In this author spotlight, Dr. Michelle Braun shares her process in writing a health book, specifically on brain health with tools to empower writers and evidence-based research to support these tools.
The Inspiration for Writing a Health Book
Olivia: What initially inspired you to write High-Octane Brain?
Dr. Braun: As a neuropsychologist, I assess memory and other cognitive functions—otherwise known as the “software” of the brain—to determine whether memory problems are due to normal aging or are perhaps a harbinger of Alzheimer’s. High-Octane Brain was inspired by a growing problem I noticed in my clinical practice.
I saw patients using pseudoscientific strategies to enhance memory, including supplements, on-line brain games, restrictive “brain health” diets, and techniques that are minimally helpful on their own such as crosswords and sudoku puzzles. Although there are hundreds of scientific studies on how to enhance brain health and decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s, that information didn’t appear to be getting through to the general public.
I also noticed many myths about Alzheimer’s that led people to feel they couldn’t change their brain health, such as the misconception that Alzheimer’s is strongly hereditary. I was sad to see that a combination of pseudoscience, myths, and incomplete information was costing people valuable time and money they could’ve been using to truly improve brain health.
Given that Alzheimer’s is so devastating for individuals, families, and society, I felt a sense of urgency to share science-based brain health strategies with the public. I’ve been doing presentations on brain health since 2005, and have a Psychology Today blog on brain health, but wanted to share the information with a wider audience. That’s how High-Octane Brain was born!
Clarifying the Audience for a Health Book
Olivia: Brain health is a topic that affects everyone. Praise for High-Octane Brain comes from a wide variety of different people, including Olympic athletes, doctors, and people who have cared for family members with Alzheimer’s. Whom did you have in mind as the intended audience of the book?
Dr. Braun: I’d intended to write High-Octane Brain primarily for baby boomers, given that they report more memory concerns than other generations. But, as you mentioned, brain health touches all of our lives.
There is a growing realization that our brain is the CEO of all we are and all we will be. Although brain health is especially important to relatives of those with Alzheimer’s, many people are also concerned when experiencing normal “brain blips,” such as forgetting why we walked into a room. When people realize that brain aging starts in the mid-20’s and that our actions greatly impact our long-term brain health, there is an immediate sense of its relevance to adults of all ages.
Branding and Book Title
Olivia: You coined the term “High-Octane Brain,” referring to individuals who are on their personal best path to brain health through healthy habits. What was your inspiration for the term?
Dr. Braun: About 10 years ago, when providing a feedback session to one of my patients, I remember trying to think of a memorable way to communicate to him that not only were his test scores very strong, but that he was doing all of the right things with regard to his brain health habits. Hence, the term “High-Octane Brain” was born. He seemed to immediately understand what I meant when I used that term, so I’ve continued to use it over the years.
Format and Features, Voice and Engagement
Olivia: I found the format of High-Octane Brain really clear, with a mixture of informational sections, interviews, stories, and exercises. How did you decide on this structure?
Dr. Braun: I wanted to make the content of High-Octane Brain compelling, and inspire the reader to personalize and use brain health strategies in daily life. I also wanted the reader to experience a felt sense of social support and excitement about brain health though a community of voices including myself, researchers, and brain health role models.
In Lisa’s “Bring Your Book to Life®” program, I learned techniques to create a compelling voice and vary the ways in which I presented information so the reader could feel engaged, and hopefully inspired to keep turning the pages!
Making a Health Book—and the Science—Accessible
Olivia: High-Octane Brain provides scientific information, including explanations of how research studies inform our understanding of brain health. How did you write about these topics in a way that was easy for a general audience to understand? What advice do you have for other authors of health books on writing about scientific information clearly?
Dr. Braun: I used analogies to connect the science with well-known concepts, so that readers might experience an “aha” moment. For example, when describing the hippocampus—a central part of the memory system—I referred to it as a bustling switchboard that rapidly packages information.
My advice on writing scientific information is to start by describing the function of the concept without using technical terms. The technical terms can then be added back if they are helpful to furthering the reader’s understanding. I think many readers enjoy feeling a sense of mastery when they understand scientific information, and I think using analogies and making the information relevant to their daily life are powerful tools to do that.
Blogging and Book Writing
Olivia: How did your previous experience writing a Psychology Today blog on brain health inform your approach to writing High-Octane Brain? What practices from blog writing did you find most helpful when writing a book? What did you find most challenging about writing a book?
Dr. Braun: There are several strategies I learned in my Psychology Today blog that were helpful in writing the book. I learned how important it is to make the information personally relevant (by highlighting common scenarios that tie the information to the reader’s life) and by making it actionable (with how-to’s so the reader can apply the information in personalized ways).
