Saturday, September 30, 2006

"Brainpower & Nutrition & Exercise" -> Phonemes and Tonality (Part III)

Part III: What Can We Do With Our Brain

Okay, so you want to be smarter. You want to be a better musician. You want to catch on faster.

I'm going to introduce you to four main ideas:

1. Use it or lose it
2. Fish oil is brain oil
3. Blueberries on the brain
4. Sweat to the brainpower

Now that we have determined the brain basic shape is frozen, what can we do with it?

1. Use it or lose it

If you are young, the key ingredient is to use it. If you take a developing rat, and destroy its eye and allow it to live it’s life, you find out a very curious thing. If you kill and examine the rats brain, you will find that the center for visual processing has fallen apart. The very act of not using the brain will guaranty to destroy it.

However, vigorous active thought (and we’ve all said “my brain hurts from too much thinking”) will cause the your brain cells to grow it’s internal system. (Technically, your axons and dendrites will be healthy, like a tree roots feeding your brain cell.) Make your brain work.

With this in mind, stay away from television. Without going into the details, TV is an excellent way of NOT making your brain work, and it will lead to Alzheimer’s disease. (Read my first posting for the abstracts.)

Do you want to get better at music? Then study music. Do you want to become a better artist? Then study your art. Do you wan to be a better golfer? Then work on your stroke. All of these activities will cause your brain to develop.

2. Fish oil is brain oil

There is one more cross over point for both young and the old. This is fish oil.

The research on Omega-3 capsules is like science fiction (and since most of it is made by just a few manufacturers, Wal-Mart will be a fine place to buy it). However, I will leave the abstracts to a later posting. What is really interesting is to realize that to have a health brain, you need to have building blocks.

You brain is made up mainly of fat—60% of your brain is fat. Being called a “fat head” may not be an insult, because to have no fat would mean to have no brain. However, brain fat cannot be made from animal fat, and our own body can’t make it from nothing. The building block of the brain is fish oil or docosahexaenoic acid. If you read Omega-3 capsule at Wal-Mart, you’ll see that they are made up of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (a close relative of DHA that your body can turn into DHA.)

Don’t even think about just eating fish. Unfortunately, the FDA tells us that the fish we eat has problems with mercury, so the best bet is distilled fish oil. Or Omega-3 capsules as they are know. Buy the cheapest kind and keep them in the refrigerator. Pop about 3 per day. After 5 or 6 months, you’ll have some of the basic building blocks to build your brain. I am with the camp that believes that there is a clear correlation between eating fish and intelligence, such as the Japanese testing higher on IQ tests. The Japanese would be better off, however, just popping a pill.

However, don’t over push it, since high doses of Omega-3 may suppress the immune system. Easy up, and don’t expect results overnight.

3. Blueberries on the brain

Let’s say that you’re like me, over 40 and worried about your brain slowing down. You should be worried if you are living like the average citizen of the world. Why? Because your brain is slowing down and getting older, and cluttered.

The cells in the brain are called post-mitotic, which is a fancy way of saying that they don’t divide. (In reality, this may be a bit of a simplification, but it close enough for us.) Thus, you need to take care of all the cells you have. However, older brain cells have a tendency to get inflamed and not work all that well as we age. This is because of a little chemical chain reaction centered about NF-kappa B, which is a fancy name for a character that starts a little bit of irritation at the cell level. If this irritation builds up, the research clearly shows that has a heavy contributing factor in supporting Alzheimer’s disease.

Omega-3 seems to also help with quieting the irritation (remember I said they were like science fiction), but the real key is introducing some stuff into your system that helps these aging brain cells.

If you are poor, then you should go directly to Costco or Wal-Mart and start taking Vitamin C and E, along with your Omega-3 fish oil. Don’t take either separately, since it looks as if taken without each other could actually hurt you.

If you have a few extra bucks, I would also suggest the following.

*Drink Blueberry juice every day. Now, normally I hate rat studies, because what works on a rat doesn’t often work on a human. But, the research with rats seem so clear, I can help but believe that there is something for humans. Blueberry can protect the area of the brain that deals with motor skills. The studies are many.

*Take ALC (Acetyl-L-Carnitine) on an empty stomach before eating anything. The research is pretty clear. The only challenge with ALC is that the most compelling research is to combine it with R-ALA. But again, the research is on rats, and quite frankly R-ALA (A particular version of alpha lipoic acid) is very expensive, and still a bit hard to find. However, if you have google, it is well worth researching as it is very promising.

If you have a LOT of money, and you don't mind spending it, then you should look at the following. I personally like the following three items, but read my caveat below.

*You may want to take Phosphatidylserine (soy based is preferred, and widely available as PS). However, the research is all over the map. While PS can be derived from cows, this is very expensive and could transfer prions and make you sick. So soy based PS is very popular and much cheaper. The research is just not clear, and it is no wonder for instant memory cure. However, it does show promise for exercising, which we'll talk about in a minute.

*Ginko is so well known, I hardly feel that I need to spend time on it. The reserach, again, is pretty spotty with some studies showing no impact. I believe that aerobic exercise may have the same impact, so if you can be active, I would drop this.

