A Tribute to Oliver Sacks

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree, an act of imagination.”

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, a renowned writer and neurologist passed away yesterday at the age of 82 due to his ocular melanoma, as many of us may know by now. Not only was Sacks a physician, but he was also a brilliant writer, polymath, humanist, musician, and a weight-lifter. Perhaps one of the most interesting qualities Oliver Sacks possessed was his intellectual curiosity that really sparked a light through which everyone realized his profound insight on subjects such as psychology or cognitive science. He ultimately took medicine to the next level, by melding science into the art of storytelling!

“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears- it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Check out these books by Oliver Sacks:

  1. Musicophilia
  2. Hallucinations
  3. Awakenings
  4. On the Move
  5. The Mind’s Eye
  6. An Anthropologist on Mars
  7. The Island of the Colorblind

Can We Defy the Process of Aging?

Recently, I was going through a chapter called the “Physiology of Aging” from my Environmental Physiology course on the Stanford website. This chapter intrigued me specifically because although it is amazing how dramatically our life expectancy has increased over the past centuries due to modern medicine, there are still some factors beside allopathy that could greatly affect our aging. In this section of the course, I watched a video of one of the professors go to the MIT AgeLab to try on AGNES, which is essentially a suit in which anyone can experience the deficits and incapabilties involved in the process of aging. The effects were so profound, and they seemed impossible to observe over the gradual lifespan of an adult. The video eventually showed how the professor wearing the suit lost motor, visual, flexibility, strength and dexterity skills. It actually got to the point to where I really felt sorry for elder people whom I have always assumed to have the same faculties I have. I obviously did not think old people could do everything but I did not realize it was that bad either!

mit agnes agelab

On the brighter note though, the point of the video was to show the natural physical effects of aging in a normal person, not an immensely active and healthy person. The video also showed a brief interview with a 79-year-old sprinter! This guy still performs a lot of his work manually, even though he could use machines and has taken up the hobby of sprinting at such a late age. Despite that, he is in optimal health. He is essentially decreasing his chances of developing a myriad of devastating health disorders such as hypertension, abnormal blood lipids, or type 2 diabetes. With that being said, the professor also mentioned the lady who lived till she was 122, breaking the life span record so far, Jeanne Calment. Although her secrets included olive oil, chocolate, wine and a lot of humor, there is a far more convincing observation about this:

As human beings, we have literally transcended our biological drawbacks through biotechnology and new means of improving the human condition. This doesn’t just include the use of scanners or machines to detect cancers and kill them. This also includes the mere fact that a good number of us have given significant value to having a healthy lifestyle. Another words, a lifestyle rich of mindfulness, productivity and vitality. Moreover, factors such as physical activity can make such a big difference in the end, as it can enhance repair mechanisms in the body, slow the rate of cognitive decline associated with aging, and literally stretch out telomere length on ends of chromosomes, associated with longevity. In fact, the benefits are so copious that it is too difficult to even mention them all! Regardless, we should definitely take pride in the fact that we have expanded our life span out so much by just modifying a few things here and there, and if we continue to do so, we can go even farther!

The Powerful Impact of Arts in our Education

As high school students, a lot of times, we don’t really have the motivation to complete our school work, because we may prioritize other things like social media over our academic requirements. However, this isn’t just a phase that we go through. It’s more of a state of mind that remains for a very long time, if it is not addressed soon enough. The main issue here is with our schools that institutionalize us so much to follow the norms that we just don’t ever get out of our heads. This causes us to lose our creative energy and waste time.

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There is a solution to this, though. Recent studies have shown significant academic improvement linked to participating in the arts, whether that be in painting, drawing, writing poetry, playing and producing music, or even inventing something. According to the Dana Consortium Report on Arts and Cognition published by Harvard University, “an interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.” Also, there are links between musical training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory. The arts are clearly something we need to invest our time into, so we can gain all that creative energy to apply to our subjects in school.

