shape our brains to what they need to be without forsaking our pleasures -- even our need -- for computers and television? Can our brains adjust to the technologically-advanced society that we have created and find ourselves living in today? And, although our culture fails in providing us with the brain stimulation we need to adapt to the information overload that defines contemporary life, can we, nevertheless, give our brain the “food” it needs to maintain, even restore, its health?
The book, Brainercize, gives us the right questions and the right answers that will enable us to restore our brains to their maximum healthy functioning.