Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Brain Books of 2011

As best I can tell, there’s a growing appetite for brain books. How can I tell?  Just amble down the aisle of a nearby book store (assuming that you can find one that’s solvent) and check out the titles.

If you like, well, brainy books about the brain, here’s my top two:
  • Incognito, David Eagleman, 2011
  • The Secret Life of the Middle-Aged Brain, Barbara Strauch, 2011
I really liked Barbara Strauch’s book about the middle-aged brain because it made me feel better about not being able to find my coffee cup (or cups depending upon the day).

And here’s two highly rated books that I haven’t read:
  • How the Brain Learns, David A. Sousa, 2011
  • Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaninga
I think that one of the great attractions of “science of the brain” books is that it’s unknown territory. The brain is extraordinarily complex, and we understand so little about the organ we use the most, that all these insights are a little bit like reading about astronauts and their exploits.

Now if you can’t find you cup of coffee and you’re scared to death about sliding down that slippery slope to geezerdom…or worse, you might want to read some books on improving brain performance. I haven't read any of these given my addiction to Lumosity, but here’s several you might want to check out:
  • Power Up Your Brain, David Perlmutter and Alberto Villoldo, 2011
  • Mensa 365 Brain Puzzlers Calendar 2011 by Mark Danna and Fraser Simpson (while I haven’t looked, I assume they have a 2012 edition coming out too.)
  • Brain Fitness for Women, Sondra Kornblatt and Jean Millican MD, 2012 (Ok, this hasn’t come out yet, but I thought I’d mention it anyways.)
Why all this interest in brain improvement?  I’m not sure, but I think that boomers are scared of losing their wits, their reputations and their place in the world. In this economy boomers are getting down-sized, out-placed and replaced. And if you can improve your “braininess” maybe you can stave off all of that. And while there is a certain “gravitas” that comes with age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of other benefits, at least not in the business world.

Of course, there are also memoirs on real-life crises stemming from brain trauma and tumors. The only new one that I’m familiar with is Gabby’s new book which I just got Gabby’s book from the library and plan to dive into it shortly.
  • Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, Gabrielle Giffords, Mark Kelly and Jeffrey Zaslow, 2011

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Me? Slow?

After one of my first trips to the rehab clinic, my therapist told me that I had “a slow processing unit”…or some phrase pretty similar to that.

What she really meant was that I couldn’t think very fast or well or both.


There are some awfully mean words out there in the English language – e.g. “ugly”, “fat” – and “dummy” or “stupid” is right there near the top of the list.

Some of my worst dreams and fears was that I’d emerge from brain surgery as a shadow of my former self.  In that nightmare every morning somebody would prop me up in a corner and I’d sit there and drool until it was time to put me back in bed. Maybe even worse was the thought that I’d know that I wasn’t as sharp or perceptive or quick as I used to be.

So what do you do if somebody, especially somebody with clinical credentials tells you that you’re “slow”?

One thing I did, and continue to do, is hit the Lumosity site - - where you can exercise your brain and get, well, faster than slow.

According to their website, Lumos Labs (the company that made Lumosity) “…is a cognitive neuroscience research and development company that builds software tools for improving brain health and performance.”

Are these exercises dull, boring and mind numbing? 

No, they’re games. Some are fun. Some are hard. Some will drive you crazy.

They’re games based on hard-science that can help you improve your speed (i.e. think more clearly and quickly), your memory (e.g. remembering names and where you put your coffee), your attention (i.e. performance on visually demanding activities), your mental flexibility (i.e. multitasking and verbal skills) and problem solving ability.

Has it worked for me?  I think so :-)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Remembering to forget

If you’re like me, it seems that I’m awfully good at “forgetting” and not very good at “remembering”.

I’m good at forgetting:
  • Where I put my glasses
  • When I should return a library book
  • The passwords to various websites and,
  • Where I left my cup of coffee
So when somebody tells me that I need to get better at “forgetting” in order to get better at “remembering”, my first response is “huh?”

That’s part of the thesis of an article by Ingrid Wickelgren in the January/February edition of Scientific American Mind magazine.

The article, entitled “Trying to Forget”, quotes cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin J. Levy of Stanford University who said “Human memory is pretty good. The problem with our memories is not that nothing comes to mind – but that irrelevant stuff comes to mind.”