The most challenging part of writing the book was deciding how to create themes across content that hadn’t been connected before. For example, I wanted the reader to understand at a glance how the trajectory of a High-Octane Brain is more favorable to other brain aging trajectories, so I created memorable labels for all three trajectories. Although this allows the reader to compare and contrast the trajectories in non-technical terms, the process of creating the trajectories was tricky because I wanted to make sure the terms were consistent with the underlying research.
Developing the Brain Health Tracker
Olivia: In addition to sharing scientific guidance, High-Octane Brain provides tools for readers to develop and track their own path to brain health. Can you please talk about your process of designing this feature?
Dr. Braun: As a clinician, I’ve yearned for a simple way to share information with patients about how much and how often they need to engage in various lifestyle habits such as exercise, diet, and cognitive engagement in order to optimize memory and decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s. But the challenge is that the research in each area is so variable. I saw a strong need to define “bottom line” recommendations for each of the 5 steps of the High-Octane Brain, based on a review of the available research.
I also wanted to create an aesthetically-pleasing way to track the information, based on the science of “motivational enhancement” (or how people most effectively change). That led to the development of the “Brain Health Action Plan,” which includes interactive, personalized exercises.
That also led to the development of the “Brain Health Tracker” which provides a visual depiction of progress on each of the 5 steps of the High-Octane Brain, represented by octane levels “filling up” on a diagram of the brain. It was important to make the information as straightforward and fun as possible, and I felt the visuals were key tools for that!
How to Interview Researchers for a Health Book Tweet This
Olivia: High-Octane Brain includes interviews with other brain health researchers who share their particular expertise. What advice do you have on conducting and sharing interviews?
Dr. Braun: Although I sought out to interview specific researchers because I knew their work intersected with the themes from the book, I found it very helpful to do a deeper dive into their research prior to the interviews to make sure my questions included as many overlapping themes as possible.
I reviewed their previous interviews and interactional style, which sometimes helped to shape my questions. I also found it helpful to be in the moment during the interview, and to diverge from my prepared questions when interesting points arose that I hadn’t considered. I taped the interviews with their permission, had the interviews professionally transcribed, and gave each researcher the opportunity to edit their interview. I also assured them that although the editor might opt to alter the style, format, or the length of their interview, there would be no additional content added beyond what they approved.
Stories that Make a Health Book Come Alive
Olivia: I loved reading the features of the real people who are High-Octane Brain role models and the stories of Meredith and Lou on their brain health journeys. What do you think is the benefit of describing real people in your book? In what ways do you hope readers will connect with these stories?
Dr. Braun: I really want the reader to see that the path of the High-Octane Brain involves making choices in the midst of real-life struggles, as opposed to a path that is idealistic and impractical. I also wanted readers to feel inspired by the stories and perspectives of real individuals, and to see themselves in their stories. Ultimately, I want each reader to see themselves as a future High-Octane Brain role model. I thought all of these goals were best accomplished by showcasing a diverse group of role models and characters, and providing the reader with several stories they could connect to and be inspired by.
Olivia: High-Octane Brain shares guidance about how to change or stick to habits. Did you use any of these to stick to the habits that helped you in the process of writing a book?
Dr. Braun: I often used the power of visualization by imagining the finished book and thinking about what the cover might look like. That motivated me to think of the big picture and to think about the outcome rather than just the challenge of an individual chapter I happened to be working on. I also tracked my progress visually by lining up Post-it notes on a large poster board.
I really relied on Lisa’s strategy of dialoguing with my muse, which I learned in the “Bring Your Book to Life®” program. I found that connecting with my muse led me to unexpected insights and enhanced my motivation. It was almost as if my muse was an inspiring, wise partner with me throughout the journey!
Working with a Literary Agent Tweet This
Olivia: How did you find your literary agent?
Dr. Braun: I met several agents at the Harvard course on Writing, Publishing, and Social Media for Healthcare Professionals a few years ago, and knew immediately that I wanted to work with my agent. Over the next couple of years, I concentrated on building my platform so that I could increase my chances of working with her, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to sign with her!
Olivia: What was it like to work with your literary agent?
Dr. Braun: She’s been instrumental in helping me navigate the publishing journey, from sharpening the title and value proposition of my book, to selecting a publisher and guiding me through contract review and the stages of the publishing process. There is so much I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and her guidance has made me feel more confident and excited about the process.
Olivia: What, if anything, did your literary agent have you to do build platform or revise the book?
Dr. Braun: Most of my agent’s contributions were as noted above, and she didn’t recommend anything substantive to grow my platform, I think, because my book proposal coach Lisa Tener helped me do that so well; she also didn’t have any major suggestions for revision of the book.
