Monday, 31 October 2011

Fading Faculties

When my father was still alive he confided in me that his biggest fear in life was losing his faculties: in other words, his intelligence and capacity for sound thinking and reasoning. To stave off that possibility, he continually invented new mental challenges for himself in his spare time, such as teaching himself Japanese - wrestling to form the intricate kanji characters in his exercise book at an age when other professors would be quite happy to sit on their laurels.

He never did lose his mental faculty until the day he died. As a matter of fact he was in the middle of teaching his class one morning when he suffered a stroke and passed away that same evening with very little fuss or preparation. The legacy that he left me was the belief that death is not the enemy, but the impending threat of a failing brain: a legacy that increases in relevance with the inexorable advancing of one’s years.

They say to stay mentally sharp it is important to keep one’s brains active throughout one’s life, particularly through mental exercises that give your grey matter something to chew on. I read that crosswords, puzzles, sudoku and other mental games have been scientifically proven to prevent memory loss and protect mental functioning.

With this in mind, lately I started conscientiously arming myself with a handful of brain fitness applications on my smart gadgets, downloaded all manner of IQ tests on the Internet and buying brain games and puzzle books designed to improve the brain’s function. While others splurge on dumbbells and fitness balls to workout their muscles, I was more interested in giving my brains a good workout with a series of mental exercises. After all, if you don’t use it, you lose it, right?

To motivate myself I recently even spent a pretty penny on a book that purports to be some sort of brain gym, working out the different parts of your brains to improve and strengthen the different mental functions such as focus, speed, attention and memory. ‘Targeting the six systems in your brain that do all of the really hard work - short and long-term memory, the ability to learn faster, mental math skills, memorization and planning skills - “Brain Games” will whip your brain back into shape in no time,’ the book says. I got my pencil and paper out.

I started on the first puzzle of the page which is to improve the brain’s ‘executive functions’ situated in the prefrontal lobe. The Executive Functions, the book says, perform the most uniquely human cognitive tasks that include ‘planning behaviour and control of instinctive responses to achieve goals set for the future. It also coordinates sophisticated physical movements such as those needed to speak words.’ Should be easy enough, I thought. So far I don’t have problems with either goal setting or speaking words.

The puzzle consists of some simple math symbols that I had to solve. According to the book it is best to start with the easy ones first and work your way up the ladder of difficulties. Chomping on a handful of dark chocolate covered blue berries (brain food) and downing cups of green tea (full of brain enhancing antioxidants) I embarked on solving the puzzle. There are 180 of these games and puzzles and the objective is to do one a day so that in three months ‘you’ll soon have the biggest, fastest, brainiest brain around.’

Four days later and after much chewing of the pencil and several salmon sashimi dinners (packed with brain friendly Omega 3) I finally managed to crack the puzzle. Perhaps I just needed to get the hang of the system, I thought to myself. I started on the second puzzle. That was three weeks ago. Until now I haven’t managed to solve it. Not only that I’m beginning to have serious doubts about the state not only of my prefrontal lobes, but my entire brain function. Am I losing it?

Science says that your brain begins to slow down when you get to your mid-twenties and continues to lose its capacity at the same rate every year until that time when you enter that ‘twilight’ zone of forgetfulness and mental incapacity; that fearful humiliating stage of lost faculties my father was always afraid of.

The book claims to help slow down that slowing down rate. In my case however, I am starting to question whether I ever had those six cognitive systems working to their peak performance to begin with and to possess enough of those ‘executive functions’ to lose in the first place. I racked my brains to remember if in my younger days I managed to solve The Rubik’s Cube or conquered one cryptic crossword puzzle, and found no such happy recollection.

What chances do I have now, with my brain capacity no doubt significantly diminished, of being able to complete a Sudoku or a puzzle in one sitting?

The Brain Games are supposed to whip your brain back into shape in no time, but I suppose in my case, my brain was never in shape to begin with, so any whipping would be like flogging a dead horse. The book now joins the fate of other objects such as the stationary bike and the cellulite massager: lying around filling the room but rarely touched. A testimony of hope over hopelessness.

(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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