Nowadays, pop culture and social media has made it really difficult to truly appreciate and delve into the fine arts, although many people still do. Taking a break from the loud, disruptive world to admire a work of art, or practice a musical piece is definitely worth the time. Even on a weekday when there are a bunch of assignments piled up, the brain needs time to unwind and rejuvenate itself for the following days. Aesthetics are definitely the solution to having more creativity, and juxtaposing ideas into a more sensible approach. So, I encourage you to find something you are truly passionate about, besides the academic pursuits, and rekindle it.

The Old and New Brain Phenomena

Recently, I was reading a book called, “Quiet-The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain and was very interested in how the brain’s biological processes can impact our behavior or personalities. The book was basically about how the extrovert ideal of this generation really suggested for quiet people to step out of their comfort zone, which isn’t necessarily bad. However, it talked about some of the rewarding aspects introverts, and highly-reactive or sensitive people had, based on scientific research.

This whole concept of neuroscience really struck me and I wanted to go deeper and deeper. Of course, I can’t go that deep into it because I would have to be a neuroscientist or an M.D. to understand certain things. Regardless, there are some things that are just so interesting about the human brain!

New-Brain-Cells-Found-to-Delete-Old-Memories-in-Mice-441553-2

So, the book referred to the limbic system of our brain, which we share with the most primitive animals, to be the “old brain.” Now, this “old brain” is emotional and instinctive. It includes various structures, including the amygdala, which is our fear and emotional response center, and that is connected to our nucleus accumbens (a.k.a. the brain’s pleasure center.) There is also a part of the old brain that plays a huge role in reward-seeking and pleasure.

The “new brain,” on the other hand, is the neocortex, which evolved many thousands of years after the limbic system. The new brain was described to be responsible for thinking, planning, language and decision-making- some of the very faculties that make us human. So what is the correlation between the old brain and the new brain?

The old brain, as mentioned before is instinctive, and is interested only in survival, whereas the new brain is where our feelings are stored. So, if the old brain senses some danger, it may send a message to your new brain, making you in turn, fearful to that situation… Isn’t that wicked?! The brain works in amazing ways that we sometimes can’t even seem to comprehend.

Going back to the “pleasure center” of the brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, we can really get excited about potential goodies like money or pictures of attractive people. It’s amazing to see that there is a certain part of the brain that lights up during an fMRI for a particular rewarding feeling! In fact, research has now proven that the more dopamine your brain releases, the more likely you are to go after rewards like sex, chocolate, money and status.. Isn’t that crazy?! That’s why cocaine and heroin make you euphoric, but that shouldn’t convince you to go risk your life on these drugs. However, going out to experience positive rewarding experiences are amazing, and there is simply no way that could go wrong for you..

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With that being said, this book has made me realize that there is a neuroscientific explanation for almost every single activity you perform, and that certainly impacts your personality. If you seek status or money, then you are likely to be using your old brain, but if you value family relationships and love more than you do money and status, then you may be using your neocortex or your new brain. If you think about this from an evolutionary aspect, we don’t have to fight so hard now to get food and shelter. Don’t get me wrong. There are millions of people struggling through poverty today but it would make sense to say that we are using more of our new brains now, because this is a new era. That’s why evolution makes SO MUCH sense! There is a need to emphasize that!…

Your Brain on Fat

It is a common myth that fat is bad for us, but a lot of times we don’t consider the healthy fat. Your brain is made up of 60% fat, or more specifically, fatty acids so it’s fair to say that you do need some healthy fats. These lipids are among the most vital building blocks of a properly functioning brain.  So what are the fatty acids your brain needs for optimal health?

FISH OIL – As much as people say that this is nasty and gross to ingest with water, fish oil is actually an excellent source of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is highly concentrated in the gray matter of the brain. Gray matter is involved in muscle control, sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, and speech. DHA plays an “integral role in the evolution of human intelligence,” according to an article from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. This article can also be found on http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257695/ …….

The DHA found in fish oil caplets also help improve communication between brain cells that may affect mood, concentration, memory, attention, and even behavior. Numerous clinical trials have shown the value of boosting DHA with supplemental fish oil as well.

To me, it’s so interesting how this tiny supplement is really so effective when it comes to cognitive brain function. The best part about this is that you don’t have to adapt to some new dieting method. You can just take the supplement. Brain food! That’s what I’m talking about!