For much of my adult life I have read popular science books--books written for lay people by smarty-pants scientists. And by lay people, I mean English majors, history majors, philosophy majors--those of us who struggled through high school science classes and avoided them in college. Stephen Hawking may have thought he was explaining physics to the likes of me in A Brief History of Time, but it wasn't "lay" enough for me. I found that although I understood most of the individual words, they didn't add up to anything that I could understand.
And I tried twice.
So, I appreciate a book like Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain by David Eagleman, which I read last December.* Eagleman is a smarty-pants neuroscientist, and Livewired is a book about brain plasticity. Here is some of what the book jacket says about it: "The magic of the brain is not found in the parts its made of but in the way those parts increasingly reweave themselves in an electric, living fabric." It is a fascinating book, that describes in great, and very readable, detail, the ways in which our brains reshape themselves, make up for deficits, and perform all kinds of tricks through interacting with the world. And if I could read it, so can you.
That said, I don't intend this post to be a review of, of plug for, Eagleman's book. You can find plenty of those on line.** Instead, I just want to give it credit as the jumping-off point for my looking into ways to keep my aging brain nimble. Yes, we've all read that doing crossword puzzles is good for our brains. But I do these regularly, so the returns are diminishing. The idea, as I understand it, is to learn something new, and in this way, update the brain's wiring.
So soon after reading Livewired, I decided to learn something that, if not entirely new, is at least newish.for me As I recounted in my last post, I attended a bilingual (English/Spanish) secretarial school in my extreme youth. This was preceded by four years of high-school Spanish. All of which added up to, if not fluency, at least a decent mastery of the language.
Then, because I was young and foolish, instead taking more Spanish classes in college, I tested out of the language requirement and let my language skills lapse. Sigh - why can't our older selves whisper in the ears of our younger selves?
This lapse continued until 1980, when I, for reasons not clear to me then or now (I am not particularly adventurous), decided to spend a month at a language school in Antigua, Guatemala. This was a very inexpensive program that involved living with a local family and taking one-on-one lessons with a native speaker each morning. The conditions were somewhat primitive. It was an adventure. I learned a great deal and many of my skills came back.
I'll bet you can guess what happened next. Yep, because life intervened and future me was still not whispering in my ear, I let my Spanish lapse once again.
Fast forward 40 years, and I am seeing ads for Duolingo--an online language learning program--on Instagram. I remember that my friend Linda has been using the program and check in with her. She likes it. She thinks it works. She hasn't missed a day in over a year.
I decide to give it a try. Maybe it will jump-start my brain. It works pretty well. The program is designed to build vocabulary and verb-conjugating skills over time, using repetition and a kind-of-fun feedback loop.
And here's how it keeps you coming back -- daily email reminders, prodding you not to lose your streak of continuous days with the program. Also, Linda and another friend have not broken their streaks, so, I must, of course, not break mine.
This is good. Until it is not. I keep my streak for over 100 days, and then, during a very busy week, it occurs me that it is ok to lose the streak. I don't have to compete with my friends. No-one, except Duolingo, is keeping score.
Since I let that streak go, I have started another, and because I don't feel I have to engage every day, I am, in fact, engaging every day. What do you make of that, David Eagleman? Also, Linda, who--unlike me--reads directions, has advised me that I don't have to reach my "daily goal" to get credit for a day; I just have to do one lesson, which takes no time at all.
So, some days I do a lot and some days I do a little, but the net result, or so I tell myself, is new brain connections. Much is coming back to me and much is new. There were, after all, neither computadores (computers) nor celulares (cell phones) 40 years ago.
And it's fun to experience the return of words I thought were lost forever. As I go through the lessons, I picture words crawling out of dusty file cabinets in my brain and taking an accessible place in a shiny new file cabinet. It's fun to find myself occasionally thinking in Spanish. I've even started listening to podcasts in Spanish to see if I can gain enough confidence to join a conversation group.
Of course, even as Spanish words come back, I'm losing English words. There is only so much one can expect of a fading brain. Yesterday, my husband was searching for a word, and, after I found it for him, I promised, "I'll be your external hard drive, if you'll be mine." (I think there are the makings of a country song here. Perhaps one of you can take on the project as a way of jump-starting your brain.)
Perhaps it would be a good goal for all of us of a certain age to act as hard external hard drives for one another and to take on tasks that will keep our brains flexible for a good while to come.
Let's do it.
And now, I must away to complete a Spanish lesson . . .
* How do I know I read it last December? See this post, in which I describe my obsessive list-making.
** There is much more to Eagleman's book than I have suggested here, including some to-me alarming descriptions of how our brains will soon interface with artificial intelligence. Eagleman, who is quite gleeful about these coming changes, gives short shrift to how such interface might negatively impact our lives.