Brain Rules for Ageing Well

Brain Rules for Ageing Well

10 principles for staying vital, happy and sharp

John Medina

Scribe 262pp $32.99

Judging from the photo on his media release, NY Times bestselling author Dr John Medina is a cheerful, middle aged chap who has clearly delighted in crafting advice aimed at helping us all - regardless of age - to live well into our advancing years.

An affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, he has considerable experience in brain research, and knows a thing or ten about how we might stay ‘vital, happy and sharp’ into our later years.

Impressively, he attributes Sir David Attenborough as his mentor.  A glimpse at almost any Australian television station’s current programming will attest to the value of Sir D as a role model, not least because even on the box he seems to enshrine a good many of the principles that Dr Medina describes.

These include never retiring, engaging socially with others, eating sensibly and keeping mobile, sleeping appropriately, being sure to reminisce, and, wait for it, training your brain with video games. A specially designed program, NeuroRacer is highly recommended.

Falling is something to be particularly avoided, as it is “not a trivial issue for the elderly,” as he hardly needs to reminds us, “for the two reasons they care about most: head injuries and bank accounts.”

And the public health budget, one might add.

Proven prevention strategies include dancing of any kind, as well as such forms of ritualised movement instruction as Tai Chi.

This is much more than the usual self-help book, or a list of bleeding-obvious advice.

“I am going to use brain science to show how you can make life a surprisingly fulfilling experience - at least for your brain - in the years you have left… When it comes to causes of ageing, wear and tear is less detrimental than a failure to repair. And it is not inevitable that your mind will power down as the years pass.

“If you follow the advice in this book, your brain can remain plastic, ready to study, ready to explore, and ready to learn at any age.”

Do you know what ‘eudaimonic’ means? One should, as it refers to “the sense of fulfillment that arises from achieving life’s full potential as a human being.”

This has consequences, as Medina says, for the more you feel it, the less likely you are to suffer from mood disorders: “Eudaimonic well-being functions like garlic against the vampires of major depression.”

Divided into sections covering the Social Brain, the Thinking Brain, Body and Brain, and Future Brain, this is an intelligent, empathic book, accessible and extremely valuable, whatever one’s age.





The Story of Shit

Midas Dekkers (translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier)

Text Publishing 292pp $32.99

“People who write books about shit are regarded with suspicion,” observes Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers whose bluntly titled and graphically striking book may cause embarrassment if read openly on public transport.

He goes on, “If you want to make use of shit, no matter how, you have to handle it. And whatever you handle is likely to contaminate you, so faeces researchers can count of being the butt [pun intended, surely] of jokes, and cesspool cleaners are shunned.”

In recent weeks I have been inundated by new books about the part of the body that for years has commanded the most attention - The Whole Brain Diet (Dr Raphael Kellman), Empty Brain - Happy Brain (Niels Birbaumer & Jorg Zittlau), and Brain Rules for Ageing Well (John Medina).

Credit is no doubt due to Oliver Sacks and Norman Doidge.

Rarely, apart from Giulia Enders’ bestselling Gut, has the focus of authors moved below the neck, let alone the belt, or in this case, onto one of the body’s two main waste products.

A Google search does not reveal anyone having written a history of piss, and even if they did, it’s unlikely to be as enjoyable as Dekkers’ occasional liquid digressions: “Drunks who urinate in the canals of Ametsrdam in order to spare the city’s monumental buildings can fall in the water and drown, especially at night when the townspeople are off the streets. Police officers who dredge up the bodies have little difficulty determining the cause of death: the guy’s fly is wide open.”

But back to shit… “Nothing resembles faeces more than food,” he writes.

So why is shit held in such low esteem?

“What does it in for shit is mainly the lowly status of the organ in which it is housed, the intestines… Real life takes place in the intestines. Here the substances from the environment around us are converted into the energy that makes life possible… There are oodles of lower animals that don’t have hearts or brains, but an animal without intestines doesn’t exist.”

So begins the author’s remarkable foray into every imaginable aspect of diet, digestion and defecation, from the pleasure of having a good poo - up there with an orgasm, he says - to the design of lavatories (shun those without a window), cisterns and sewerage systems, the benefits of the squatting position, the value of both human and animal manure in agriculture, and a myriad descriptions of turds themselves.

“A well-filled stomach makes for good shitting… Shape is what a good turd has over such amorphous secretions as snot or ear wax. And the best shape for a turd is the worm shape, which it naturally assumes from the intestines that produce it.

“Intestine and turd fit together like a biscuit in its tin… We can thank our lucky stars that our turds don’t clear a path to the exit in the shape of a cube or a garden rake… the turd looks as if has been pulled through a ring. And in fact it has been pulled through a ring. The anus.”

For humans, defecating is not a “spectator sport” but animal behavior is more public - “Millions of people go outdoors three times a day to watch their dog shit. Passers-by and neighbours get to watch for free…. no war or disaster on the front page can match the lamentation about dog poo in the letters columns.”

However, animal turds “work like a magnet”, being able to both attract, notably in the mating season, and repel.

The author holds back on nothing to do with bottoms, farts and the act of shitting: “Isn’t it delightful to let a well-lubricated turd slurp through your half-relaxed anus like a cake of soap through your hand?”

Even the subject of anal sex gets a look in, the author opining, “A man is lucky. He has a penis and an anus, which means he can mount and be mounted, although “Most men leave this option untried.”

From constipation to toilet training toddlers, the work of Freud to faecal transplantation, this is a fascinating, milestone work that should run out of bookshops like shit off a hot shovel.