Sunday, March 30, 2008

Travel: Food for Our Learning Machines (Our Brains)

As I was consulting the map for the upteemth time in Sydney, I was thinking about standing on my head to get a more realistic view of where I wanted to walk next. I began thinking about how good traveling is for our brains. I walked miles and miles (or km and km) everyday. I know that's good for me. I read maps (straightforwardly or on my head). I planned ahead--where would I go, what did I want to see, where would I be likely to have lunch or dinner, what would I do, what did I want to accomplish? My goodness! I was using those executive function skills to excess.

And Sydney was great! I went to all the museums and especially enjoyed the Aboriginal art. I walked around Darlinghurst and Paddington and went to lots of great galleries and shops. I ferried over to Manly and took the bus to Bondi Beach. I then walked the Spit Bridge to Manly walk (10 km) and the fabulous Bondi Beach to Coogee Walk, one of the great walks in the world.

My favorite: the rockpools. I felt like Burt Lancaser in "The Swimmer." Haven't seen that one? Get it from Netflicks. He relived his life swimming pool to swimming pool in Westchester County, NY (where I used to live). The Rockpools are the swimming pools that have been built into the rock formations along the coast of Sydney. They typically have two concrete walls built into the rocks that then form a pool, anywhere from 20-30 meters to 50-60 meters. They're all salt water pools. The tide washes over and refreshes the pool with a few new fish every day. I love these pools. With my goggles on, it's like the best snorkeling in Hawaii. There are 26 of them around Sydney. Why in the world doesn't the rest of the world have these? They are wonderful! I roamed around Sydney, swimming from pool to pool along my walks. Fabulous.

One of my favorites was the women's pool near Coogee. Although small--20 meters or so-- it was so lovely and friendly. Lots of scantily clad women and kids were jumping in the water, climbing over the crabs crawling along the walkway. I loved the outdoor shower and I unabashedly climbed out of my suit and into my clothes for the rest of the walk. Refreshing to be among the mermaids on the hill.

Everywhere I went, swimming, people asked me: "what about the presidential process?" They all admitted easily to hating Bush. But they were curious about what was next? They were worried about us.

I said, " I don't know what will happen but we hate Bush, too. We're just in a terrible mess. In every possible way."

All the men who wanted to race me in the rockpools nodded in agreement. They want things to be better for us. Because it will be better for them, too.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Even though I had read Michael Pollan's lead-up article to this book in the New Yorker and his other books, I found this one a page turner--fun to read and truly informative.

Already oft-quoted, the first words of the book summarize his extensive research and beliefs about food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." In other words, don't eat anything that has not traditionally been called food (recognizable by our grandmothers as food), which cuts out most processed concoctions in fast-food chains and much on grocery store shelves.

Eat plants because we need the complex interactions of the nutrients they contain. Pollan points out that there's no way to figure out which traces of what affect the whole nutritional value of what we need to eat. Singling out one vitamin, for example, and taking supplements of it is far, far inferior and may be quite deleterious to our health because we miss out on all the other interactions among minterals and vitamins in our food that we need to be healthy. Bottom-line: we just don't know enough yet so don't mess with the foods that have kept people healthy for centuries. I recognize this argument as one put forth by the scientists involved in the Washington Heights-Inwood-Columbia Aging project. After analyzing the diets of the participants, they concluded that those who had consumed a "Mediterranean Diet" (another way of saying "eat plants") had a dramatically lower risk of Alzheimer's. They hypothesized that one reason was because of the complex interactions of the many, many trace nutrients in plants

We've all been through the butter-margarine as engineered butter debate from the 50s on. And we finally now know that margarine is terrible for us, butter not so much (if we use it with a very light hand). There are many other examples of this kind of food engineering that moves beyond not making sense into really bad stuff.

I never really understood the arguments against genetically modified food until I read this book. I now realize that going for the most calories per acre cuts out the zillion varieties of fruits and vegetables that we have enjoyed--and all the complex mixture of nutients in that vast array. I now shop frequently at my local Farmers' Market and I have enjoyed the aesthetics and the taste of more variety. For example, have you seen those red and green cauliflowers sitting beside the omnipresent white ones? The green ones look like space helmets or part of an animation project. I'm discovering new tastes and new recipes and enjoying myself immensely in the process.

The "not too much" food is especially relevant to Americans who have a huge love of quantity. It's high time we copied the French on this one: quality trumps quantity every time.

I hope this book stays on the bestseller list forever. We all need to be aware of what we've done to our food supply and take steps to make meaningful and lasting changes.

Monday, January 28, 2008

vibrantBrains: San Francisco Brain Gym

vibrantBrains, a gym to exercise our brains, has recently opened in San Francisco. We all buy into the health club idea for our bodies so why not one to tone our brains, too? The vibrantBrains folks have created a pleasant, bright space on Sacramento Street, close to cafes, shops, and residential areas. They have the front of the club filled with interesting books, including some bestsellers, by scientists and others on various aspects of brain research and how the brain works; the middle part of the club is filled with state-of-the-art computers with headphones nearby. A lounge area with comfy chairs and tea, coffee, and water always available fills the floor-to-ceiling windowed alcove at the back of the club and is a great place to chat with other members. They have developed Neurobics Circuit Training, which incorporates a number of scientifically based software programs that enable a club member to work on different skills for each visit or a variety of skills within a workout and at a huge discount over trying to find and purchase these programs individually. These games and exercises, based on hard science, emphasize different skills, such as memory, reasoning, visual scanning, word recall, and quantitative facility, or a combination of many of these skills at once. They also focus on increasing speed and accuracy, with practice.

Just as we need to lift weights to insure that are our muscles are strong enough to swim or dance, we also need to strengthen our speed and accuracy with memory, reasoning, and visual scanning skills to make sudoku or a crossword puzzle fun. Or to make a challenging book enjoyable to read.

For those who want to add more intensity (and hard science), vibrantBrains also makes other programs available at a discount to its members, including Dr. Gary Small's (from the UCLA Center for Aging) Memory Fitness Course and Posit Science's Brain Fitness Program.

The vibrantBrains innovative founders, Jan Zivic and Lisa Schoonerman, may just have latched onto a trend that Boomers and others must incorporate into our lives to keep that notion that "60 is the new 40" alive and well. And just to enjoy our lives more. They will also offer a speaker series soon as well as book clubs and other related activies.

I, along with most people I know, have figured out that I need a variety of exercises for my body, from aerobic ones like swimming and dancing, to weight training to flexibility training, such as yoga and Pilates, just to maintain. It's high time we added in specific exercises to tone the various everyday brain skills we need to maintain and even increase the quality of our lives. Better memory, reasoning, language, quantitative, and visual-spatial skills have to make living just more interesting and more fun.