Learning later in life

I am away next week, on an intensive French course in Québec City, so the next post will be April 4.
This is a thinly-disgised girlfriend getaway; I am going with my friend Alyson, and we intend to be good students not only of our second language, but of the culinary delights of this scenic old city.

So, I should not say "thinly! But we hope that walking back and forth to class will mitigate a few teatimes with macarons and a celebratory big dinner at Le Pied Bleu.

I am not worried about my waist, but I am worried about my brain, and therefore my ability to get the most out of the course. As I age, my thirst to learn is mitigated by noticeable and highly frustrating memory erosion. Oh, it goes in, and comprehension is fine—but retention is not what it once was.

When I read on Kindle, the pages do not show a header—so I responded to a recent inquiry about what I was reading by saying, "I have no idea but it is by Annie Proulx. " ("Barkskins"; I had to look at the title page.)

I get the 'click' I have always felt when a concept or pattern settles into my brain, except in several days, without continual repetition, my new nugget of grammar or vocabulary goes the way of the geometry theorems I learned in 8th grade: familiar, but not retrievable.

Alyson's wife does Brain Gym exercises to continue mental stimulation, and takes Great Books courses. I admire that; you have to do something, and just like physical exercise, if it's an activity you enjoy, you'll stick to it.

My current brain stimulation comes from those year-round classes, the choice of "harder books", and my annual July-August vacation from the Internet. During that time I make a particular effort to dig into long essays, explore genres and forms outside my usual, and spend more time in nature, usually on foot.

I already count the weeks toward my unplugging because I suspect the blurry barrage doesn't help my retention. Ross Douthat, in his op-ed piece, "Resist the Internet" says, "The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you... But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence—your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art—in a state of perpetual distraction."

Nor is the Internet a sterling way to learn, because it places a low demand on cognition, delivering the vast majority of its material as small, declarative chunks that require a low level of mental processing.

This spring and summer, I want to select some new stimulation. I am curious about what you do to use your brain, especially its abilities of recall.

I have found anxiety about retention of new information makes my memory even worse, and, like anyone who saw "Still Alice", wonder if this is the beginning of dementia. Sometimes I can laugh, such as the time when I stood before a salesperson searching for the word for the coat I wanted. I'd used it most of my life, but it had tiptoed off just over...there. (Duffle).

Here's a joke:

Three women meet for coffee. The first says, "I think I'm losing my memory. I was standing in my kitchen with a jar of peanut butter in my hand, and I couldn't for the life of me remember what I was going to do with it."

The second woman says, "Oh, me too! I was on my landing, looking out the window for just a few seconds, and then I couldn't recall if I had been going up or down."

The third says, "Well, nothing like that has happened to me yet, touch wood."

She raps her knuckles on the table, then says "Oh! There's the door! I'll get it."

See you on April 4; I won't forget!


You express my feelings about these matters exactly! If it's any comfort my girlfriends and I have been discussing the same type of incidents - there was one day when I couldn't for the life of me remember the word for "monitor"! I claim it's because our poor brains are so overloaded with information that it's simply taking us longer to retrieve it! :-)

I take a language class - I do try to read non-fiction and "more difficult" books (I've always been a reader) - try to take classes of interest such as cooking or knitting - just something that will focus my brain on something new. I also watch Jeopardy every evening - have done so since I was a child - and while I can still do well - I am noticeably slower at retrieving the info - it's often, "Just on the tip of my tongue".

My TV died back in October and I still haven't replaced it. I have my computer for the few network programs that I enjoy, have Netflix on my computer, and have found some truly wonderful programming on YouTube. I also give myself tech breaks, I have a classical music station playing during the day - which I have found to be very calming and I do not watch anything to do with the Kardashians! :-)

I have a membership to The Art Gallery and the Museum and I purchase cheap seat subscriptions to the theatre each year. I also try to attend events outside of my comfort zone - I've been to an evening of Harp Music at UofT and often attend their free evening talks. I have attended a performance by Opera Atelier and intend going to my first full length opera later this year. I take advantage of the historical walks offered during the good weather and attend as many free or low cost cultural events as the city and the Library system can offer.
I take as my mentor a friend of 80 who is one of the most engaged and engaging women I know - she is an example to everyone of how to enjoy each day and how to keep both the mind and body active. It's sometimes work, especially if we have health issues or money is tight in retirement - but it can be done and it's important that we all take the time to keep our minds as healthy as our bodies.

