Use Your Brain

October 26, 2014

Chicago Ideas Week Brain Board via Ink Factory

The Brain is Wider than the Sky –Emily Dickinson

I’ve always had a fascination with the brain. It’s a part of the body, like the vast oceans, that are puzzling and filled with mystery and the unknown. Through science, we are learning more. But I’m not sure the brain gets the respect it deserves.

Last Sunday, I attended a session about the brain at Chicago Ideas Week. Comprised of talks from several notable speakers, this session resembled an afternoon of TED talks about the brain. Speakers included actress Marilu Henner, Columbia Professor of Psychology Carl Hart, Keck Graduate Institute Professor (and author) Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Sex author Kayt Sukel, University of California-San Diego Professor Patricia Smith Churchland and best selling author and doctor Deepak Chopra.

Sitting through the various discussions, there was no doubt that these were “heavy hitters” in the world of the brain and psychology. I enjoyed the talks as they really got me to not only think, but to think differently.

I found that some of the sessions felt too clinical, like a PhD student delivering a thesis. During moments like these, my mind wandered a bit and I felt like I needed a Cliff-Notes version of the talk.

One of the reasons I decided to check out the talk was Deepak Chopra. I’ve always admired and enjoyed his teaching which combines science and spirituality. While I found Chopra’s talk highly entertaining, I had hoped he could provide more scientific proof that meditation is good for the brain. I know it to be true when I’ve tried it, but what does science say? What did he have to say about it?

The highlight of the afternoon, for me, was Marilu Henner, the actress from television’s Taxi and author of the book Total Memory Makeover. Truth be told, I knew she was a Chicagoan who grew up close to where I did and that I used to love Taxi. I had heard vaguely that she had a pretty good memory, but had no idea she was one of twelve people documented with Highly Superior Autobiographic Memory.

Her talk was high energy and the pace was fast because she was cramming in a lot of great comment in a limited time. She talked about the four types of memory retrieval: horizontal, vertical, mushrooming and sporadic.

Listening to Henner, I remembered a college friend who always seemed to have a photographic memory of events in her life. I was always a bit envious of this ability to recall the past. Truthfully, I’m not sure I want to remember every detail of my life, but I did like Henner’s rationale why its good to have a strong memory:

“A strong autobiographical memory is our greatest defense against meaninglessness in our lives.”

At one point, an audience member threw out a random date more than 20 years ago. Henner was able to recall, with little hesitation, what she was doing that day.

All in all, I enjoyed Henner’s high-energy delivery and passion for her topic. I could feel it was important to her that her audience be able to remember more moments in their lives and I could appreciate the tips she gave us. Honestly, I could have easily watched her talk for an hour or more.

I have a feeling I won’t ever have a memory like Marilu Henner does, but I look forward to reading her book and implementing some of her tips so I can un-bury some of my memories.

Graphic recording this talk (at the top of this post) from The Ink Factory.

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If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I love to cook (see my earlier Cooking as a Spiritual Experience post). I would not consider myself a foodie (though I do like good food) and I am not a health nut. What I do like is that I can save myself a lot of money and eat meals that typically have a lot fewer calories and less salt than a typical meal at a restaurant. Cooking also allows me to be a little creative and use ingredients and flavors that I like.

I likely developed my “cooking at home” diet when money became tight. I realized that for the price of a “value meal” at a typical fast food burger joint, I could buy a pound of beef and make enough burgers for four meals. It’s also worth noting that when I was a caregiver for my mother I needed to cook with healthier ingredients, and most importantly, a lot less salt. During this time, I grew to like my food with less salt. Thankfully, cooking for myself is probably one of my best habits right now. Sure I still eat out once in a while, but eating in is in with me.

With this in mind, I really enjoyed stumbling upon the above video by Michael Pollan. It sums up my eating philosophy at this point in my life. I have also made a conscious decision to eat less, which seems to be giving me more energy.

If you’re tired of trying every diet in order to lose weight and feel better, consider simplifying your life and starting the “cook at home” diet. I did and it has been one of my best decisions.

How about you…have you made the conscious decision to cook for yourself and your family most of the time in favor of eating out? Or is your refrigerator mostly empty because you’d prefer to just eat out? I’d love to hear your feedback and if you’re happy with your decision.


Note: This is a guest post that I wrote which originally appeared on back in June, 2010. As far as I know, the site is no longer operational.

Coffee shops are well-known for being a community gathering place and a venue to meet friends and strangers. I typically go to a coffee shop to get work done, generate ideas and get out of the house. In other words, I’m often anti-social and immersed in reading and getting things done when I do go.

Last November, while running errands in downtown Chicago, I headed into my favorite coffee shop, Intelligentsia. It was cool and crisp outside and I needed to warm up and get energized.

As a coffee lover, I can appreciate the service and quality of coffee served at the chain coffee franchises. But there is something extra special about the coffee served at Intelligentsia. One look at the baristas behind the counter and you’ll notice how intense and serious they are – they don’t just care about their coffee, they obsess about it. I’m serious. Their barista’s are as passionate about their coffee much like a graphic designer is passionate about his or her Mac.

I get my medium latté served to me in a fairly large ceramic cup, complete with a very artistic swirl on top. Not only has Intelligentsia perfected the taste of their carefully-roasted beans, but they’ve perfected latté art.

As much as I love Intelligentsia’s coffee, dining space at their Monadnock Building location feels a little tight. I find a spot at the counter against the wall and sit down. I savor the taste of my latté and immerse myself in a notebook filled with ideas and notes.

As I work, I notice a slightly heavy-set middle-aged woman glancing toward me. After trading several glances, she steps toward me and asks with a noticeable accent, “where is the art museum from here?”

I tell her that it’s less than a mile from here. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I enjoy playing tour guide to visitors to the city. I love to direct tourists to places off the beaten path and places that are unique to the city. Had I been asked about the best coffee shop to visit, I would have said Intelligentsia.

We talk for 15 or 20 minutes about our home cities. It turns out she’s an artist from Amsterdam. We also talk about the current state of the economy in the United States, corrupt politicians, art and sports. I learn that she’s in the United States to visit her son who plays college basketball at a local university.

Both the conversation and the coffee are equally enjoyable. Even though I’ve only talked to the woman for 15 minutes, I feel like I’ve known her much longer. I admire her for her exploration of Chicago by bicycle in November and I give her ideas for places to visit while she’s in Chicago.

We finish our coffee and she realizes that its starting to get dark and that she should get going. She writes her name and email address on a small piece of paper and invites me to stay with her family if I ever decide to visit Amsterdam. I thank her profusely and we say goodbye. I’m awestruck by her generous offer.

While it was an ordinary fall day, my conversation with this woman was unforgettable. I head home feeling grateful – grateful for the feeling of community and for the taste of my favorite coffee. A great combination….ah, life is good.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of nathanborror.

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