Review of "Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot"

By Richard Restak
Three Rivers Press, 2001
Review by James Sage on Mar 4th 2002
Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot

In this highly readable, hands-on volume, Richard Restak presents 28 chapters to help you improve your brain’s performance, to develop a “super-powered” memory, and to become more intelligent.  Contrary to recent trends, Restak argues that a key component of intelligence is a good memory.  While “mere” memorization has been deplored in education circles, Restak reminds us that having a “super-powered” memory is an important part of any highly intelligent person’s abilities.  In each chapter, Restak shares numerous examples of how to improve memory and cognitive functioning – from basic memorization exercises (such as memorizing the layout of your living room and then forming a mental image of it) to advanced logic puzzles (such as probability assessments and other “brain teasers”). 

While the book’s premise is relatively straightforward (better memory leads to improved intelligence), the strength of the book lies in its abundance of mental exercises, sprinkled with detailed explanations of the neuro-physiological basis of each exercise.  I cannot list each exercise here (there are too many), though I can attest to their effectiveness (I tried numerous of these activities and found them very useful).  While each reader will have different needs and abilities, Restak provides so many exercises there is surely at least a dozen or so for any reader.  Overall, this is a wonderful volume for anyone looking to improve his or her memory.  I also recommend this book for children: the exercises in this volume are crucial to cognitive development and, at the same time, they are fun enough to keep children interested. 

With this in mind, Restak first encourages us to learn as much as we can about how our brains work.  He provides a brief introduction to the basic operation of the human brain, emphasizing the multi-leveled, highly inter-connected, functionally-specialized parts of the brain.  By understanding how the brain works, Restak claims that we will be better suited to make improvements in our cognitive abilities.  With this knowledge, we can choose activities that exercise our brains and in turn reinforce the neuro-connections that form the basis of a strong memory.  Next, Restak tells us that the brain is susceptible to “disuse atrophy” – a kind of breakdown of neural pathways symptomatic of Alzheimer’s patients.  And what’s more, while most of us incorporate some sort of physical exercise into our daily (or weekly) routines, Restak argues that we should incorporate some form of regular mental exercise into our routines as well.  Specifically, Restak emphasizes that the brain is an organ that actually improves with use.

Knowledge, according to Restak, is a kind of networking in the brain in which connections are always changing.  The brain, in other words, is a “work in progress.”  Throughout our lives, our brains are constantly changing.  Restak recommends that we choose memory-enhancing activities that maximize connections within the brain.  As a result of this insight, Restak recommends a variety of activities to maximize neuronal connections.  Some of these involve physical activities that force our brains to coordinate the prefrontal cortex and the primary motor cortex.  These activities include playing sports that require fine motor control (such as ping-pong), and playing sports that require general motor control and balance (such as tennis or basketball). 

A variety of Restak’s learning and memory exercises involve recall of lists of items (for example, grocery lists are memorized and then recalled as best as possible without consulting the list) and also word-pair lists, number sequences, spelling words backwards, and listing groups of things by category (for example, listing mammals in Africa, or animals that live in the ocean – these are particularly fun activities with children and helps build the connections in their brains).  As a variation of this idea, my friend, David, has invented a game in which you must generate a list of items that fits two or more distinct categories.  For example, generate a list of all edible white foods that begin with the letter M (mayonnaise, macadamia nuts, menonita cheese, milk, etc.).  Again, children will find these activities fun and challenging – and this develops and reinforces neuronal connections in the brain.

Part of the overall strength of Restak’s book is his intimate knowledge of the brain and its sub-systems (he has written 12 other books about the brain and how it works).  Throughout, Restak reminds us that some cognitive activities utilize the same part of the brain (that is, a variety of tasks use the same tissue-localized brain region).  Among the various macro-level sub-systems that he emphasizes are language, visualization, and motor control.  Each of these can be activated simultaneously without much difficulty (though even this takes practice).  However, when we try to perform two language tasks, we find ourselves frustrated and our proficiency lacking.  For example, when having a conversation with one person, you may have noticed how difficult it is to listen carefully to a different conversation.  This is because you are attempting to utilize the same language processing system to monitor two distinct things.  However, if you are having a conversation, say, over the phone, you’ll probably find it easy to read a short note on your desk, for example a short phone message. Talking on the phone and reading a short message uses auditory and visual language systems and is easier that trying to listen to two conversations simultaneously.  We get frustrated precisely because we are trying to use the same auditory language system for two distinct activities.  Recognizing this conflict is part of understanding how the brain works and suggests several strategies.  For example, when combining two or more tasks, understanding how the brain works will help us to avoid frustration and find greater success.  Suppose you want to listen to the radio and read a book at the same time.  If so, then don’t listen to talk radio shows (such as Car Talk on National Public Radio.  I’ve tried it and it is very hard to do!).  Reading while listening to Jazz, however, is much easier.  These kinds of insights are what Restak means when he encourages us to understand how the brain works—it allows us to be more efficient and more successful at the tasks we choose to perform.

