Review: Your Fantastic Elastic Brain

January 13, 2011

Anyone who has stayed home with a child will tell you that they feel like their brain is shrinking from disuse. There are only so many times that you can play Chutes and Ladders or so many times you can watch an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba before you wonder if your neurons will ever be intellectually satisfied again.

That’s a weird way to start a review of a children’s book, but I just wanted to point out that I appreciate JoAnn Deak’s central message in Your Fantastic Elastic Brain… the more you use your brain, the more you challenge it, the stronger it will be. I know that I could feel my brain being robbed of nutrients when I first started staying home with baby Sasha, with nothing to do during naps but watch the ladies on the View bicker about which of them is more annoying.

Eventually, I learned that being smart about my choice of blogs and podcasts would enrich my life and stimulate my brain. I started hungering for topics on science and I created this blog to channel that energy, and to further stimulate my brain. And the more I learned, the more skills I was able to apply to my parenting. But as Sasha and her little sister Juliet grew up, I realized that I should concentrate less on my own brain and more on their brains, which is what this book is supposed to be about.

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain reminded me of an interview that I had with Ashley Merryman for the podcast. Ashley told us that there was research that indicated children could improve test scores just by telling them that their brains are muscles. After reading Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, which correctly points out that the brain is an organ but metaphorically behaves like a muscle, I went back to look at the study that Ashley mentioned in the interview.

Carol Dweck conducted research on underprivileged 7th grade students at a middle school in East Harlem. Compared to the control group who were only given basic study skills, the test group were given the same study skills but were also asked to read an essay on how the brain is like a muscle and needs to be challenged and exercised to grow.  In the following months, the teachers saw the grades significantly improve in the group that learned about brain elasticity, while the control group continued to languish. *

According to Ashley Merryman, some of the parents of the students in the test group were so shocked by their children suddenly making better grades that a few of them started inquiring what the heck kind of research was making their kids study all of a sudden. Of course, the researchers weren’t allowed to say, but now the secret is out, and it is embodied in Your Fantastic Elastic Brain.

Can we count this as an educational placebo pill? I don’t think it’s that easy, but the jury is out whether the brain does in fact behave like a muscle. There are scientists who are currently studying this claim by examining fMRI images before and after cognitive challenges, but by most accounts, the preliminary evidence seems to show that intelligence can increase by “exercising” the brain.

Whether it’s a placebo or not, JoAnn Deak’s Your Fantastic Elastic Brain may just be the very thing that your child needs to motivate her to study a little harder and make the better grade. I especially liked the section that explained how practicing can build new neurons and make a sport or activity easier the more you do it. I don’t want my kids retreating from ice skating or piano lessons because they find them to be too difficult or challenging. I want them to practice harder so their brain and muscles can strengthen as they improve.

In addition to the lessons on sculpting the brain, there are simple anatomical explanations of the functions of the parts of the brain. My 5 year old daughter didn’t show any signs of boredom as I explained the Cerebrum, Hippocampus, Cerebellum, Prefrontal Cortex, and the Amygdala. I admit that brain anatomy can be a challenging topic to share with young kids, but JoAnn Deak did a fantastic job of providing that information without overdoing it.

The illustrations by Sarah Ackerley are very cute and keep the book from seeming too academic. On the border of each page, a little mouse and owl make comedic quips about what they see. It’s a nice little humorous bonus to the other fun images found in the book.

Incidentally, I was also impressed by Little Pickle Press, the environmentally friendly publishing company. The book is printed on TerraSkin paper, which claims to be made out of stone. That’s pretty cool! You should go to Little Pickle Press and check out their site because they are having a contest that includes Science-Based Parenting readers. They’re also offering a 25% discount for our readers to buy Your Fantastic Elastic Brain at their web store. Just put ‘BBTSCI’ in the coupon area, and you will receive your instant discount.

Also, we will use a random number generator to pick one of the comments here to win a FREE copy of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak. Just leave a comment about any game, toy, activity, or book that you recommend for exercising a child’s brain. We will post the winner NEXT TUESDAY!

*Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development