A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theatres of the Brain by John Ratey

First Vintage Books Edition, 2002, 416 pages

Paul E. Dennison

In his book A User’s Guide to the Brain, John Ratey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, repeatedly reminds us that movement is fundamental to the very existence of a brain, that “. . . only an organism that moves from place to place requires a brain.”

Ratey describes the life cycle of the sea squirt, a tiny marine creature that in its early life swims like a tadpole, with a brain and a nerve cord to control its movement. “However, when it matures, it attaches itself to a rock. From that moment on, the brain and nerve cord are gradually absorbed and digested.” The sea squirt, Ratey concludes, consumes its own brain because it isn’t needed any more.

In his citing of many such examples, he lends validation to the Edu-K premise that movement is fundamental to learning.

Movement is initiated in the frontal lobe of the brain. As Ratey explains, “The primary motor cortex and premotor cortex are both located in the frontal lobe, one of the most advanced parts of the brain, which is also responsible for higher executive functions such as thinking and planning. It allows us to ponder, judge, and make decisions.”

Ratey reviews what neuroscientists now know about the brain, confirming that it is, in fact, not a static or a fixed organ as earlier imagined. He explains in lay terminology the basic structures and chemistry of the brain, and demonstrates how its multiple systems help shape perceptions, emotions, and behavior. He perceives the brain as malleable, capable of growth and change.

“The brain is not a computer that simply executes genetically predetermined programs,” he points out. Ratey maintains that the adult brain is “both plastic and resilient, and always eager to learn.” He informs readers that “the brain’s motor function affects so much more than just physical motion. It is crucial to all other brain functions—perception, attention, emotion—and so affects the highest cognitive processes of memory, thinking, and learning.”

John Ratey equates intelligent behavior with the ability to read new situations, and presents an understanding of the human brain as dynamic and flexible, helping readers to better understand how their own brain affects their future. Detailing how the brain responds to the input of its “user,” Ratey helps readers create possibilities for themselves to improve the quality of their lives.

Ratey summarizes, “Our life experiences, thoughts, actions and emotions actually change the structure of our brains. By viewing the brain as a muscle that can be weakened or strengthened, we can exercise our ability to determine who we become. Indeed, once we understand how the brain develops we can train our brains for health, vibrancy, and longevity.”

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