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The profound effects of exercise on the brain: A conversation with Dr. John Ratey
The Harvard Medical School's clinical professor of psychiatry wrote the book on the topic.
- Dr. John Ratey's 2008 book, Spark, investigated the many important effects that exercise has on mental health.
- While physical fitness is essential to good health, moving in a variety of ways is even more important.
- Recent research suggests that exercise is as effective for treating certain mental health conditions as pharmaceuticals.
John Ratey is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, as well as the author of numerous article and books, including Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. In his clinical work, Dr. Ratey focuses on attentional disorders. He collaborates with institutions around the world, helping children and adults move better and with more variety while educating audiences about the impact exercise has on both physical and mental health.
I recently chatted with Dr. Ratey about the necessity of training both your brain and body (listen to the full conversation here). Next week I'll publish the second half of the interview, where we focus on diet's role in physical and mental health, as well as his recent work in addiction recovery. Here we discuss the junction of physical and mental health, barefoot running, why schools need to implement PE as part of their educational curriculum, and the role of play in fitness.
Derek: Spark was such an influential book in terms of discussing the necessity of brain health for physical fitness and vice versa. The insights are a profound rebuttal to Cartesian dualism. What initially made you interested in this connection?
John: I grew up being an athlete. Back then, athletes were not necessarily fit. I played all sports all the time, so I was pretty fit, but no one "worked out." We had to be forced on our tennis team to run a mile.
When I finally got to medical school, I was interested in psychiatric issues. There was an article about a hospital in Norway offering patients the option of taking one of our brand new amazing antidepressants or an exercise program, and they were finding the same benefits. It intuitively made sense to me. When I got overwhelmed with medical school and stopped exercising, I noticed the difference.
Then I came to Boston in the midst of Bill Rodgers and the marathon explosion. I started running like everybody else did. Then Candace Pert discovered endorphins. That became a thing: "I want to go raise my endorphins because I'm feeling a little crappy, so I better go work out."
I was just starting to teach and work at my own practice. I was very interested in ADHD. Because I was also interested in aggression, a lot of people with aggression have a history of having ADHD or ADD or dyslexia. I met a professor, who was an early marathoner, that twisted his ankle and hurt his knee, so he couldn't run anymore. At the same time, his productivity dropped. I saw him as a patient and treated him with medicine, but also helped him when he got back to running after his knee problem healed. It turns out that he didn't need the medicine except for every now and then.
That really got me interested in two things. One was attention deficit disorder, especially in adults. It began a journey into that whole area, but at the same time I always paid attention to the seemingly magical effect of exercise on attention. A part of my lectures always discuss using exercise to improve mood, attention, and aggression.
Run, Jump, Learn! How Exercise can Transform our Schools: John J. Ratey, MD at TEDxManhattanBeach
Derek: Your work also introduced me to one of the most fascinating books I've ever read, i of the vortex, by Rodolfo Llinas. You quote him in Spark: "That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement." I've been a fitness instructor at Equinox for 15 years. I teach a lot of different modalities and diversity of movement is extremely important. I wonder, given our history as a species that relied so heavily on diverse movements, why do you think that people have lost touch with that sense of diversity and even play in their physical activities?
John: It's a very good question. What we have is a coevolution of our environment that made it less part of our lives, thanks to everything the digital world has brought us to cars helping us use less exertion in everything that we do. This has led to this sort of sedentary culture that we have and it's literally killing us. It's a mismatch on what we're supposed to be doing according to our genes.
I was just in Abu Dhabi working with an educational group. It was clear that these kids aren't moving at all. They don't have to and they don't want to. And you see the problems with the lack of motivation, the lack of interest.
This is especially sad news when it comes to variety of movement. That's so important to all of us: to keep every part of our body moving. The focus now is on balance training. That's huge, because we're not moving in various different environments or encountering different challenges. Our balance goes away, especially as we age, and so we see this as a huge problem now.
I see a huge problem with learning disabled kids, who have ADD, dyslexia, and autism. They really have trouble physically balancing as well as mentally balancing. By training the one you can have an effect on the other, so back to Llinas: the internalization of that balance can help you balance your cognitive and emotional life.
