Exercising A Middle Aged Brain

[This blog post is dedicated to Mr. Collins, my Grade 10 EDSS English Teacher, with thanks.]

High School

It was routine for me to be juggling six books at any given time when I was in high school.   Several would be sandwiched between my school books, so if I had a few minutes between classes I could open any of them and know exactly where I was in the narrative.   This was the reading equivalent of cat naps, cat reading allowed me to read a lot.   Even better — I retained what I read.


Mr. Collins reprinted from the yearbookIn the tenth grade I had a terrible English teacher who also happened to be a great guy.

Maybe Mr. Collins wasn’t really a terrible teacher, maybe it’s just that Grade 10 English was exceptionally awful for me since it was an entire year of grammar. (It sure seemed that way!)

Naturally I loved the Grade 9 teacher who only gave us three days of grammar.   But then, Grade 10 English might not have been so bad if I’d had the grade 9 foundation of grammar necessary to handle the tenth grade curriculum.   Even worse, I had absolutely no motivation to learn the rules of grammar.   What was the point?   Because I was a reader I was capable of intuitively following the rules of English grammar in much the same way people drive cars without having a clue how internal combustion engines work.  

I thought grammar was a terrible waste of English class time… we might have been reading all the great classics — but instead we were learning about dangling participles.   To this day I don’t know what a dangling participle is, and what’s more I don’t care. But the curriculum said we had to learn it.

Hmmm…. maybe Mr. Collins was actually a very good English teacher.   Mr. Collins helped me to not fail tenth grade English. (It was really close.)   Somehow Mr. Collins convinced me to try.

Part of the curriculum was having to memorize poetry.   I simply did not want to waste the time and brain cells memorizing poetry I didn’t like.   This is another example of where Mr. Collins proved to be a great guy; instead of forcing me to clutter up my head with poetry I did not like, he allowed me to memorize poetry I DID like.   I will be forever grateful for that… particularly since it is still stored safely in my memory to this day….

Close up of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn from Lord of the Rings movie poster
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy Lord of the Rings

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not touched by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the darkness shall spring
Renewed shall be the blade
                                         that was broken
The crownless again shall be king”

–J.R.R. Tolkien
Lord of the Rings

I have NOT checked the text so a word or two may have drifted or otherwise altered in my memory since I first memorized Lord of the Rings poetry for English classes more than 30 years ago, but just typing it out now I still get shivers.  

Another time my friend Carole and I each took over a wall of blackboard and held an impromptu longest run-on-sentence competition.   Can’t remember who won, just that it was fun.   Not too many teachers would have been cool enough to let us go nuts all over his blackboards.

Thanks Mr. C.


My mind was abuzz with all the new ideas and attitudes I was being exposed to in the wider world, I was lucky to find the time to read six recreational books a year.   Thinking, feeling, experiencing, pushing the envelope.   Lots of exercise for a young brain.

Working Girl

When working as an assistant story editor in the Hot Shots story department my brain did the job that IMDB does now… I could rhyme off the plots and credits from pretty much every movie or TV show I’d ever seen.   I accepted this ability to be able to remember and retrieve the necessary information as needed as natural.   I even started memorizing frequently needed work phone numbers.

I thought there was no end to it.

Brain Full

Until the day I moved and simply could not remember my own new phone number.

Jello Brain

Suddenly it became clear that my memory storage capacity was not infinite.   My brain was full.

I would get annoyed when I couldn’t recall things that I thought I should be able to remember.   My husband would laugh when I’d come back from shopping without the specific item I’d gone to get. He said my memory had just become more like a normal person’s memory. (Well, his.)   His point was that I used to have a better than average memory. This did not make it any less frustrating however.

confessions of a middle aged brain

It’s taken time for me to come to come to accept my aging memory functions, my brain falls within the “middle age” parameters.

“The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture.   If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.”

Barbara Strauch, New York Times Article:
How to Train the Aging Brain

Barbara Strauch’s New York Times article is an interesting look at how older brains learn.   They don’t simply fall into disarray as was previously thought.   And although it can take longer, middle aged brains can in fact learn new tricks.

mental calisthenics

Several years back I bought some one inch ceramic letters on magnets to spell out our names.   It became a family game because whenever we’d have a chance we’d rearrange the letters into different words, so part of our fridge looked like a crossword puzzle or a scrabble board.

It was’t just fun, I could actually feel my brain working to come up with a better configuration of words or letters.   It got so that we all knew the possible words we could make, so it stopped being as much fun. The craft store I’d bought the letters from had closed down, so it was a while before I was able to increase our letter stash.

scrabble like arrangement of letters magnetized to refrigerator
The “HOUSE” theme on our fridge

Eventually I found another source of letters so we were able to expanded our alphabet so that we could create themed crosswords.   This enables the use of large words (like “diagnostician”) and we try to follow whatever theme emerges.   As the letters get used up eventually the idea simplifies, and the new objective is to use up all the letters.   I love this because it feels like calisthenics for the brain.

mock-up of cover art to promote public domain
Digital imaging to promote Project Gutenberg

A few years ago I plunged into the computer pool, learning to use Photoshop for digital photo restoration and then progressing into digital manipulation.   From a practical standpoint there is good and bad in that, since I am at the point where just about every photograph can be fixed.

The “bad part” being that just about every photograph can be fixed…. so I could spend the rest of my life fixing the photos I’ve already taken.

In some ways, digital imaging is similar to other creative work I’ve done in the past.   At the same time, there was an awful lot to learn that wasn’t.   Quite a bit of mental stretching necessary.   The new “middle age” brain research indicates that those of us with middle age brains can in fact learn new tricks, and in particular we do better by challenging our perceptions.

It seems I’ve been doing that inadvertently, learning how to code XHTML.   Without the awesome free HTML Dog online tutorials I doubt I’d have ever been able to get anywhere.   Although I bought Patrick Griffiths’ HTML Dog book for reference it was the online tutorials which actually helped me master this. Never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought I could manage the technical stuff of web page design. Still, it boggles my middle aged mind that I can read source code.

Then of course I’ve found myself drawn into the Usage Based Billing issue, which naturally led into the net neutrality issue, which in turn led to the copyright issue.

Copyright "c"The copyright issue was a particular challenge.   As a writer I wanted to participate in the Canadian government’s copyright consultation process.   Writing my copycon submission forced me to really think about it, sifting through the new ideas that turned the old way of thinking on its head.   Just as the article discusses, copyright challenged my established brain connections.

“The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. ”

Barbara Strauch, New York Times Article
How to Train the Aging Brain

One of the reasons that Barbara Strauch’s article resonates with me personally is that it has helped me to understand what in many ways had seemed like magic more than logic.   It’s good to know that my copyright theories aren’t in fact the product of some magical alchemy.

My middle aged brain was able to assimilate many ideas proposed by others, assess policies and practices relating to copyright I’ve seen in my lifetime and combine this all with my own personal life experience to arrive at some startling conclusions.   Certainly I would never have come to any of these radical conclusions in my youth back in the day.   The world has changed and my middle aged brain has allowed me to step back and look at the big picture with startling clarity.

The science discussed in the article indicates that the divergences I’ve taken away from “normal” are probably why my brain feels much more agile than it has in years.   It is because I have been pushing my middle aged brain to learn and do such different things that allows it to continue its life long job of learning so that I can continue to learn and do such different things.

Who’d have thought.

[note: I read the New York Times article thanks to a sandynunn re-tweet. Thanks Sandy.]


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