Relentless study is a not-so-healthy way of life in this competitive society that demands peak performance. A sharp mind is essential.
The ancients, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners today, advise mental and emotional moderation, nourishing your brain and resting it.
An ideal life of balance and harmony is rarely possible, but we can nurture our brain power.
Many parents do everything they can to ensure their child succeeds. This includes feeding a brain-nourishing diet for a year in advance of big exams, a teaspoon a day of ground walnuts (brain food, especially since they are crinkled like the brain's surface), and especially nutritious foods ("big head" carp is a favorite) in the run-up to exams.
You can buy chicken brains and other fish brains as well if you believe the old adage that eating animal bones is good for your bones, fish eyes for your eyes, brains for your brain, etc.
A blast of protein from brain food the night before won't help, TCM doctors say, and a sudden dose of rich food may upset the digestive system. The brain needs good energy flow, good blood circulation and nutrition - you need to feed your head over the long term.
So what does TCM have to say about keeping sharp and preparing for tests? Is there a miracle TCM brain food? No, though fish and nuts are popular.
To perform well on exams or any demanding task (assuming you know the material), do not exhaust your brain, rest it occasionally, eat brain-reinforcing foods and get head massage and acupressure.
Many TCM classics say the heart governs blood circulation and thinking processes. But Li Shizhen, a physician in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), separated mind from heart, and assigned it to the brain. In his TCM classic "Ben Cao Gang Mu" ("An Outline Treatise on Medical Herbs"), Li said the brain is the "house of yuan shen (original domination)," similar to "spirit" in the West.
Blood and energy flowing in brain help the "original domination" to see, hear, smell and feel the world through the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and the sense of touch. Thus, we learn, know and analyze the world.
The brain is like a machine, TCM thinking goes, and it ages and dulls with age and overwork; it needs constant maintenance. Memory often declines with age, though this varies. Some people suffer headaches and dizziness that make it difficult to concentrate.
For regular life-long maintenance, the brain needs rest, a good mood, food reinforcement and regular head massage or acupressure.
Unrelenting mental work without rest is very bad for the brain and the rest of the body. Mental over-exertion hastens aging. Rest and sleep are necessary for recovery.
A healthy brain is a happy brain - try to maintain a stable, upbeat mood that is crucial for brain maintenance. Depression and anger damage the brain more seriously than ordinary mental exertion.
Lessen your desires, be friendly to those around you, and control your mood - don't be too sad or angry when things go badly, don't be euphoric when things go well - avoid extremes. Bad humor disrupts and disorders the flow of energy and hurts the brain and other organs.
Food gives us energy for daily activities, including mental work. TCM says some foods, especially nuts, can reinforce the brain and delay aging. Nuts include walnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, sesame, almonds, though there are many others.
Staple foods like corn, millet and black-kernal rice; fruits like apples, oranges and bananas; vegetables like spinach and carrots and proteins like fish, shrimp and pork are all good for the brain. A tired, undernourished brain leads to headaches, dizziness, ringing in the ears, mental fuzziness and memory problems.
Regular massage and acupressure stimulates blood circulation in the head and can help relieve problem - but rest is important.
Head: Press and rub both tian zhu 20 times. They are two points at the back of the head, 3.3 centimeters beside the point 1.3cm above the center of hairline. Comb your hair with your fingers, from front to back, 10 times.
Feet: Press and rub both da zhong 20 times. They are the two sunken points at the inner side above the heel. Do both feet.
Face: Press both tai yang at the temples, the sunken points beside the corners of the eyes.
If you don't like complicated acupressure, comb your hair often, but don't use a comb with sharp teeth.
Brain food recipes
Big head fish (spotted silver carp) and noodle soup
Ingredients: 1 fish head, transparent noodles (100g), golden mushrooms (200g), scallions and garlic.
Seasoning: 2 star anis seeds, 2 spoons yellow wine, 2 spoons soy sauce, 1 spoon dried chili, 1 spoon sugar, 1 spoon salt, 4 spoons starch.
1. Wash ingredients, dip fish head in starch.
2. Lightly fry the head. Fry anis seeds, chili, scallions and garlic.
3. Make soup with all ingredients, add soy sauce, yellow wine, sugar and salt.
4. When soup is almost done, add mushrooms and noodles. Cook at gentle heat for 20 minutes.
Function: Reinforces brain.
Ingredients: 5 dried litchi, rice (50g)
Preparation: Make congee and eat twice daily.
Function: Nourishes the blood, reinforces the brain, improves failing memory.
Pig's heart soup
Ingredients: 1 pig's heart, ginseng (10g), dang gui (angelica) (10g)
1. Open the pig's heart and put ginseng and dang gui inside.
2. Make soup, cook until heart is soft. Remove the ginseng and dang gui.
Eat the pig's heart and drink the soup once a week.
Function: Reinforces the brain and heart, delays memory decline, relieves sleeplessness.
(Shanghai Daily June 24, 2008)