*You may want to take Lethicin (Phosphatidylcholine), but the research is pretty spotty about how effective it is in the long run. Personally, I like it if has a nice slug of preservative in it to keep it from going rancid. It helps with memory. It may start the "brain boost" in around 60-90 minutes. It does NOT, however, seem to help with Alzheimer's, which is obvious if you are bought into the idea that Alzheimer's root is from irritation. Lethicin simply makes sure that their is enough key chemicals in your brain so that it works well.

Caveats to the expensive stuff: You don't get fat overnight, and you don't get skinny overnight. This is pretty obvious. The reality of life is accumilative damage (often this is described as chronic) as opposed as damage all at once (often this is called acute). If you look at the studies on Phosphatidylserine, Ginko, and Lethicin you will see 12 week studies, and statically questionably sample sizes. However, the damage often takes years to come about. It is currently my thoughts that only studies with large groups for 12 months will show impact. Science, in an attempt to avoid the placebo effect (which I'll get to later and is a massive sin) often refuses to do research that is conclusive.

4. Sweat to the brainpower

And finally, get your heart rate up. It makes you smarter.

"More recently, controlled examinations of the effects of physical fitness on cognitive performance have shown that improving cardiovascular fitness (CVF) can help to reduce the deleterious effects of age on cognition and brain structure. "

If the above doesn’t sound like oddness, I don’t know what does, but the evidence is clear. Aerobic activity is somehow linked to brain health. It could be many things, the brain consumes 22% of the blood from the heart, so maybe it helps with blood flow. Perhaps, activity helps with Heat Shock Protiens or Nerve Growth Factors (both of which help the brain develop). However, at the end, the evidence is clear. Getting your heart rate up, is going to help you preserve your mental powers.

However, some of us, as people of faith, shouldn’t be surprised, after all the Bible states, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” Sweating allows us to be productive to earn our wages. Sweating allows our brains to function.

No brain means no bread.

"Brainpower" -> Phonemes and Tonality (Part II)

Part II: Now from the previous section, we know that the brain goes through a settling process. This is not, however, strictly neural apoptosis (a fancy way of saying pre-programmed cell death). Not to say that a ton of brain cells don't die (which is another subject well worth discussing), but that something else happens to our brains—the software gets loaded.

For purposes of discussing this, we need to understand just a bit about the brain. Most people have a brain, but they really don't know anything about the way the brain is put together. I find this fascinating, since the brain is the major tool that we have, yet people don't even want to think about it. (Pun intended.)

The brain major functions, for purposes of this post, will be divided into two pieces:

1. Brain cells
2. Brain connections

The lay person might think about "brain cells" as the most important factor in the brain. Well it isn't.

The cell connections are the most important. Really, all people have, give or take, roughly the same amount of brain cells. The big difference is how they are all hooked together, or the synaptic connections. If you want to simplify this, think of the synaptic connections as "the software." Everybody gets roughly the same computer; however, we get different software. Even those that don't know about the brain, such as the young Noam Chomsky, could derive that there was some type of an intrinsic software programming toward language.

Once we get past 10-11, we go through a synapse rearrangement or synaptic remodeling. This means that the software in our brain starts to complete itself. What is cool, is that this is a bit like getting a version of a word processor. You may get an English version (if you grow up in the US) or a Chinese version of a word process (if you grow up in China). Once the word processor software is loaded, you can type a trashy love novel, or you can type "War and Peace." However, an English word processor will have a difficult time typing in the great Chinese novel in Mandarin. Why? Because the English word processor doesn’t have Mandarin characters. And unfortunately, once you get the software loaded, there really isn’t a way for you to load a different version in.

Piaget recognized this with his schema ideas, but he didn’t relate this all the way back to the intrinsic wiring of the brain.

Now there is a fine line here that gets totally, and I mean totally, goofed up by the academics as you get away from the true neural scientists. Many academics get trapped in thinking that settling is confining. “Oh, they weren’t trained at a young age, therefore, they are stuck.” This idea won’t be the main thought of the rest of the post, but I want to digress for a minute.

The best way to think about this is that you have one set language that you can work with, but a million ways to use that language (or tones). Norman Weinberger spent some time talking about this on his Musica website, which he no longer updates. However, he points to how people can learn instruments at an old age, and even become accomplished musicians. Those that grew up in the west, will find that the basic wiring for western music is in their brains although they never studied music. These people could not, however, become accomplished in africian Kasena music. Perhaps, they could emulate it a bit since Western music overlaps Kasena music, but they could never become accomplished.

However, here is the kicker, if you are reading this in English and grew up in a Western culture, guess what. You’re with the winning team.

What do I mean? The basics of the European and American tonality (often call 12-TET) has gone through out the world, and this basic musical meme is proving to be the dominate meme. Everything else is becoming recessive. I blame this victory on the piano, that required 12-TET tuning to sound good and to allow composer to compose.

