Stretching the brain's waves to keep it fit
Editor's note: Robert Faber writes occasional columns for AnnArbor.com about aging, politics and other issues.
It is a well-known fact that physical exercise is one of the more valuable, more stimulating activities to be inflicted upon Man. Midday naps are good and eating between meals isn’t bad, but they cannot hold a candle — or a calorie — to lifting and stretching in order to build a body trim and a stomach flat. There is nothing quite like a physique shaped by the continuing flow of exercise weights lifted and body-weight dropped.
But that does little for the waves of the brain. The boredom of the treadmill can stimulate the heart and dumbing down with dumbbells can beef up the biceps, but that leaves the resident neurons of the brain just lying around with nothing to do beyond listening to music and watching television and growing ever fatter and more lax.
Exercising the brain involves less obvious manipulation of that organ than does a workout on the more visible parts of the body, but maneuvering the mind by weighing words, revising thoughts, and occasionally reversing direction does have a highly beneficial impact on its efficiency and well-being.
Challenging old ideas and considering new directions and redesigning old thoughts to reflect new approaches and analyses stimulates the brain in ways that protects and expands its function to the benefit of its host body. Such mental activity invigorates the brain cells in much the same way that physical exercise trims the body fat.
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Unlike physical exercise, active thought causes no sweat and need not provoke the pain of strain, but it can significantly change the way the eye sees and the mind examines. In short, in order to stay strong and healthy in attitude and outlook, the mind needs exercise in much the same way as do the muscles of the body. And that is one of the seriously overlooked requirements of seniorhood.
Surviving the earlier stages of life and transitioning into the next had required some degree of planning and perseverance, but now — comfortable in what Aesop describes as the seventh and last stage of life — we need no longer struggle. Simply moving on comes naturally and easily.
We’ve grown into that wonderful period of self-indulgence, that plateau of life in which we need not concentrate on being productive, responsible adults. We need answer to nobody but ourselves.
Which sounds very inviting, but answering to nobody but ourselves still requires that we answer. Just closing our eyes and shutting down, ignoring the state of the world, or the problems of our society, or the needs of our fellows will not do it. For very personal, selfish reasons — even aside from moral obligations — we must participate, in the affairs of our community or in our much smaller artificial world of hobbies and personal pastimes. Our body needs its mind, and our mind needs its activities.
The largest field of opportunities for mental expansion lies in literature’s broad range of challenges. Reading can be among the most satisfying, stimulating mental activities available to all seniors, regardless of background or intellectual skills or interests. Whether the subject is the founding of our nation or the obscurities of ancient history seen through the eyes of Thucydides, or finding favor in the fables of Aesop or tingling with the titillation of paperback novels, the stimulation of reading and reacting and remembering is as beneficial as it is pleasurable.
Or join with a friend in similar need of mental stimulation and learn to play chess or bridge or other such competitive intellectual games. Whether you win or lose each subsequent contest, you will have gained immensely from the pleasure and the competition. And even for ancient octogenarians (pardon the personal), learning such new skills as playing a musical instrument, or managing such productive hobbies as woodworking, or painting, or sewing and knitting can provide valuable and fulfilling alternatives to the dangers of quiet self-absorption.
Several years ago, visiting the home of a young relative, I stumbled upon a group of senior men (guests of his father) who had gathered in his house for their monthly meeting. They had all retired after many years of routines that had occupied all their time and thought and energy. With little to do, little left to challenge their mind or occupy their time and feeling superfluous, they joined a cooking class. A cake baking class.
When I walked in they were showing off the current monthly results of their newly acquired expertise — a collection of the most beautiful, ornate and delicious cakes I have yet come across.
But the quality of the product is not the point — it was the immense pleasure and satisfaction that accompanied their accomplishment that was the victory.
In short, what and how well the challenges are met are of little consequence. It is the stimulation of challenge and growth — possibly enriched by some small degree of success — that is the golden ring on the merry-go-round of age that rewards us all.
Bob Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.