A new home for the Brain Nurse

•April 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Brain Nurse has a brand new website and blog address! Please direct your RSS feeds and future clicks toward my new URL: www.thebrainnurse.com/blog

On my site (www.thebrainnurse.com) you can also find information about upcoming classes, brain nutrition, and opt in to my electronic newsletter.

Thanks for reading!

I feel witty

•April 8, 2012 • Leave a Comment

All those years ago I wanted to be Natalie Wood as she appeared as “Maria”  in West Side Story.  I wanted to prance in front of a mirror and sing so fetchingly and so innocently.

I feel pretty, oh so pretty

I named my favorite doll “Natalie” and she got to wear the very best doll dresses.

And so pretty, Miss America can just resign (La la la la la la, LA LA LA!)

Of course Natalie Wood grew up to play more grownup  roles as actresses past a certain age are consigned to do.  One day the ingenue parts just evaporate. Even Julia Roberts, the Pretty Woman for all time, finds herself playing the evil queen in the new Snow White movie that I’m seeing trailers for..  I wonder what she thinks about this.  Not being the fairest of them all.  All that time spent exfoliating and moisturizing.  Damn.

In the pretty-smart department, however, an older mind is surprisingly adaptive.  It turns out, long after the prefrontal cortex is developed, that we get better at using both lobes and we can better assimilate information by shoring up years of experience. We know what works and what won’t work since the neural pathways have traveled there and back.  A particularly encouraging book on this subject is called The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch.  Here’s an excerpt:

We all talk about the benefits of experience, but we forget that experience isn’t built up in our knees but in our brains.  Knees come and go – we can even have them replaced – but we hang on to our brains.  And those brains – silent, hidden – have been quite busy building up the rich connections that let us know what we need to know about our world.

It’s alarming how charming I feel.

Not Fade Away

•March 5, 2012 • 1 Comment

“Where does it end?” asks El Hubbo.

He’s referring to the steady stream of Amazon book deliveries that make their way to our front porch.  “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  “Brain Rules.”  “The Brain That Changes Itself”.  The collection grows.

And the addition of the strangely delicious coconut oil I now stir into morning coffee.  Clear yellow capsules of DHA fish oil and Vitamin D3 are underfoot.  There is strict abhorrence of high fructose corn syrup and no place for it in our kitchen.  But there is plenty of room for brain-healthy salmon and turmeric.  Curried fish anyone?

Of course the fiendish gym workouts and morning runs are a must, no exceptions.  Thirty minutes of daily aerobic exercise, that’s the rule – no matter how crowded my schedule, the hour of day, the missed opportunities.

Nope, to answer his question, there is no end until the end.  I’m dragging all of my mental hard drive – every last neuron, every dendrite, every Golgi body – with me into the vast unknown of remaining years. (Smile icon here).  At least I’m doing everything I know how to make that happen. 

A more elegant expression of my burn-out-not-fade-out mantra is found in the final verses of a poem by Mary Oliver called “When Death Comes.”  It’s a gem and not at all depressing as the title would indicate:

When it’s over, I want to say:  all my life

I was a bride married to amazement

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real,

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up by simply having visited this world.


Popular Semantics

•February 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the word “awesome” became our national adjective but I think it had something to do with Michelle Kwan at the time of 1998 Winter Olympics.  I recall standing outside my house at that time chatting with a teenage girl who lived on my street and she mentioned that she was participating in some sort of academic competition which was team-based.  “Our motto” she said, “is that we follow the style of Michelle Kwan which is AWESOME.”

Since then, no doubt Michelle Kwan has unlaced her skates and moved on but AWESOME, as we all know, has steadfastly refused to die and frequently makes appearances in all caps on Facebook, occasionally accompanied by AMAZING or EPIC ( a word  rightfully reserved only for sentences mentioning Cecil B. Demille.) If that’s not enough, for extra emphasis just insert TOTALLY in front of any of these words and voila!  You have…nothing.

‘Cause ordinary is the fodder for the AWESOME word and it’s here that I take particular issue with its overuse.  Stadium bathrooms are not, nor ever will be, AWESOME.  Nor will fish sticks.  Dental hygiene products.  I don’t want to hear (again) that an abdominal workout is AWESOME either; workouts for stomach muscles are “challenging” or “hard” or they “hurt like Hell.”  But they are not awesome, I’m sorry.

I wonder if our follow-the-leader mentality takes a certain neural pathway when we repeat and spit out popular, now meaningless, words or expressions.  Eventually with the passage of time, the expression dims and fades.  It would be silly to say that something is “far out” or “out of site” even when you are speaking to  Baby Boomers wearing tie-dyed garments.  Be grateful for this.

