Your Brain and . . . What Was That Other Thing?
IN OUR HOUSE THERE’S a lot of ongoing competition, which I freely admit to friends, but as one of them says with a laugh, “It’s rivalry just short of warfare.”
For no particular reason, Rob and I keep measuring each other, comparing what we do with what the other one does, as though there’s some Otherbeing out there keeping track—as though it’s Rob’s duty to keep that Otherbeing informed.
“You cheated on the Crossword, Babe. I gave you one of the answers, so it doesn’t count.”
“Doesn’t count for what?”
“You can’t claim you did it.”
“Do you see me claiming anywhere? Besides, you only helped with one clue.”
“Well, don’t say you finished, because you didn’t.”
I stare at him and shrug. Who would I say it to? We go on like that, both of us vying for the catbird seat. Who plays the better game of Sequence, who saves the most gas when he drives, who spends the fewest minutes looking for misplaced papers, who has the better memory.
Privately, I concede that Rob wins on memory. Except when he doesn’t. For a man who manages to outscore half the contestants on Jeopardy, it’s amazing how little he remembers of my various golden words . . . spoken aloud in the hope they won’t vanish forever.
But they vanish anyway. “Marital deafness,” he says, though my friends agree it’s Bad Memory. Or maybe a male thing, a testosterone-driven ability to tune in or tune out.
If she’s gorgeous, he definitely remembers her name and most of what she says.
Rob, in fact, reminds me of the husband of a close friend; she happens to be a charming television personality. Recently, after she’d introduced me to her husband, we wandered into another room and there she said with a smile, “He’s deaf in one ear and he doesn’t listen out of the other.”
After I stopped laughing, I said, “And that goes for my husband, too.”
SO TODAY, I’VE JUST come up to my office to get something. But now I can’t remember what on earth I came up for. The letter I just wrote? My class attendance record? Something I left on the floor?
Bugger it, I’m not going to remember, and there’s lots of stuff on the floor, but not THAT--whatever it was.
Anyway, I’m here now, so I might as well sit down and write. The item I needed will come rushing back to my brain fairly soon; the next time I go downstairs it’ll strike me, splat, like a bird-dropping on my head.
And that’s how our brains function after they’ve been serving us well for seventy years. They still work. But they’re like computers with too many open files.
Lucky for the world, I don’t work for the CIA. And you probably don’t either. I’m not a medical malpractice defense attorney (like my husband), or an airline pilot, so it doubtless doesn’t matter to anyone but me whether I remember the exact altitude of Denver, or how many bones are in the human wrist, or in which month it’s predicted that all the computers will fail in Cincinnati. (Or was it Columbus?)
In the meantime, a stuttering memory is merely a nuisance. We’re tired of hearing our kids say, before we’ve had a chance to ponder, “I didn’t expect you to remember, Mom,” or a friend grinning as he says, “I know perfectly well where I met you--but I’m having a Senior Moment.”
In fact, most of us would rather we never again hear the words Senior Moment.
Anyway, in my private estimation I’ve never been a Senior. I’m just a regular person with a few extra years under my belt. And that’s where most of them are. Under my belt.
SO WHAT, IF ANYTHING, CAN we do to re-ignite our brains? How do we keep them bright and functioning and ready to react at life’s most important moments?
For one thing, there’s a computer program called Posit Science, a brain-enhancing course for older adults, developed by numerous professors at the University of California San Francisco, at San Diego State University, and at the University of California San Diego. The program was evaluated and tested by MDs and PhDs at universities like Yale, Johns Hopkins, USC, and MIT.
Because the course was considered an experimental study, and thus offered free at the college where I teach, Rob and I decided to participate. As it turned out, the hours we spent there were so engaging and stimulating that we both took it twice.
The time commitment was huge—a total of 90 hours—which translated into four days a week for two-and-a-half hours each day, all in a ten-week session.
Posit Science is a memory-and-hearing course that works through stimulation of the auditory cortex. The designers believe that the memory, the whole brain in fact, of anyone who completes the study will end up being ten years younger—a benefit that does not disappear with time.
Ten years younger! Who wouldn’t sit in a chair for a year to end up with a memory on steroids.
Everything depends on the student working in front of a computer screen for the requisite hours and listening hard as he reacts to information that comes to him through headphones.
If the following proves to be Too Much Information, feel free to skip it and go to the conclusion.
Among the six exercises (fifteen minutes each), is the one called High-Low, where you decide whether a succession of little bird-like chirps go up or down. With time they’re played ever faster, making them harder to distinguish.
