The human brain is nothing much – a wrinkled little mass, 1,300-odd grams, 1,200-odd cubic centimeters, 60 percent fat, the rest mostly water, protein, carbohydrates and salts. How we get from this to science, philosophy, art, desire and the coordinated bodily movements necessary to satisfy desire, is a mystery far beyond the scope of this story.
Marvelous as the brain is, it has limits. President magazine (July 29) warns of “brain fatigue.”
Takehiko Fujino, professor emeritus of medicine at Kyushu University, says it’s a relatively new expression. That’s surprising. Who doesn’t know it, who doesn’t feel it, who doesn’t instinctively, if not scientifically, understand it? He implies, presumably, a gap between colloquial and medical usage. Colloquially speaking, a good night’s sleep, a holiday, a change of pace is all your tired brain needs. When they don’t help, you’re in potential medical trouble, Fujino says. He mentions “information overload” – and here, certainly, we are into a new era. Never has the brain had so much information flung at it so fast, so randomly, so chaotically, events succeeding each other with dizzying rapidity, their consequence upon us before we know what hit us. Never have our 86 billion-odd nerve cells twitched so convulsively. They’re getting weary. But information keeps pouring in. What should we do about it? President asks Fujino.
“Brain fatigue” became current in medical circles around 15 years ago, Fujino says – 2007, roughly speaking, six years into the brave new world spawned by the “9/11” terrorist attacks on the U.S. Reeling already, the brain in 2007 had to assimilate, along with much else, an escalation of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Iran’s announcement that it was producing enriched uranium, 32 dead at a Virginia university in what was then (but is no longer) the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, devastating heat worldwide, and in Japan, the assassination by a gangster of Nagasaki Mayor Itcho Ito.
Stress, Fujino says, generally calls to mind more personal problems – pressure at work, tension at home, and so on. There’s that too, of course. Personal or global, the brain reaches a point of saturation and begins to drags its feet, so to speak. Consciousness blurs. You may not notice at first. A good indication is the sense of taste. Where one spoonful of sugar sufficed before, you now need two. Taste buds are desensitized. Other seasonings must be increased in proportion – an excess that produces the familiar symptoms: weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes and on into the worst-case scenarios – cancer, heart attacks, brain hemorrhages. Japan’s leading killers, says Fujino, are lifestyle diseases, and most of them he boils down to one root cause: brain fatigue.
Social and intellectual life is also blunted, he says. You grope in vain for the right word; comprehension grows fuzzy. Tension rises, frustration mounts.
So what to do? You can turn off the media and pretend nothing’s happening out there. Well, you can’t, really, barring a degree of isolation hardly consistent with normal life. You can tell yourself that the planet and the species have weathered other crises in other times, equally if not more jolting to the brain than the current state of things – acute global warming, a pandemic, a sudden war that seems a throwback to a more savage world order, a shuddering global economy and, meanwhile, ever-accelerating technological progress that, though arguably beneficial, demand their own psychic-energy-consuming adaptations. The hopeful view is: we’re an adaptable species. We’ve an adaptable brain. We’ll emerge stronger.
The brain can adapt to anything, it may be – except fatigue. Be kind to your brain, Fujino counsels. He addresses individuals who, alarmed by physical deterioration, take themselves in hand somewhat too severely. Craving food, they diet; long for a drink, they deny themselves; yearn for repose, they force themselves through an exercise routine. Counterproductive, Fujino says. You only tire your brain the more.
He cites the Aesop fable of the sun and the north wind. Both seek to strip a traveler of his cloak. The wind blows furiously; the traveler wraps his cloak more tightly around him. The sun shines gently; the traveler removes his cloak. The sun wins.
Be a sun to your brain, says Fujino. If it wants food, give it food; if drink, drink – in moderation of course; if rest, exercise it later – not too much later, but later. Health food? Good if not force-fed, counter-productive otherwise. Junk food? Okay in moderation. Infants are weaned slowly. So should adults be. Of his own patients, he says, “They tell me, ‘Ever since you told me it’s okay to eat my fill, I no longer want to eat so much; when you said I can eat sweets if I want, I no longer want them.’” There’s a lesson there somewhere. But today’s sun is not the sun Aesop knew. It’s a glowering, menacing harbinger of yet worse heat to come. The brain cries for rest and we would indulge it if we could. But circumstances are not propitious.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”© Japan Today