This isn’t to say that non-12-TET doesn’t crop up as a delightful favoring to the music, but in reality, the European tonality has won. Youssou N'Dour may bring a wonder “non-western” flavor to his music, but in reality, the songs scream “I use your language.” Only this is a musical language. His mbalax (combination of African and Western music) is more west and less African. Let me clear, however, I am not saying that the African content is less important. Think of this as garlic on your favorite disk. When you order a “garlic” dish, you are not ordering a dish that is mostly garlic, what you are doing is ordering a dish that the favor of garlic stands out and may be the most important thing in the dish, even though it is not the major ingredient.

So now that I’ve finished this posting, you may think to yourself, “well that is depressing.” It may seem that a whole part of the world is closed off to you because you are over 10 years old and the brain has set. However, this is just half of the story. As I hinted about earlier when I mentioned Weinberger, although the software is set, you can do amazing things with the software you got. And in reality, the knowledge base of the world is finding out that we can make some basic patches to our own software, and perhaps even put a couple of “hot rod” components into our hardware to make us run better and faster.

So the question is “now that I have my limits, how to I expand upon my base?”

And this is for a future post.

Friday, September 29, 2006

"Christianity" -> Rich Mullins Quote

"I think if we were given the Scriptures, it was not so that we could prove that we were right about everything. If we were given the Scriptures, it was to humble us into realizing that God is right, and the rest of us are just guessing."

"Music & Brainpower" -> Phonemes and Tonality (Part I)

On the subject of music, I have been thinking on some of the basic building blocks of music. If you are a music major looking at music theory, neurolinguistics and Piaget, the first half of this post is all old hat to you, but there is an intersection of nootropics, music, motorskills, tonality, and phonemic ability that all rolls together.

Before you are 8 or 9 years old, your brain can hear around 200 phonemes. A phoneme is the shortest block of sound we can hear. See here. However, a magical thing starts to happen once you get past 8 or 9 years old. You can no longer hear all the world's phonemes, and if you are an American, you probably are going to settle down and only the ability to hear 60 odd phonemes. The reason that people speak with an accent once they get old is because they can't hear that they speak with an accent. For instance, the L phoneme and the R phoneme cannot be clearly heard to the Japanese speaker, thus giving us the reason why they may say "lead" pencil, instead of "red" pencil. Our Japanese friends simply can't hear the individual phonemes that make up "r" and "l," since they sound the same to them.

Music is down the same scale, pun intended. Once of my favorite stories (if I remember correctly) is found in "World of Music" where a very gifted African musician, after studying classical music for a number of years, couldn't hear the difference between Mahler and Mendelssohn. He couldn't pick up on the gentle differences in scale and meter between the great western composers. Give him two tribes of African music, and he could rip apart one and praise the other. Let me be clear, however, if the table were reverse and we listened to african tribal music, to the Westerner, we would miss the fine points.

So the truth is, that your life has already been set on a course early in life. While you may think that you have the freedom to pursue many ways, in reality, once you are past 10 years old your are stuck. You are stuck with your music and you are stuck with your accent.

In the same way, your brain gets wired with tonality or "the scales" of music. Western music has a subset of frequencies that "sound good." But to the outsider, it would sound weird.

If you go to other cultures, you will find they don't have the same tonality. In reality, you--if you grew up in western culture--will never truly hear the music as it was designed to be heard. Perhaps, we can learn the language, but we will always speak with an accent. Our hearing of the music, like the Africian musican who could distinguish the various European styles, will be limited.

Why did God make us like this? Well basically if he didn't "settle us down" our brain wouldn't have a base to build on. Our knowledge would float. A key of any successful business is that at some point you "must commit." You must decide on a course of action and then proceed on that course of action. What God does with us is cause our brains to "commit" to a language or a music style. Young brains are wet cement. However, at some point in time you need to pour the cement so it can harden, and then you can start to build the house on top of it.

However, some of us have the ability maybe not to change the foundation, but continue to change the house on the foundation. What do I mean?

I was raised on classical music. Both parents were highly gifted in music. I discovered rock and roll at a later age--then I enjoyed this immensely. You might expect that my music would be stuck on classics and the rock and roll of my age.

However, for some reason, I am not stuck. I effortlessly glide between Peter Gabriel, Pete Townshend, the second movement of Beethoven 7th , Green Day, and Linkin' Park. Recently, I heard a little tune by Aly and AJ (horrible teenage fair), but it well crafted, and it stuck with me. I have the chord chart of "Rush" sitting by my copy of Bach's Well Tempered Klaviar.

I have a friend that is older and listens to Korn. I am convinced that they do it because they "want to feel young." And sometimes a little bit of self-deception helps one get up in the morning. But I am not doing it to feel young. I don't even venture to tell (many) people what I listen to. After all, why shouldn't they think I am doing it to "feel young?"

However, realize that I have a much more of a fundamental issue. I am a man without a country, and without a pass. While everybody else can cling to a music style, I don't know how to relate. I'm too old to listen to the young stuff, yet I get too bored listening to the old stuff. I don't even know how to have a conversation with somebody. I recently was talking to an incredible musician about ELP (he ran around 50 years old and ELP was of his generation), then he stated that the "music today didn't have the same soul."

I didn't even know what to say, as I went back to my car and listened to my copy of Mae.