Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon by Rahul Jandial (Book Summary)

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The human brain has been ignored for thousands of years, but now it is universally understood as the control center of the human body. Some of the reasoning behind its essential functions like sleep still remains unknown. Also, while the present interest in cognitive health has resulted in commercial brain-training games, the effectiveness of the majority of this product isn’t necessarily backed up by scientific evidence.

Therefore, what do we know about the human brain? These chapters will describe the recent scientific understandings into this complex organ, dismissing any popular myths along the way. Also, you will get to know the role of memory, creativity as well as language and you will also see the simple advice on how to make sure that your brain is healthy all through your life.

1 – The complicated anatomy of the brain controls our whole body, informing our exceptional experiences. 

When the author of this book Rahul Jandial started his med school, he saw the brain that students were meant to dissect in anatomy class shockingly underwhelming. However, after witnessing his first-ever brain surgery during his time as an intern to become a surgeon, he got to know that truly the organ is the most interesting part to operate on humans. Also, it’s no surprise that its complex structure controls our whole body as well as our thoughts and emotions!

On a cellular level, the brain is made up of “gray matter,” which also consists of the brain cells known as neurons, and “white matter,” and these links neurons to one another like biological cables. When a neuron wants to pass out a message to another neuron, it sends an electrical signal by a means of a fiber known as an axon. The receptive neuron gets this signal by the means of a fiber known as a dendrite. 

However, the dendrites and axons don’t touch each other and there’s a space in between them called a synapse. And this is the place where neurotransmitters, chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, hover around. Each and every neurotransmitter has different impacts on our neural communication. Together, all these messages and chemical reactions form the features of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. 

The cerebral cortex is the most delicate layer of the brain and the top layer controls the majority of the brain’s gray matter. It is bent like an accordion and the cortex is divided into four parts or lobes with each one performing range of activities.

The frontal lobe is in charge of everything such as your ability to solve math or learning of languages. Within the frontal lobe, there is a part known as the prefrontal cortex and this is where the so-called executive functions like decision making, personality, and the thinking of a lie happen. 

The parietal lobe is the seat of sensation and it runs from the top of your neck to the crown of your head. If you’ve ever thought about why your lips, tongue, and fingers are so sensitive, the reason is that these parts of the body have more area in the brain than the whole of the body below the thighs.

The occipital lobe can be found at the back of your head and this is where the visual processing occurs. Finally, the temporal lobe is found above the ears and this is where sounds are being processed and various other sensations like dreams of the feeling of suffocation and even déjà vu.

Under the cortex, the brain’s structure consists of the following the hippocampus, the amygdala, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the brain stem, and the cerebellum. Additionally, these structures also control various functions like such as the formation of memories as well as breathing and they also aid in transiting hubs modulating and fine-tuning signals passed between different parts of the brain. 

However, with all the parts the brain has, the brain isn’t a standalone organ. its neurotransmitters spread everywhere in your body through the spinal cord and directly to your heart and gut.

2 – You can enhance your memory by training your brain, self-testing, and area-restricted searching.

Scientists have been trying for a long to find ways of enhancing cognitive functions like memory. In 1984, a great step towards this was made when James R Flynn a New Zealand academic found out from the start of the twentieth century, that the overall IQ scored had been increasing by three points per decade. Flynn claimed that his findings proved that humans have adapted to a rising cognitively challenging world.

Presently, the majority of scientists accepted that the “Flynn effect” as it is known and it proposes that the extensive use of new technologies such as radio and television and later on the internet and smartphones has made us grow cognitively over the last century.

The great news is that cognitive ability is not determined by our genes. This shows that you can enhance your natural memory abilities, for example through brain training. It is true that a famous online brain game service known as Lumosity faced a $2 million Federal Trade Commission lawsuit in the US in 2016 for creating unproven claims. Therefore, the reputation of brain training services has been destroyed recently. 

However, not all brain training is fake. Brain HQ which is a program that was created to enhance one’s cognitive speed has been proven to increase long-term memory and reasoning skills. Also, it can even reduce the risk of developing dementia. The program expects the payers to concentrate on a central target while finding icons that show up in the periphery of the screen.

Self-testing is another method to boost memory. When you test yourself while learning instead of simply reading information, you tend to have a better memory recall. For instance, do you recall how much the Federal Trade Commission sued Lumosity for? If you don’t remember, go back to the information in this chapter and try testing yourself again.

Also, area-restricted searching can also help you boost your memory. It requires you to think of the entire item in a given category before moving to another one. In a study that was published in the journal Memory and Cognition in 2013, it showed that when the participants were asked to list all the animals they can remember, the intelligent participants of a tested group listed more animals than the less-intelligent participants because they could think of more categories of animal. 

When the researchers gave a list of categories to the entire participants in the group, both the intelligent and less-intelligent participants did equally well. Therefore, when next you need to recall items on your grocery list, endeavor to think of everything in a given category like fruits or dairy products before going to the next area of the store.