Among other cognitive activities that Restak contrasts are linguistic activities and various types of visualization.  Restak suggests a number of mental exercises meant to reinforce the power of visualization – by shutting off the internal dialogue (or “self-talk”) we may find that we are better at certain visualization tasks.  For example, Restak recommends a simple activity that can also be very challenging: study a photograph for one minute, then put it away, and try to imagine all of the details of the photograph.  When you cannot recall any more, return to the original photo and study it again for another minute.  Put it away and try to construct a mental image of the photo (try to shut off all “self-talk” during this process—rely only on mental imagining).  Once again, try to reconstruct, as vividly as possible, all the details of the photo.  Repeat this process five times or until you can accurately visualize the photo.  Eventually, work up to more and more complex photos or increase the time between putting away the photo and generating a mental image of it (for example, hours later, try to reconstruct the image with as much detail as possible).  Since most of us tend to be very language-based, emphasizing the visual system of your brain will help train parts that tend to go unused in modern life.

That said, we should also be aware of how powerful the brain can be, and how quickly it can adapt.  If our goal is to provide the brain with a challenge, then we mustn’t let it get bored.  Reporting on memory studies using PET scans, Restak tells us that people who engage in repetitious actions have highly active brain states when first learning the routine or pattern (such as sorting mail by hand or using a 10-key adding machine).  But very quickly, the brain shuts down and automates most of the routine or pattern.  As a result, very little brain stimulation is taking place.  In order to increase brain stimulation, Restak recommends changing tasks periodically.  For example, if you are employed in a factory setting, try to switch tasks with other employees, or change up the task just enough to stimulate your brain – one easy example is to use your non-dominant hand when performing tasks. 

With all of this talk of mental exercises and activities, Restak is careful to emphasize the importance of rest and relaxation.  He suggests several activities to help us slow down – such as listening to a book on tape (while reading along with it) as well as controlling our breathing.  But even here, we can achieve a refreshed state while we still stimulate the brain.  For example, if you’ve been busy all morning reading or writing (highly language-based activities), an excellent refresher is a brisk 10-minute walk or any other form of exercise utilizing the legs (calling into use balancing and motor control).  The physical exercise will activate different parts of the brain, oxygenate the blood, and allow the language regions of the brain to relax.  Restak also emphasizes how effective standing on one leg can be – the amount of neuronal activity jumps when our brains are forced to maintain balance on one leg.  So, if you don’t have time for a long brisk walk, try standing on one leg.  That would be quite the scene in the corporate world! But who’s going to argue with solid medical science?

Another form of a “brain break” is to choose activities that stimulate regions of the brain other those you’ve just been using.  In my own case, I find that after hours of reading or writing, doing something that is visually stimulating is perfect – playing a flight-simulator video game or other visual activity (photography, painting, etc.) provides just the right sort of break from language processing (so long as you can silence “self-talk” during these activities).  Within only a few minutes, I can return to reading for another couple of hours.  Afternoon naps are also among the recommended strategies for relaxation, and a personal favorite of mine!

Restak recommends a number of language-based activities meant to enhance connections in your brain.  One easy activity is to re-trace a conversation you just had with someone (the other person can help too, adding to the fun).  More advanced activities include re-tracing your thoughts (for example, set a timer to go off in 10 minutes at which time try to re-trace your thoughts in the last 10 minute period).  As a variation on this activity, have someone set an alarm to go off later in the day.  When it sounds, stop what you are doing and recount your thoughts for the last 10 minutes.  These thought re-tracing activities help to reinforce your ability for recall and to integrate your thought processes.  Restak also suggests keeping a journal (he highly recommends keeping your journal on a laptop or similar computer-based medium).  Keeping a journal (of your thoughts, what you’ve read, your dreams, etc.) will assist you in finding continuities between various periods in your life.  Using a computer word-processor to keep your journal allows you to search for recurring themes (this is related to the psychoanalytic technique known as self-analysis).  In addition, Restak presents a variety of “free association” activities meant to enhance mental acuity, recall, and creativity. 

Finally, Restak suggests a few more general strategies to enhance memory and intelligence.  These strategies including: training your powers of logic (doing “brain teasers” or timed crossword puzzles); enhancing your sensory capacities (noticing colors, textures, shapes, etc.); becoming more attuned to your daily rhythms of alertness (do you work well in the morning or at night?); improving fine motor control of your hands (through playing video games, performing magic tricks, or knitting); and improving your active memory threshold (utilizing memorization techniques such as “chunking” or “memory pegs” to increase the amount of information you can sustain in active memory).

All in all, Richard Restak has presented a must-have volume for any reader who is interested in improving memory and intelligence.  Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot is a great collection of mental activities mixed with just the right amount of neuro-physiological insights.  Best of all, Restak’s book can be used by children and adults alike.  I will certainly continue to utilize the various activities and strategies Restak describes and I look forward to trying out some of these activities on my family, especially niece and nephews.


© 2002 James Sage


James Sage is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Utah. His interests include the evolution of mind and rationality, philosophy of science, and naturalized theories of knowledge.


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