Of course, more sophisticated phrases and words creep into vocabulary as well.  Who is still saying “at the end of the day” and “resonate”?  Some of you are still guilty of “tweak” and “my sense is”.   More recently, in a subtle context, the word “prescient” is infiltrating the published word which means showing awareness and preparation for the future.  It is a complimentary, visionary term and I hope one day to be described as prescient myself.

Meanwhile I will remain simply annoyed and ready to take down the AWESOME mantra whenever someone can come up with a more grown-up substitute.  At the end of the day, my sense is that it won’t disappear overnight and I can only hope that my irritation resonates with you too.

Brain nurse

New year, new brain

•January 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The gym was (predictably) crowded today, this being January 2.  I can always spot the gym newbies; aimlessly they wander from one machine to the next, not bothering to change the settings.  Some use the paltry machine-dispensed paper towels to wipe their sweaty faces and  no one thought to bring a water bottle.  A few – gasp! – are here without headphones.  Somebody help them!

How many, I wonder, plan to hit the Brain Gym this year?  What resolutions can we make, starting today, to help the neurons continue their snappy patter – and at lightening-fast speed?  For starters, here are mine:

1.  Keep exercising.  I’m very, very faithful here, to the point of being cranky on the rare days I have to miss a workout.  However , there is always room for improvement in toning those pesky “problem” areas.  (Note to self: order that “Brazilian Butt Workout” DVD  pronto.)

2.  More fish, fewer carbs.  I see Chicken of the Sea salmon packets in my future. 

3.  Do. One. Thing. At. A. Time.  I know, I know – multi-tasking is a fantasy but it is slow to die.  I mean, what am so afraid of missing that compels me to run 2 laptops AND the Bloomberg channel?   From now on, no online radio while the frontal cortex is working.  Period.

4. Spend time with friends.  That shouldn’t be so hard to do but truthfully I have to actually schedule such an activity or it won’t happen.  Friendships, even long-standing ones, take effort to maintain.  Facebook pokes don’t count.

5.  Keep stretching mentally.  Ditch the routine and seek out the novel, however uncomfortable.   Act on it.

6.  Take coconut oil (more on this later).  Supposed to do heaps for brain health.

7.  Avoid the cortisol stress hormone and reach for the, uh, zen.  Not ALL of the Interstate drivers are IDIOTS, are they?  A calm brain is a focused brain and focus is what I want lots of in 2012.

Happy New Year.



The science of stuff

•December 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The day after Christmas I haul my overflowing, jumbo-sized trash bin to the curb for pickup.  Then El Hubbo and I roll our eyes in anti-consumption conspiracy when we see the morning newspaper and the anticipated lunacy contained in its fold.  “The after Christmas sale,” we groan.  Those poor chumps.

Secretly, though, slipping out to the grocery store for a few necessities (mind you, just bread and milk) I couldn’t resist the urge to eye a rack of marked-for-clearance Christmas items.

As if I really need that green and red Santa-patterned serving plate.  Oh, but the possibilities….perhaps to stack the finger sandwiches upon it for next year’s brunch, that bringing the approving nod from my sister-in-law, guru of domesticity.  Yes!  Already I am sucked into the fantasy.  Peace on earth.

And then this morning, trying to work and clear up pesky emails, temptation visits again in the form of “Grouponicus” messages and similar offerings from Amazon( previously known as my faithful book purveyor.)   The deals of the ‘net practically scream at you.  EIGHTY PERCENT OFF!!!  Swanky-sounding sites call to me – My Habit, Woot, Fat Wallet.  One click and I”m in the club.

Of course, the Brain part of Brain Nurse knows what’s at play in the cranial sandbox: the guilty pleasure of the Dopamine Pathway is involved and the relative success or failure of  the prefrontal cortex (PFC).   This is the brain’s governor of prudence, appropriateness and ability to plan ahead for the bigger goal.  A brain with an active PFC exercises circumspect.  We know that people who can delay pleasure and not blow their nest egg on impulsive buying have more PFC activity.  The instant-gratification camp, on the other hand, are more challenged in that area.  A study that got some media buzz last fall involved kids who made decisions on received marshmallow awards now or later.  Here’s a link on that research:http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/10/30/the-new-science-behind-your-spending-addiction.html

Hands down, the kids who couldn’t  delay gratification lost out later in life  – lower SAT scores, higher participation in crime, not to mention more trouble with debt and money management.  The good news, according to the article, is that such behavior can be retrained.  The brain, after all, is malleable and astonishingly adaptive.   Even in the face of marshmallows.

