I read an article in The Independent in Saturday entitled Life ends at 45…Study reveals when our mental powers start to diminish. Oh noes! I am 68 – 23 years too late to rectify anything and I didn’t even know it! Sob.
I have always thought that if you keep learning new things, take an interest in current affairs, try out new skills and stay active and, of course, have an hereditary disposition that appears to advance mental marbles, then you should be okay. You know, increase the mental pabulum index. Sudoku was out, so was bridge, chess was okay but go was no go for me.
In my early 40s I went back to main stream employment and entered the arcane world of superannuation accounting. This was a new and complicated (wouldn’t you know it) section of accounting for employer funded pensions and/or lump sums for employees’ retirement. The best bit and the worst was the way the regulations kept changing and were defined by the time the particular regulation was passed in the legislature. So it was a minefield.
It was like the bloody Taxation Act. More and more little regulations were tacked onto the main legislation and had to be treated differently depending on promulgated timing. You needed a degree to deal with this stuff! Instead my employer sent me to numerous seminars and I collected a loft full of folders relating to changes, changes and more changes.
However, it did more than increase my coffee and alcohol intake. It made me think and allocate, absorb and apply different rules at different times to different clients’ needs. I learnt some good nous.
The other thing that happened, though it was later, was that I went into business for myself. I didn’t get excited by this because I quickly realised that no one is really in business for himself. All that it actually means is that you end up with many more bosses than you would ideally like and much less time for yourself.
Years later in my 60s as I was winding down from a working life, I became interested in chemistry. This became important to me because the 20thanniversary of Chernobyl was imminent and I realised I knew zilch, zip and nada about chemistry and especially radioactivity. And there was a lot of guff in the papers that set what Carl Sagan calls the baloney detection antennae wiggling.
So I sighed and settled down to learn the totally new language of chemistry. I had no coat hangers in my head on which I could drape my new knowledge. Those hangers had to be built from scratch. Wikipedia had an article on the Periodic Table of Elements with an interactive table. It is terrific and led me in my new found interest in chemistry and the radioactive nature of different elements.
My brother’s comment:
‘Applying your brain to learning things that you don’t know creates more synapses between your brain cells and their dendrites and in learning new stuff you are keeping your brain active. Theoretically this can stave off age related dementia. ’
Age related dementia! Wow I felt better, because I had never been drawn to bingo.
Chemistry was so solitary a study in my little house. And then, wouldn’t you know, physics poked its bloody head up saying – and what about me? I have developed the best long-suffering sighing reflex ever!
But I did come across some wonderful people. Lawrence Krauss – he is known as a theoretical physicist but has taught me a lot about physics, Star Trek and the Universe from Nothing. Between him and Brian Cox I know more about cosmology than previously. Sagan is good and Stenger. I mean, there are so many knowledgeable and personable people in the popular science network that no one really has any excuse to not know things.
Back to brain power. According to the Independent article, we had been fooled by earlier research into thinking that our brains did not begin to decline until the age of 60. So I was a little late with the Periodic Table.
I did rationalise that in my 40s I had risen to the challenge of learning and understanding the ridiculous regulations that had been imposed on accountants so I was sweet.
I have now noticed that I tend to forget what I went out of the room to do so I have to come back into the room and start again! I lose the names of common objects and expressions; I don’t even try to remember phone numbers though I seem to have retained a recognition factor that intimates a memory of sorts. I always had a good memory for numbers and pattern recognition. I don’t recall quotable quotes as well as I would like and I can’t deliver memorable literary speeches as easily as I once could.
The hunter gatherer is complaining about similar things. He has (had) the most remarkable music memory that could recall music after a single listening. Now it takes 3 or 4 times to get it into his brain. He had an eidetic memory as well that could recall written pages intact in detail. It irritates him that this is going. I can understand that.
I remember a paper written in 1956 called ‘The Magical Number Seven’ by George Miller. Its postulate was that humans could hold in working memory 7 pieces of information well enough but that anything over seven was problematic. It is an extraordinary paper and one that has stayed with me all these years. Look at the wiki article to see recent updates.
One of my psych lecturers, John Ross, proved to us that planned, organised mnemonics could develop a set of about 35 (I think) ordered pieces of information. It was an eye opener for me. I had never thought of that sort of map making. Ross and a student mapped the main university layout. I couldn’t help but be impressed. I never really mastered mnemonics though; not as a proper aide-mémoire.
We don’t seem to maximise those parts of our brains that are able to develop patterns, although we are most definitely pattern making primates. My hunter gatherer seems able to tweak the music patterns in his brain that flower into a bass baritone rendition of virtually any aria that he has ever heard.I wish I had that facility. I haven’t, but I do have the capacity, interest and diligence to learn new things to the level that my interest demands.
I hope I keep my marbles. Don’t we all hope the same.