Surely you know of Oliver Sacks, the Columbia University professor of neurology and psychiatry. You may have read one or more of his books recounting case studies of people he has treated with, usually, rare brain disorders. Books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices and The Island of the Color Blind.
Or perhaps you saw the movie, Awakenings, based on his book of that title.
Earlier this month, The New York Times published an essay from Dr. Sacks about how our brains are almost miraculous in their ability to stretch, adapt, overcome injury, retrain themselves and perform feats we could not imagine before.
He relates the story of a woman who, due to sudden and complete paralysis caused by a spinal cord infection, particularly missed small pleasures like the daily crossword puzzle. She asked for a newspaper so she could at least read the clues.
”When she did this, something extraordinary happened,” says Sacks. “As she looked at the clues, the answers seemed to write themselves in their spaces.
“Her visual memory strengthened over the next few weeks, until she found that she was able to hold the entire crossword and its clues in her mind after a single, intense inspection — and then solve it mentally. She had had no idea, she later told me, that such powers were available to her.”
I'm making a leap here, but perhaps it is because of his own age, 77, that much of this essay addresses the remarkable plasticity of elder brains:
”[N]euroscientists now know that the brain does not stop growing, even in our later years,” writes Sacks. “Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated.”
We have discussed here in the past the irritation of deteriorating short-term memory as we get older. Mine has become so close to non-existent that I can forget a thought or intention within a second or two and have it return only when it's too late.
Simple example: I went to the bathroom to collect towels to wash, decided to empty the waste basket first (so I wouldn't forget) and didn't remember the towels until I was folding the laundry. Grrr. I could relate dozens of variations on this theme.
A while ago (I forget how long), I wondered if it is possible to regain at least some short-term memory function with brain rewiring. Obviously, something different needed to be tried, so to that end, when I make a mental note now I ask myself, “Are you going to remember this?”
Oddly, I recall that intention most of the time; it's become habit to follow any mental note with the question. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't – but I am most successful when I ask the question aloud and my short-term memory seems to be improving a bit.
Now I've added saying the intention aloud too so if you were a fly on the wall around my place, you would hear, “Get the towels for the laundry. Are you going to remember this?” or something similar several times a day.
(New thought just now: Could something like this be the genesis of the stereotype that old people talk to themselves?)
Compared to serious brain disorders Dr. Sacks treats, this is a small experiment with a common elder difficulty. But it's not small to me; it is the single most irritating thing about being old.
Dr. Sacks writes that some areas of the brain,
...especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions — can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older.
I'm giving it a try to see if I can improve my short-term memory even if I have to keep talking to myself. I've also cut down distractions. I no longer allow television news to play in the background and I turn off my email program so it doesn't ding at me when I'm writing for TGB. I think that helps too.Dr. Sacks again:
”Whether it is by learning a new language, traveling to a new place, developing a passion for beekeeping or simply thinking about an old problem in a new way, all of us can find ways to stimulate our brains to grow, in the coming year and those to follow." [emphasis added]
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ian Rudick: The Future of Healthcare