Seasons greetings,



My So-Called Life

•December 14, 2011 • 1 Comment

Yesterday I visited our local library aka “the place with free internet”.  My usual routine is to head for the New Books shelves first which are now pathetically “decorated” with books, displayed sparingly with their covers facing the patron since there are, well, very few actual books at all.  I counted 19 in New Books – Nonfiction.  Nineteen.  Yeesh.

However, I did find a newly published brain book and snatched it up (that leaves 18).  It’s called “Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives” by Dean Buonomano.  Here’s a nugget from the Introduction:

Although we currently inhabit a time and place we were not programmed to live in, the set of instructions written down in our DNA on how to build a brain are same as they were – 100,000 years ago.  Which raises the question, to what extent is the neural operating system established by evolution well tuned for the digital, predator-free, sugar-abundant, special-effects-filled, antibiotic-laden, media-saturated densely populated world we have managed to build for ourselves?

This got me to thinking about wha I miss most – and what I don’t miss – as a digital immigrant from the old days, pre-webtellictual way of life…

What I Don’t Miss:

Having to stop at pay phones at sketchy gas stations

Not having caller ID (BIG time saver!)

Forced interaction with customer sales people

The Encyclopedia Britannica


What I  Miss:

Being unavailable

Eye contact with strangers or with known people under age 35

Voice inflection with above

 Time spent between hearing ring tones (yours and others)

Cursive handwriting


Books on public library shelves








A sick experience makes for a sick mind

•November 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

A current book-in-progress is Dr. David Perlmutter’s “Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment.”  After hearing Dr. Perlmutter speak at a medical conference this month, I fished out this book which initially put me off a bit with the new-agey moniker, chakra references and the like.    It turns out that the book is thoughtfully written and there’s plenty of good science in it. 

I like hearing different takes on our old friend, the hippocampus, the so-called “gateway to memory”  brain structure long implanted by evolution.  This one took me by surprise:

We now understand that the hippocampus set point that modulates the adrenal’s production of cortisol is programmed very early in life.  Thus, trauma at a young age increases the hippocampus’s sensitivity to cortisol.  And this sets the stage for an every-increasing decline in hippocampal function in adulthood, which inhibits our ability to respond to situations in novel ways.

I feel nothing but frustrated outrage over the Penn State scandal and I don’t  buy the notion that any of these football coaches are “fallen heroes” nor that the hushing-up of such abuse happened because of  “job pressures to stay quiet.” OH please.  So now the hapless young victims not only pay with immediate emotional, physical costs that we can only imagine.  Indeed,  their abilities to think, learn and adapt go hurting for a lifetime.

Makes me sick.

Brain Up! Why I’m teaching myself Japanese

•October 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Like muscles that go slack without use, the research people tell us that using the same old neural pathways does nothing but create a well-worn groove.  As far as honing mental acuity, cognitive focus and all the qualities that render that top-of-our-game experience,  real mental exploration in unknown territory is required.  Problem is, we’re wired to gravitate to what we know.  The brain gets lazy.  And, man, it’s hard to speak a syllable in a language other than English.

This is from SharpBrains.com “The 10 Habits of Highly Effective Brains”:

The point of having a brain is precisely to learn and to adapt to challenging new environments.   Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they stay in your brain and how long they survive depends on how you use them.  “Use it or lose it” does not mean “do crossword puzzle number 1,234,567”.  It means “challenge your brain with fundamentally new activities.”

Chop, chop.

Words matter

•September 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I have been looking for “The Proust and the Squid” by Maryanne Wolf ever since I heard her interview on the Brain Science Podcast a few months ago.  Seems the local library had it but – wonder of wonders – they managed to assign the wrong Dewey Decimal number to its jacket cover.  (Is the Dewey Decimal system still in existence?)  At any rate,  I found it whilst perusing some other brain books in the non fiction shelves.  It pays to browse.

And what a gem!  Why hasn’t anyone else written about the science of the reading brain – the interpretation of symbols translated into letters and then into words, into concrete and then into abstract thought?   What would our brains look like without literacy?

All of these questions float about  in my mind after reading another sad news item about the descent of reading scores for students who take the SAT exams, the lowest in several years according to the tiny article spotted in the San Antonio Express News.  Adding insult to injury, I noticed a blatant misspelling of a common word while working out at the gym yesterday.  The misspelling is a common one but it is staggering to think that no one caught it before it was laminated on expensive signs, full color literature and on the company website. 

To literacy. To reading.  Here’s hoping.