That does ring true for me.  If I try to remember where that cup of coffee is, somehow memories of where I’ve been in the house, what I need to do that day, and the fact that I need to buy more coffee get in the way of remember where the cup is.

The article goes on to state that “The act of forgetting crafts and hones data in the brain as if carving a statue from a block of marble. It enables us to make sense of the word by clearing a path to the thoughts that are truly valuable.”

The article states that a “patchwork of brain areas play roles in forgetting and remembering.” For those brain wonks out there, according to the article “in the prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral region governs memory suppression.”

Here’s the key takeaways from the article:
  • “We can will ourselves to forget; a neural circuit like the one that inhibits actions governs the ability to reject memories we neither want nor need”
  • “Emerging data provide support for Sigmund Freud’s controversial theory of repression, by which unwanted memories are shoved into the subconscious.”
  • “The inability to forget can impede emotional recovery in trauma victims.”
  • “If you practice at rebuffing recollections, you are likely to get better at it.”
While some of this sounds like pop psychology (or maybe “poop” psychology which was how I first typed this), I am interested in improving my memory, especially my working memory. Which means that I will continue to do my Lumosity exercises so I can find my, now lukewarm, cup of coffee.

Here’s a link to the article which, of course, wants you to sign up for a subscription:
I didn’t and bought the hard copy which shows that I’m a troglodyte in addition to being, at the moment, caffeine-deprived.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Brain Tumors, Smoking Guns & High Blood Pressure

If you smoke for thirty years and then get lung cancer, you don’t have to guess a lot about the cause. If you ask “why did I get this tumor?” the answers to that question, though, are often vague, because there’s not a lot of “smoking guns” for brain tumors. 

According to the American Brain Tumor Association – – meningioma tumors tend to occur in older adults sixty or older and they occur about twice as often in women as in men. As it turns out, I’m not quite that old, but close enough. The ABTA also reports that “Risk factors for meningioma include prior radiation exposure to the head, and a genetic disorder called ‘neurofibroamatosis type 2’.” The report goes on to state that meningiomas occur in people with no risk factors…as I know all too well.

Of course if your head has been exposed to radiation and/or you figure out that you have the genetic disorder named “neurofibroamatosis type 2”, this might increase your blood pressure a tad.

And that could be bad.


According to a study that tracked 580,000 people for ten years in Austria, Norway and Sweden, and found that “…20% of participants with the highest blood pressure readings were more than twice as likely to later be diagnosed with meningioma or malignant glioma compared with the 20% with the lowest readings” as the Journal of Hypertension.  Given the magnitude of the people tracked and length of the study, I thought it worth bringing to your attention.
Here’s a link to the article in The Huffington Post:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

His and Her Thyroid Surgeries

At my annual physical last fall my internist felt my neck and felt something he didn’t like…a lump.  He recommended that I get it checked out.

So I had made an ultrasound appointment which confirmed that I had a lump. After consultation with my doctor, I went ahead and had a biopsy. 

The biopsy was inconclusive. So I had a consultation with my surgeon who said that there’s a 20% chance that I have thyroid cancer. He recommended surgery to remove the suspicious mass. 

I thought about it and decided that it’d be pretty silly to survive a brain tumor only to die of thyroid cancer.

So I had the surgery in November; discovered that the mass was benign; and went on my merry way.

At my wife’s annual physical, her internist felt her neck and felt something she didn’t like…a lump.  She recommended that my wife get it check out.

So she made an ultrasound appointment which confirmed that she had a lump.  After consultation with her doctor, she went ahead and had a biopsy.

The biopsy tested positive for cancer.

So she had surgery in December. It was successful. And she, too, has gone on her merry way.

Merry Christmas?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sexy, fun, sardonic brain tumor blog names

As best I can tell there are two kinds of names for brain tumor and cancer blogs: boring explanatory names, and utterly defiant and original names.

Take my blog’s name, “Johnstumor”.  Yes, it tells you what you’re going to get if you read it, but it’s boringly simple.  It makes you think that I would’ve named Coca-Cola “brown sugared water”.

And then there are the fun names, the sardonic names and the sexier names.
“Sexy blog names for brain tumor and cancer blogs?” you may ask. Who would do such a thing? 

