The Power Brain that Wasn’t: An Academic’s Story, Part 1 of 5

The Power Brain that Wasn’t: An Academic’s Story, Part 1 of 5
September 14, 2016 Dr. Jacquilyn Weeks

As a kid, I was infinitely curious. I was always exploring bushes, digging up interesting rocks, and, most often, hiding away in some corner with a book, because books can take you anywhere, to any time or place, real or imagined, and allow you to share ideas with people from all over the world, in lots of different historical periods. (If I were being totally honest, I would confess that the number one reason I got in trouble as a kid was because I was lost in a book and totally forgot about totally boring and insignificant things . . . like doing my chores.) Do you know that “abibliophobia” is the fear of running out of books to read? (Horrible thought.)

My parents were both in medical school when I was born, and they also infected my vocabulary. When I was three years old, I scraped up my knee, and went crying to my grandfather. He said, “Oh, did Jacqui get an owie?” I looked up at him, shocked, and replied, “It’s not an owie, Grandpa. It’s a hematoma.” I don’t think I learned the word “bruise” until I went to school.

If you asked anyone that I knew, they probably would have told you that I was a “power brain” from the beginning—I was always learning new things, and sharing obscure but fascinating facts. Do you know that any ship that docked in ancient Egypt was required to surrender all of its books to be copied for the famous library in Alexandria? 

But, invariably, it’s the one thing that you don’t know (or the one thing that you conveniently forget) that comes back to bite you in the worst way.

While I was finishing my PhD at Notre Dame, my health started to fail dramatically. I was having problems processing nutrients, and my body wasn’t retaining essential minerals like iron. Doctors haven’t been able to figure out why, but my body is terribly sensitive to complex chemicals and preservatives—so, basically, most foods and medicines make me really tired. Knowing this, I decided to conserve energy by focusing all of it on my writing, and everything else started to fall by the wayside. I tried to make time for exercise, but it was low on my priority list, and it was the first thing that got cut in favor of more “important” considerations. During the Irish Civil War, the Public Records Office in Dublin, Ireland was destroyed by a bomb so massive that its explosion was heard twenty miles away; fragments of irreplaceable medieval manuscripts rained down on the city for three days. 

Dissertation finished and defended, I launched myself into the hurly burly of an academic career. No less stressful, but tremendously fun. I love that moment when you’re teaching something important, and your students really get it, and then their writing takes off to a whole new level. They start understanding language and the world in more sophisticated ways, and you know, as a professor, that you’ve changed their lives for the better.

Distracted by the joys of learning with my students, I didn’t immediately realize how badly my health was failing—until I reached the point where it became physically painful to write. I was exhausted all of the time, started to put on weight, and found it impossible to focus. My blood and iron levels were critically low, and my brain wasn’t getting sufficient oxygen. I started losing memories and mixing up words; I would have been terrified if I could have mustered up enough energy to have strong emotions. As much as I love the university, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to my students or to my colleagues and decided to take some time off.

The medical sabbatical was awful.

I was sleeping for more than 18 hours per day, ordinary tasks felt like epic quests, and even ten minutes of exertion would knock me out for hours. I was surviving (barely), but not truly living.

It was in this state that I first encountered Body & Brain Yoga, and, honestly, I liked the idea of it because tapping and stretching sounded really easy. Of course, I promptly fell asleep in the breathing and meditation exercises, but what really shocked me about this practice was the fact that I felt more energetic at the end of the class than I did at the beginning. Exercise can make you feel good? Who knew?!

As an academic, you tend to focus on your brain, and to think of your body as that-inconvenient-thing-which-carries-your-brain-around. But, as any first-year anatomy student could have told me, the brain is just another organ in a complex body. Exercise. Nutrition. Energy Circulation. Without them, my “power brain” was about as useful as a high-tech cell phone without a charger. Do you know that the brain uses twenty percent of all the blood and oxygen in your body? (But all of that blood and oxygen has to be produced and maintained by your bones, your digestive system, your lungs, and your circulatory system.)

But since calling the Apple store wouldn’t solve my problem, I did what academics do and researched the theory behind Body & Brain Yoga—where I discovered that there are five core principles, neatly outlined in Ilchi Lee’s book, The Power Brain: Five Steps to Upgrading Your Brain Operating System. Step one has a fancy title: “Brain Sensitizing,” but it really boils down to the fact that your brain needs the support of your whole body. Moreover, the brain works best when the body is wholly happy and healthy. To make that possible, you need to be present in your own skin, not always lost in other time periods or imaginary worlds. Because I had no balance in my life, I lost my focus, my mind, and my career trajectory.

The most useful thing about this first section of The Power Brain is its descriptions, not just of exercises, but of how those exercises target muscle groups, improve your breathing, and open up energy channels. The goal is not to exercise for a zillion hours per day, but to maximize the impact of every exercise. In effect, Lee is combining the principles of Western neurology with Eastern energy systems to help your body help your brain. Even more importantly, Lee helps you to connect your conscious mind to your body’s self-awareness: “Our understanding of the brain is generally conceptual rather than experiential. We’re aware of the fact that we have a brain, but we’re not normally conscious of its existence. To become closer to our brain and to use its functions well, we first have to have a feeling of our brain. This is what it means to ‘sensitize the brain.’” Although the gist of the argument is that you should stop thinking about being healthy and go out and get exercise, this book will help you get the most out of your gym/studio/stretching-in-the-backyard time.

It’s only in the last four months that I’ve started to reclaim my brain, but it happened when I started to reclaim my body.  I’m writing again, and loving it, but I’m also taking time for my physical senses. So as much as I enjoy chatting with you, I’m off to go jump in a swimming pool. If you’re sitting around and reading, I suggest that you stand up for a few minutes and get your body moving. The extra circulation will do wonders for your brain!

[In the next post . . . Brain Versatilizing! Do you know why discovering random factoids in an autobiographical essay is good for your brain? Find out soon…]

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