Enjoy your time away with friends and the challenge of the course!
LauraH said…
So true! I now find that it works best if I do a chore or retrieve an item as soon as I think of it or I won't remember later. If it means going up and down the stairs a few extra times, that's all to the good.

Reading has always been a great pleasure but I no longer try to absorb a lot of theoretical or abstract information, it just doesn't stick...it never has. I love history and biography and mysteries for light reading. I recently finished The Brain's Way of Healing by Norman Doidge - fascinating and inspiring. Right now I'm part way through The Judgment of Paris by Ross King. It's very enjoyable and I plan to read his other books.

Gardening has been the source of a lot of joy and mental activity over the past decade and it still is. There's so much to learn, it never stops. Anything from history to how to grow a new species to designing a new bed. Now I need to find something as engrossing for the winter months. Knitting seems to have faded for me right now. My membership to the ROM has lapsed and I won't renew right now, didn't get that much out of it. The AGO has some good shows and I'm trying to open my mind to different forms of art, not always successfully. I find the extra programming these places offer is expensive so I look for low cost or free. Over the past year I've tried opera - both live and streamed to a cineplex, which works surprisingly well. It hasn't turned out to be my cup of tea but I'm glad I tried. Next year I'll take some Parks and Rec courses - I want to find something that I love.

Oh, almost forgot. I believe that physical activity helps keep the brain going so I try for some every day.

Enjoy your sojourn in Quebec City.
materfamilias said…
Ha! That was a good way to start the morning -- just read that joke to P and we enjoyed the laugh. . .
Yes to all of this -- I used Oh-what's-his-name's book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains as a base for the last few 1st-year composition classes I taught before retirement (Nicholas Carr, I've just looked it up -- on the Internet!) along with Alan Jacobs' How to Read in an Age of Distraction --- the evidence is pretty compelling that neuroplasticity means we're "rewiring" ourselves away from the kind of memory we used to enjoy, as well as the ability to process long and complex arguments (which obviously doesn't bode well for political life). Not a good combo with ageing, and yet to opt out to much would likely condemn us to other problems of ageing, the perception that we choose not to be of our time, to stay in the disappearing past. Yours is a good compromise solution, although I haven't chosen it myself yet. Tempted but can't quite muster the will or even desire yet.

The course sounds like fun, especially with a girlfriend. I might ask for details later -- haven't been to QC for a long time, and that's an excellent reason for a visit. Enjoy!
Beth said…
Practicing and performing music is a major activity for me that is supposed to be excellent for those brain cells -- I hope so! I live in a bilingual (French/English) culture and during the past year have studied both Spanish and Italian online using Duolingo. Beyond that, I write and read and do art, and keep my fingers crossed that those occasional memory lapses are just overload!
I was a French major in college and then became a librarian. A few years later I switched from public to medical libraries and took courses in medical terminology. I noticed a big difference in my ability to quickly learn language at age 30 vs. age 21. Very humbling for a 30 year old.

Young brains pick up language so quickly. Look at preschoolers - they learn a new language in months. I worked in a university district Montessori preschool right after college. We had many foreign born children who spoke no English. Until a few months later when they would rush up in a panic and say "I have to go to the bathroom and the door is locked" in rapid fire English.

Older brains excel at judgement, wisdom and wit. And generativity if I properly remember Psychology 101.
Frugal Scholar said…
So many good ideas in the comments. I really wish I lived in a city --so many more cultural opportunities that I don't have (though the music is great).
emma said…
Good for you...You are my favourite blogger...
And now that I have turned 60, I find myself reaching for words at times. I used to be HYPER verbal! I also used to read several "difficult" books in a month. Now, I am constantly on the internet - albeit researching historical topics, using digitized newspapers etc., but now when I read a "difficult" book, it takes a lot of concentration. It's quite a difference from parsing these "hard" books in my Twenties...or Thirties...

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