Challenging Your Brain for Health and Wisdom


“Because our culture and our technology have advanced faster than we can advance biologically, human beings have become cognitively obsolete in the world we ourselves created!” state Schlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway.

In their book, “Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom,” renowned cognitive psychologist and visiting professor at the London School of Economics and Stanford University, Schlomo Breznitz, with technologist Collins Hemingway, provide an in-depth look at how the mind works on a biological and functional level, offering a framework for people to maximize their brain health for life.

Apparently experience isn’t always the best teacher as it can lead to mental rigidity and a jumping to conclusions which blocks the way for new and fresh thoughts and solutions. It is a known fact that after finding the solution to a problem — the brain stops searching. Our ability to find similarity in things — hidden patterns and to “fill in the blanks” — can lead us into mental traps.

Our world is constantly changing, more so and faster than ever before. Breznitz and Hemingway believe that it is our ability to “unlearn” that will determine how well we survive, adapt, and move forward. To them, “Automaticity is the opposite of maximum brainpower. Unlearning old habits is really the key to learning!”

Here are some topics that Breznitz and Hemingway explore in their book:

  • The difference between intelligence, IQ, and cognition and how that impacts the brain’s other functions
  • The science behind the progressive degeneration of the brain through Alzheimer’s and various coping measures to be taken
  • What’s good for the heart is good for the brain and other cognitive aids
  • Plasticity and how mental practice can produce the same physical changes in the brain as physical practice. (Why right now as I write this blog I’m mentally practicing my tennis serve toss … for those aces I will serve in tomorrow’s match!)
  • The difference between good stress and bad stress and how it relates to our perception of the control we have over the outcome of a situation
  • The power of hope and how the placebo or “expectancy effect” works
  • How diversified perspectives inside the brain act like a diversified investment portfolio in a world of rapid and unpredictable change — defending against mental rigidity with a variety of solutions.

Did you know that hope and despair are “self-fulfilling prophecies”? Despair is like the snake trying to bite its own tail. There’s no way out. Because the brain will not let the body expend energy unless it believes that success is possible, the moment we believe, the brain unleashes a flood of energy. Breznitz and Hemingway write, “By maintaining hope we can persevere until a helpless situation improves.”

Each premise (and there are many) is backed up by descriptions of studies and experiments. And every conclusion is set forth to educate and advise. Towards the end of the book, Breznitz and Hemingway pose the question, “Will the legacy of the digital era be the elevation of ignorance?” Our smartphones and tablets enable us to handle our problems more easily but surely, they write, “this convenience comes at a cognitive price that must be offset by a cognitive effort elsewhere.”

It’s to the good doctor’s credit that Breznitz doesn’t go overboard in promoting the brain-training regimen he invented called CogniFit, but merely mentions it from time to time as a reference to the helpful effects of the whole genre. He suggests that while these brain-training exercises cannot replace the life activities that challenge our minds on a deep level such as a project or good book, they can “ensure that our brains do not get lazy.”

In looking forward, Breznitz champions cognitive fitness not only for the elderly but also our children: calling for new classes, for example, on how to develop and maintain relationships, to develop emotional intelligence, and a class that teaches tools to maintain mental flexibility or strategies on avoiding automaticity.

This helps us to understand the brain and its ability to change functionally and biologically. In so doing, Breznitz and Hemingway hope we will “avoid the pitfalls of our inherently conservative nature and take advantage of the great creativity that lies within.” In defense of cognitive fitness, they write, “the brain creates both our physical and psychological reality so cognitive fitness radiates outward into the external world. If we understand the brain, we understand the world. If we can improve the brain, we can change the world.” Inspiring words, indeed!

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