3 – Since languages take up different parts of the brain, bilingualism has important cognitive benefits. 

During the 19th century, Paul Broca a French physician and Carl Wernicke a German neurologist found the parts of the brain that control language and language comprehension. They are known as Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, and they are the general seats of language in the brain. However, scientists have found that the precise location of language is unique for every person. As a matter of fact, we are now aware that different languages can be found is various areas of the brain.

The author once had a patient called Marina and she had a rare type of brain cancer found in the left front temporal part of her brain. Marina was a native Spanish speaker and an English teacher, this made it very essential to know which areas of her brain could be cut during surgery without destructing her language skills.

After Marina was put to sleep in order for her skull to be dissected, the anesthesiologist stopped her sedatives. The author tested areas of Marina’s brain by using an electrical stimulator and she was asked questions in both English and Spanish. The Areas where stimulation did not disrupt her linguistic skills were marked with small pieces of white paper. The Areas whose stimulation led her to waver in either English or Spanish were marked in order to identify the language. 

Unluckily, since the different paths to Marina’s tumor were clogged by either English- or Spanish-language areas, Marina had to make a decision on the language she was willing to lose. Now, Marina only speaks Spanish, however, her doctor’s capacity to know the language areas of her brain made her completely proficient in that language even as her cancer was removed.

Knowing that languages occur in various parts of the brain makes it very easy to understand how bilingualism has an exceptional impact on our cognitive abilities as well as important benefits. Knowing more than one language signifies that fewer brain cells go to waste which gives you more brainpower and overall cognitive reserve. As a matter of fact, the importance of bilingualism includes the following; improved attention as well as learning ability, and even protection against dementia. 

If you don’t know a second language yet, it is not too late to learn one. Also, if you want to learn a new language, it was suggested by the author that you should devote yourself in attending a class physically because that’s more likely to hold you responsible for doing the work you ought to do rather than an online class would.

4 – Creativity stems from harmonious brain activity; therefore enhance yours by practicing with sleep and going outside.

There’s a probability that you have heard of the theory that “left-brained” people are more logical while “right-brained” people are more creative. This theory was said in 1973 by Nobel Prize winner and researcher Roger W. Sperry in the New York Times Magazine and the theory was well known. However, Sperry’s theory hasn’t been accepted. Although the left part of the brain does control language and math skills, however, there is no proof that specific kinds of people use one side of the brain more than the other.

Therefore, if that’s true, where does creativity originate from? Although the executive functions controlled by the frontal lobes do contribute, this section of the brain isn’t the only one accountable for our innate creative skills. It was revealed by recent studies that the cerebellum which fine-tunes muscle movement is also in control of coordinating creative problem-solving. However, by using functional MRIs that captures moving images of the brain at work, scientists now understand that creativity needs neurons in different parts of the brain to light up concurrently. This means that creativity stems from harmonious activity across the whole brain.

 As a matter of fact, we all are innately creative irrespective of whether we think we are or not.  One way to reach your own creative potential is by practicing with focused awareness before you sleep at night and after your sleep. This means zeroing in on thoughts during the transition between when you are awake and when you sleep, this may make you aware of your creativity even in your subconsciousness which is hard to access. 

Salvador Dali an artist was a follower of focused awareness as well as the author. He reads articles pertaining to concepts that he is working through before his bedtime like twice a week just to have new understandings of his experiments.

For some people, enhancing their creativity is as easy as spending time outside. In a study that was conducted by David Strayer a psychologist at Utah, it was revealed that participants who did a creativity test after a four- to six-day backpacking trip scored 50% more than participants who took the test before the trip. However, according to the author, just a thirty-minute walk is sufficient to get your creative abilities flowing.

In order words, creativity stems from sleeping, dreaming, walking outside and just goofing around. Therefore, don’t be scared to give your brain a pause and see how your creativity takes off!

5 – Sleep isn’t just a time for rest, it is also important for redistributing memories.

One of the greatest mysteries of life is sleep. Humans, spend most part of our lives sleeping just like most animals. However, scientists are still not fully sure why we sleep; after all, we could be eating, drinking, having sex or protecting ourselves from danger.

However, what scientists do know is that sleep is a time when short-term memories in your hippocampus are changed into long-term memories kept somewhere in your cortex. As a matter of fact, various studies have revealed that students who are preparing for a test remember more information if they get some sleep the night before than studying all night. Also, a night’s rest can make us better equipped to solve problems.

Although not all your short-term memories transition to long-term memories. However, during your sleep, most of your memories from the day before being removed. Gradually, scientists have now come to understand that, although we consider sleep as a time of rest, the brain essentially uses this time actively to clear out what it doesn’t need and it restores itself. 

