August 26, 2013

Book Review: The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness

Posted in Aging, Brain Information, Cognitive Games, Education, Mental Exercise, Mental Fitness at 11:04 pm by Matthew

I’ve been meaning to do book and product reviews for a while, and I can’t think of a better place to start than the SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness.  It’s written by the Alvaro Fernandez and Elkhenon Goldberg of SharpBrains.com, sometimes called the Consumer Reports of the brain training industry.  Needless to say, when I had an opportunity to snag an e-copy of the previous edition during a promotion for Brain Awareness Week, I jumped at the chance.  And also needless to say, it languished in my Kindle Cloud Reader account, gathering e-dust until recently, when SharpBrains offered a prize for sincere, thoughtful reviews of the updated version.  So I dusted off the old version, and bought the new version to compare.

Naturally, being a brain trainer myself, I’m looking at this with an eye for the three qualities I pursue in my own work: Is it clear?  Is it accurate?  Is it useful?  I’ve met plenty of other products that had two of the three, and one of the reasons I’ve withheld doing product and book reviews for so long is that I imagined it as an endless variations on an old Meat Loaf song: two out of three just isn’t good enough.  This just makes me all the more happy I’m starting with the SharpBrains Guide, because it’s setting the bar in all three:

Clarity: 5 out of 5

The SharpBrains Guide was written for a reasonably educated but lay audience. It assumes no special education on the topic of neuroscience, but it doesn’t fluff things up with a lot of hype or condescend to the reader, either.  I can imagine little complaint if I assigned parts of it to my associate-level students, and I can imagine many participants in my Young-at-Brain workshops devouring it with enthusiasm.  The solid structure is easy to follow, with summaries before and after each chapter, and interviews with leaders in the industry interspersed with the relevant chapters. I’m a sticker for study aids–contents, glossary, index, references, appendices–so books can lose points quickly in that department.  The previous edition’s glossary was sparse, but the new version has more than made up for that.

Accuracy: 5 out of 5

Far too many authors sacrifice accuracy to make their works readable and interesting, but Fernandez and Goldberg passed this test with ease.  For the first two chapters of the previous edition, I nodded in agreement as the relayed the state of the industry, followed by some a note-taking as the touched on a few topics I hadn’t heard enough about.  The updated version has so much more!  I can certainly see why the updated book is used as a core reader for neuroscience and coaching classes.  I’ll be using the introductory example about media garble to teach my students to be wary of headlines.  As I said before, this book doesn’t spare on study aids, but study aids that are inaccurate are worse than useless.  Nothing like that here!  Citations, extensive references in the back, everything I’d expect from good scientific scholarship.  They kept to the recent research with cautious optimism, and didn’t go off into flights of fancy–a welcome relief from the kind of stuff we see in science headlines every day.

Usefulness: 4.5 out of 5

What practical advice does this guide give, that people can use right away?  Plenty:  a basic outline of dietary recommendations that can be quickly adapted for most people’s diets; a checklist of what to look for in brain-building computer games; a guide to meditation (including mindfulness!).  I’ve already been using the checklist, but the dietary stuff will be getting extra-special attention in the next few weeks (salmon tonight!)  Plenty of other sound advice on physical exercise and mental stimulation–all in all, a great overview of what people need to do to get their brains in shape.  It might leave the reader wanting more details on how to do, say, mindfulness meditation, but in all fairness, it’s not supposed to be an how-to of brain exercises for every cognitive skill from speed reading to mnemonics.  It’s a fitness guide, and it does that perfectly well.

Enough about the meat–does it have any spice?  Oh yes.  The predictions in the book are tantalizing, as the authors discuss possibilities for where the industry is heading.  Brain gyms?  Cognitive assessment as part of an annual checkup?  Schools that monitor student stress levels?  They leave off where any responsible scientist should, but I remain excited and intrigued.  Above all else, this book made me happy to be in this industry.

So, who do I recommend this book for?  Of course senior citizens, and anyone in the healthcare or education industries, but really anyone with an interest in better brain health.  I’ve said for years that we must each own our own brain health, so you can imagine my agreement when I read in the new guide about how the goal of the reader should be to “be your own brain coach.”  I myself expect to refer to it frequently for many years to come.

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