The Publishing Process
Olivia: Can you please talk about your experience with the publishing process?
Dr. Braun: I had a very short amount of time—about four months—to conduct the interviews with the researchers and role models and write the manuscript after signing my contract. Although the compressed time period led to a lot of pressure, I knew it was possible to finish because I’d observed some of my classmates in “Bring Your Book to Life®” finish their manuscripts very quickly.
Knowing it was possible was a key motivator! I also had multiple editors, which allowed me to enhance the book by integrating multiple opinions into the final product.
Olivia: You have an undergraduate degree in cello performance as well as psychology. That’s amazing! Do you still play? It seems that a common thread among High-Octane Brain role models is engagement with various meaningful activities. Does being a cellist play this kind of role in your life? Does it influence your writing in any way?
Dr. Braun: I still play cello! Although I play much less often than I did before, it’s a great way to engage with a different creative part of my brain. I find the creative process of playing music is very similar to that of writing: it involves deciding to be present and following a process that evolves as I engage with it. Often what emerges is unexpected and exciting!
Takeaways for Readers
Olivia: High-Octane Brain gets a starred review in Library Journal and is already a #1 New Release on Amazon, so it seems like the book will reach many readers. What do you hope readers will take away from High-Octane Brain?
Dr. Braun: I hope readers take away a growth-mindset-based sense of empowerment, and realize that the High-Octane Brain is achievable by tweaking things we all do every day. I hope readers are also empowered to realize that the High-Octane Brain trajectory is synonymous with our “personal best” level of brain health, and can enhance our overall success at work, at play, and in relationships. I hope High-Octane Brain gives readers the tools to feel empowered against Alzheimer’s.
Olivia: Lisa mentioned an app. Is that developed? If so, can you tell us more about it?
Dr. Braun: The app is something that the publisher said they couldn’t develop, and they won’t allow me to use any content from the book to develop an app, though I’d really love to do that!
Promoting a Health Book
Olivia: What are you doing to promote High Octane Brain?
Dr. Braun: I’ve been doing presentations for many months. I’ll also be doing a radio tour, virtual keynotes, blogging, and reaching out to my colleagues for support in promoting the book. Given COVID-19 social distancing recommendations, I’ve had to shift many of my events to a virtual format, but there are many advantages to that, including being able to reach more people.
Olivia: What have you learned so far about book promotion, particularly for a health book?
Dr. Braun: I’ve learned that my network of colleagues is invaluable in supporting and promoting the book, and that communication about the book needs to be as personalized as possible. I’ve also learned that the topics from the book need to be tied into current events in order to pique the interest of potential readers.
Olivia: Can you share any strategies that helped High Octane Brain become a #1 New Release even before its publication date? Do you think that had to do with the Library Journal review that suggested every library should have a copy? Anything else you or the publisher did to support this achievement so early on?
Dr. Braun: In analyzing the timeline of sales on Amazon, I noticed that a lot of the early momentum was related to support from my colleagues (many of whom want to share the book with patients). I also saw a spike in sales after presentations to audiences interested in enhancing brain health.
Parting Advice to Enhance Attention and Memory
Olivia: Is there anything else you wish I’d asked and would like to answer?
Dr. Braun: I also wanted to add that the journey of the High-Octane Brain has immediate rewards, in addition to long-term rewards. For example, a 10-minute exercise boost is a great way to immediately enhance memory before a meeting or another important event. In addition, mindfulness meditation can enhance attention and memory within minutes.
In other words, we can all benefit from developing a High-Octane Brain, starting today!
Michelle Braun, Ph.D., ABPP-CN, is passionate about empowering individuals to boost brain health and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s with science-backed strategies, and has been featured on PBS, Fox Morning News, and CBS. Dr. Braun is a board-certified neuropsychologist specializing in memory and cognition, geriatric psychology, and motivational enhancement. She completed her internship at Yale University School of Medicine, and postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School/Boston VA after earning her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology and minor in Neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Dr. Braun is an examiner for the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology, member of the Scientific and Advisory Panel of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Association, and previous board member of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology and Wisconsin Psychological Association. Dr. Braun previously served as the Assistant Director of Inpatient Mental Health at the Boston VA and Instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Braun was honored to receive a Practitioner of the Year Award from the Alzheimer’s Association, and to be named to the “40 Under 40” class of 2013 by the Milwaukee Business Journal. She has a popular Psychology Today blog on brain health and additional resources on her website. Her debut book, High-Octane Brain: 5 Science-Based Steps to Sharpen Your Memory and Reduce Your Risk of Alzheimer’s, was released on September 8, 2020.