During REM, the deepest sleep cycle, the eyeballs dash back and forth and there is more brain wave activity than when we’re awake! With this being said, it shouldn’t be surprising that even when we don’t know why we need it, getting the exact amount of sleep is important for our health. As a matter of fact, various studies have shown that sleeping too little or too much can increase the risk of you having heart disease or the probability of you dying early,

Therefore, what’s the right amount of sleep? That actually depends on your age. For instance, school children between the ages of six and thirteen, it is recommended that they get nine to eleven hours of sleep. However, for adults between the ages of 26 to 64, the recommended time of sleep is between seven to nine hours.

If you struggle with insomnia just like the author, there are different habits that can assist you to get the right amount of sleep required without the use of prescribed drugs like Lunesta or Ambien. According to sleep experts, keeping your sleep cycle on a steady schedule will assist your body form an internal clock that assists it to know when it’s time to fall asleep. There are a lot of other methods too. In order to find a comprehensive list of these methods, check the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website. 

6 – Create habits such as intermittent fasting or consumption of mostly vegetables can help promote brain health. 

Have you ever heard someone say that your gut is your second brain? Well, it turns out that, that myth is not scientifically true. The truth is that the enteric nervous system, or ENS, covers your entire stomach and your intestines. This is why you feel butterflies in your stomach when you’re anxious or you perceive the sensation of hunger or being full. However, since the colon and the parts of your guts can be cut out without affecting effects like that; therefore, your gut isn’t your second brain.

With that being said, what you eat has a significant impact on your cognitive skills and your long term health. The author, as well as his family, adopted the MIND diet which was formed in order to reduce the loss of brain function. In a study that was conducted, it was revealed that participants who adopted this diet had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 50%. The Mind diet is very easy. It is recommended that you take vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts, chicken, and fish. While saturated fats, red meat, and sugars are not recommended.

In addition to his diet, Jandial also has intermittent periods of fasting and this has been proven to enhance the brain’s natural ability to develop and repair its neurons, improving your mood and enabling you to reach your best cognition levels. Instead of reducing calorie intake, which means that your body is regularly in a hunger state, intermittent fasting means you avoiding food for sixteen hours once or twice in a week in order for your body to burn its fat storage. The author does this by not having breakfast and lunch on Mondays and Thursdays.

If you consider this author’s method of food difficult, you should know that he isn’t strictly disciplined when it comes to dieting. He knows that once in a while chocolate bar or burger isn’t a big deal. Rather than obsessing on putting kale in all your meals, he stresses that eating healthy, wholesome food should become a normal routine habit. Embracing new habits is challenging, therefore attempt to have just one food habit at a time. Also, ask your friends and family for their support. Before you know it, you will get used to healthy eating habits.

7 – Lifestyle decisions help in brain development and it decreases the risk of having dementia.

When it comes to nature versus nurture debate, it’s obvious that the environment plays an essential role in the development of cognitive health. Also, it’s the parents’ duty to ensure that children have what they need to develop healthy brains. Although the human brain keeps growing well into a person’s late twenties, during the early years when brains are most flexible are most essential when it comes to parenting.

Additionally, in order to ensure that your child gets the right amount of sleep and healthy food, you will have to endorse a healthy balance of safety and adventure. Since the author identified that most children’s mortality is caused by preventable accidents, he decided to take extra precautions for the safety of his children when they were small. 

He didn’t allow them to go the street on their own until they clocked ten years when they were old enough to cross the road. Meanwhile, he allowed his sons to play in a ravine that was in their neighborhood and he watched from afar as they played gamed and scoured for animals. This type of adventure was essential to help stimulate their minds and encourage the type of healthy brain development that starts early in life.

In order for our brains to grow well, lifestyle decisions that boost cognitive health are also essential. Although there no actual cure for dementia, however education has been proven to reduce the risk of having dementia. Graduates from college are statistically less vulnerable to the disease. Also, finishing high school can reduce the risk of having dementia later on.

Exercising is another method to develop your brain’s health and exercise also helps to reduce the risk of developing dementia. Exercise refills the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) which is a liquid that nourishes your neurons. As you age, the CSF naturally starts to lose its neurotrophins which is the body that keeps it working. It has been proven that a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training keeps the liquid at youthful levels.

The author keeps being surprised by the resilience of the human brain after having witnessed different patients recover from brain tumors, head traumas, and other severe injuries. Although you might never end in the operating room, it is good to know that making healthy decisions are helpful in maintaining healthy cognitive function all through life.

Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon by Rahul Jandial Book Review

Although there is still a lot to find out about the brain, it is a proven fact that you can actually boost your natural cognitive abilities by making your brain think and learn. Having healthy eating habits, staying active and committing to lifelong education will make your brain remain healthy for the next decades.

Practice mindful breathing.

Now, we are aware that the ancient practice of mindful breathing develops neuron connections and physiologically boosts the brain. Also, Mindful breathing can calm negative emotions, help you control your blood pressure and also improve your decision-making abilities. In order to practice this, sit down in a quiet place and concentrate on your breath for about ten to fifteen minutes. Inhale through your nose and then hold your breath. Finally, exhale through your mouth and take a count of four for each of these steps.

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