Well, for starters, Kris Carr. She has turned her illness into a lifestyle and business:

And then there’s “Cancer Vixen” which is the name of Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s book. Her blog is really just a part of her multifaceted website and has the more mundane name of, I always think of it as the “Cancer Vixen Blog”. Although she seems to have stopped blogging, it’s worth a visit.

Other names, though, give you a sense of spunk and wit in the face of devastating cancer news.  A great example is Here’s a lady with serious cancer issues that ain’t taking this lying down.  I love the first line of her “About Me” paragraph: “I am a breast cancer ass kicker in stilettos and denim.”

If you prefer a “tell it like it is” blog, Kalin Marie’s blog, “Cancer is Hilarious” (which, of course, means it’s not) is for you -

Another blog title with a witty bite to it is “An Inconvenient tumor…but aren’t they all” -  Her last posting was September 2010…which makes me a bit concerned.

Not fun enough for you?  Try this: “Miss Melanoma: The Official Site for the Fun Side of Cancer” -

Want something even more fun?  Try “Cancer is Funny” -

How about something that combines a wry sense of humor with unmitigated anger?  Try “Fuck Cancer and the horse it rode in on” at  I recommend listening to her “Stupid Cancer Rant” that she’s posted.

And then there is “Cancer Bitch” - Since she’s a writer and teaches writing, she’s pretty good at describing her blog: “One Feminist's Report on Her Breast Cancer, Beginning with Semi-diagnosis and Continuing Beyond Chemo, w/ a side of Polycythemia Vera thrown in for good measure*** You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye bread, and you don't have to have cancer to read Cancer Bitch. *** Cancer Bitch comes to you from S.L. (Sandi) Wisenberg in Chicago”.  

One line that has stuck with me through all the blogs I’ve visited is from in which blogster Samantha Kittle writes, “Brain tumors are funny, but they’re not hilarious.” Why do I like it?  Because not only is it bitingly sardonic, it leverages a subsidiary meaning of “funny” which, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is “differing from the ordinary in a suspicious, perplexing, quaint or eccentric way”. I have found my brain tumor to be both suspicious and perplexing.

So why all this “hardy har har” in the face of deadly, life-sapping illnesses? For me, personally, it is a way of saying “You can destroy or maim my body or brain, but you can’t destroy my spirit.”

Another part is stress relief and trying to fend off the worries that a brain tumor brings.  I know that when I was in the hospital the more worried I was, the wackier my jokes were. 

When my skull infection was refusing to heal, and doctors were wincing when they saw the back of my infected head, I would latch onto any possible dumb joke or terrible pun or stupid gag to deflect the truth.  And the truth was, at that time, that my doctor needed to cut out my infected skull and throw it into the deep freeze to kill the germs...which he eventually did. (Someone told me that they used to throw infected skull pieces into a bottle of Clorox, but medical science seems to have moved beyond that).

If you find any other provocative or interesting blog names, please send them to me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lee and Bob Woodruff and Gabby Giffords

Here’s two brain injury survivor stories for the price of one: Gabby Giffords and Bob Woodruff.

Gabby’s story needs little introduction.  I think we’re all pretty familiar with her story now that she and her husband have published a memoir.

My memory of Bob Woodruff’s injury was pretty vague.  In a Parade magazine article Ms. Woodruff reported that in 2006 “I learned that Bob, an ABC news anchor on assignment in Iraq, had been riding in a vehicle that struck a bomb. Shrapnel was lodged in his brain, and he lay in a coma. Doctors didn’t know if he’d survive, much less function normally.”

And while Mr. Woodruff was the victim of a bomb instead of a tumor, the consequences were similarly horrific: “Bob emerged from his coma on day 36. He opened his eyes and asked me where I’d been—just like that. But he was missing vast parts of himself, like slices cut from a pie. While he could breathe on his own and answer basic questions, he couldn’t name the president and at first didn’t remember we had twin daughters.”

What I like about this survivor story is that Ms. Woodruff doesn’t sugarcoat the pain and struggles of the rehab and recovery process, e.g. “My heart broke into a million pieces the time I saw Bob, a man who had a photographic memory, struggle to identify the word for 'broom' on a card. Even after he began making progress, for every two good days, he’d have a payback day and be overcome by exhaustion and pain.”