Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Training my brain

A recent article on adult learning in The New York Times made the following statement:
"Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted."

I was certainly distracted by that statement. If middle age now stretches all the way to the late 60s, then I feel positively young!

Young as I may be though, I have to admit to some of the problems that are delineated by the article. Yes, I'm familiar with the experience of reading a book and then six months later being able to remember very little about it. Same thing with movies I've seen - even movies that I've liked. And then, of course, there are people. Specifically, people's names. I like to think that I never forget a face - but names? Fuhgeddaboutit. I usually do.

So what's a young person like myself to do? How can I prevent my brain from ossifying and teach it to be more nimble? There's actually some good news in the article.

Contrary to stereotype, the aging brain can and does continue to learn and develop, scientists have proven. One of the problems of the aging brain may simply be that there are so many folds in our neurons, developed over the years, that information has a difficult time finding its way through them to the tips of our brain where we can access it. I'm sure it has never happened to you, but how many times have I had the experience of being unable to recall a word or a name of a person and if I continue to try to remember, the lost fact just becomes more elusive. But later, sometimes hours later and often in the middle of the night, it will come to me, having finally made its convoluted way through all those synapses and into my consciousness.

The answer, then, to "what can I do?" seems inordinately simple: Use it or lose it. We are urged to treat the brain like a muscle. Give it exercise. Occasionally give it something new to contemplate. Don't just always do the same old things in the same old ways. Giving it a chance to bump up against new ideas is what keeps it - and us - young.

After reading this article, I had my resolution for the new year. I hereby resolve to give my brain something new and different to chew on each month. After all, I want to stretch out those "middle age" years just as long as I possibly can.

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