Then there is Story Teller, which is exactly that--a goofy story told quickly and in various voices, with the listener striving to recall minor details. The people with good memories love it.
In the exercise labeled Match It, the listener tries to remember and pair together--then eliminate--matching sounds hidden under a grid . . . made easier if you develop sneaky little systems. (Which I did.) As you work, the grid gets ever smaller, turning the end into a real “Ah ha!”
Tell us Apart means distinguishing words, like “doe” and “toe,” that sound nearly alike, but aren’t. At first you think your hearing is marvelously acute and this exercise is dead easy. But as the semester progresses the computer-enhanced voice slurs the words so badly you’d swear the designers of the exercise are cheating. There IS no difference, you decide, and what can you do but guess? And it’s a pain to guess wrong. Nobody likes this one much.
Sound Replay requires the listener to repeat back a series of sound-alike words—in the same order they were presented. Some of us couldn’t remember anything past four-in-a-row.
Finally, Listen and Do means following an ever-longer set of instructions to move little people, like doctors and postmen, around on the screen. You send them from the gift store to the barbershop, to the library, to the ice cream parlor. Rob and I both loved this one.
Altogether, it’s very hard work, and while some exercises are less enjoyable than others, none are boring, and the time literally evaporates.
The changes in our fellow students were miraculous. Shy seniors became bolder, people slept better, some claimed they drove with keener attention to the road, many reported they were less apt to lose their keys, more inclined to remember why they went to another room in the house.
Rob and I both felt energized, re-vitalized, if nothing else. We loved both the course and our teacher, and found ourselves pushing other distractions out of the way. We’re both so competitive, neither of us wanted to miss a day. Yet the competition was never against anyone else, it was only us competing with ourselves.
On the way home we always compared notes. “I didn’t miss a thing in Story Telling,” he said.
“And I was a whiz at Match It.”
“But how about Sound Replay? I couldn’t tell one word from another. “Gee” versus “Kee.” Give me a break.”
“And today I couldn’t remember more than four of those sound-alike words in a row. When we got up to five, I was dead. Dig. Bib. Pig. Fig. Rib. I couldn’t make a story out of it, like the pig is digging with the rib, so I stopped caring.”
The designers of Posit Science included lessons about other ways to keep older brains young, leaving us with a paper titled, USE IT SO YOU DON’T LOSE IT.
Here, developed by neuroscientists (and stolen--then paraphrased--by me) are their key points:
Choose activities that A. Are challenging. B. Teach you something new. C. Get Progressively Harder. D. “Engage your Great Brain Processing Systems”—hearing, seeing, and feeling. E. Are Rewarding. F. Are Novel or Surprising.
Among the activities they suggest are: learning to cha cha, improving your Spanish, taking up juggling . . . all pursuits, they claim, that challenge the brain and get progressively harder.
Our teacher, much-liked Lynda Gunderson, also suggested that we try brushing our teeth with the left--or minor--hand (I still do it.). . . that we choose ever more challenging crossword puzzles . . . that we try memorizing the names of all the people in a new group. To demonstrate, on the second day she amazed us by calling out the first names of all twenty-seven students in our class.
More than once Lynda noted that we could google “Brain Games” and find other brain-challenging programs on the Internet. With a smile she added, “I’ve played quite a few of them. They’re always fun. And some are free.”
My own suggestion: that we make it a point to listen. And listen intently. Like the two husbands mentioned here—like me, of course—right in the middle of something, our attention drifts off. And there goes the old recall.
Near the end of the first brain class I tried an experiment. The next time I gave a writing seminar at Leisure World, I forced myself to pay close attention and remember every name around the table—seventeen names in all.
Somehow I did it. (But God help me if any of them had moved.)
AND NOW THE CAPPER to our story. During our sessions in the two brain classes, Rob and I met and became friendly with a number of new people, some of whom I encouraged to join my writing class.
The following semester, on another floor of the school, a new student came up to talk to me. Darn, you look familiar, I thought, though I had no idea where I’d last seen her.
“I’m Barbara,” she said.
“You know, Barbara Simmons.”
I’d never heard of a Barbara Simmons—as she knew all too well from the strained expression on my face.
“You know,” she prodded. “Barbara Simmons. From the brain class.”
“Oh. BARBARA! Of course! How could I forget?” (Actually, I’d never heard her last name.) “Barbara! How nice that you’re here.”
After she sat down, I thought my students might be amused by the story—how I’d managed to forget where I knew this new student from one of my brain classes.
My students were amused, all right.
And then, from the back of the room, Barbara piped up and said casually, “Actually, I was in both your brain classes.”
It was ten minutes before my students stopped laughing.