Derek: When I teach yoga classes, one of the most challenging parts of the body that I find students have trouble with is their feet and ankles. When Nike introduced the padded running shoe, it really did a disservice to our anatomy. People have such little range of motion and everything starts in their feet. Daniel Lieberman writes about that as well.
John: When you take comfort in the incredible soles that you get with shoes, it throws everything off. We were born to run; Chris McDougall's book is a testament to that. He was running with the wild men of Mexico, who would run forever barefoot. When you're running with a heel strike, you put an incredible amount of torque and pressure on your knees, ankles, and hips. By correcting that with barefoot running shoes, you're forcing yourself to land on the front part of your foot. This helps to correct or avoid those damages because we're made to move that way and yet we don't do it.
Professional pickleball player Aspen Kern returns the ball during the 2nd Annual Surf City Pickleball Championships at Murdy Park in Huntington Beach, California, on Friday, August 4, 2017.
Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Derek: In Spark, you write about Zero Hour PE and the effects of the before-school elective program on children's academic performance. I wonder if you have any thoughts on why school administrators often cut programs like PE and the Arts to focus on STEM curriculum. Isn't that missing half the point of what an education should be?
John: Absolutely. That's what I spend my time around the world lecturing about. A large number of Chinese educators are beginning to turn this around. They traditionally had an emphasis on physical fitness amongst their students. Then it all became testing, testing, testing. Now they're more aware of the fact that fit students are better students: more receptive, more cooperative, they have better attention and better capacity as they actually learn quicker and test better.
So there you're seeing a resurgence in the amount of time spent in PE and the emphasis for the individual student. But here where we're doing just the opposite. There are lots of reasons for it. The big one is that there are so many different demands on the educational system that teachers want more time with kids. They want as much time as possible, as they believe it is the best way to get students to do well on test scores—that they need to achieve by having them sit in their seat and have the teacher force it into them. They're very guarded in giving up any time for such things as the Arts and physical education. Again, it misses the point. We should be about making kids fitter and not just allowing educated executives that see PE as something for the athletes making those decisions.
Derek: You touch upon an important aspect in your work, which is play. While I love gym culture, so many people treat is as a very serious, controlled activity. There really is no play on machines.
John: Adults are missing that like crazy. I just learned about pickleball, which is the fastest growing sport in America. It's a dumb sport, but it's fun and it's play; it's in some ways one of the easiest sports you could do, but people move and they laugh and they have fun and they get better and then they get competitive. We're missing that kind of playful movement interaction, as well as the social aspect. We all need to remember how important play was in our lives. Now, especially with our devices, play becomes virtual, which is a huge problem.
Derek: That's exactly where I was going to go next. I work in blockchain; I grew up the son of a computer programmer. I've worked with computers for decades. Yet when I walk into the gym, I look down the row of cardio machines and people are texting or looking at their phone. I want to explain to them that they're not learning whatever they're looking at on their phone and they're also not working out optimally.
John: Well, it's hard not to see it as the beginning of the end [laughs]. There isn't anything better than having the world at your fingertips. It's wonderful, but it's so addicting. Parents are starting to have a little bit of awareness. My grandkids aren't screen-addicted...yet. But they want to be. Parents are always on their phone, so it becomes difficult to say, "Don't do as I do, do as I say."
Derek: I believe that if we look down the road a few generations, we're going to see a big uptick in diseases of dementia because of this reliance of offloading memory to our devices.
John: Oh yeah. I used to be really good with directions. Now, even when I'm going someplace that I know the way and have been that way all the time, I sometimes have my GPS on for whatever reason. That part of my brain is not being accessed; it's being assisted. I don't need to be augmented there, yet I'm doing it. I worry about it, but I worry more about the lack of physical activity that really leads to all the reasons why we get demented.
- Why exercise might be better for mental health than meds - Big Think ›
- Running shown to keep dementia at bay as you age - Big Think ›
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.
The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.