I have of late been attracted to mind games –not, you understand, the one-upmanship power struggles that are reputed to go on in corporate businesses, nor even the more hurtful kind that used to happen in high school classes, usually initiated by those who sat in the front seats. No, I refer, rather, to the surfeit of programs available online that purport to improve cognitive function –or perhaps at least to preserve it- in the ageing brain.
There was a time when the idea seemed gimmicky –a superficially tenable effort to divert pension funds into other, younger pockets. Even I (yes) was a hopeful initiate during my presenescent days and religiously attempted some of the tasks presented until I realized that my scores were not improving. So I stopped -on the theory that the evil I don’t know is probably easier to live with than the one I do…
And yet curiosity, no doubt mingled with an overflowing cup of guilt, ensured that I continued to dabble on occasion -for fun of course, and on the proviso that if I didn’t perform well, it was obviously because I wasn’t taking it seriously. And, still, it didn’t seem to improve my ability to solve the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles.
But I do keep my toe in the water, so to speak, and on a recent, albeit random, perusal of archival BBC News articles, I came across one that seemed to suggest that I should have been more careful in what I discarded. More sedulous, if I may borrow one of the rather problematic words from the Times’ puzzles: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34701907
Perhaps I expect too much of people, or maybe they just don’t read the same BBC articles as me, but by now I would have thought that I would have noticed a change afoot. No longer, should I have seen those uncomfortable seats in the suburban malls crowded with pensioners grimacing intently at their over-folded and crumpled newspapers trying to solve the day’s crossword puzzle, or glancing covertly at their neighbour’s Sudoku columns. There should have been a profligate display of tablets or laptops and the sound of gnarled fingers scraping their answers on a thousand screens. But, alas, I suspect that they, like me, were too busy using their older, well-worn neural pathways instead of garnering new ones.
Of course some of us are confronted with new realities on a daily basis. Sharon was a new reality, although at first glance, there seemed nothing amiss. An older woman, she sat quietly in the waiting room, neither glancing nervously around her at the confusion of other patients, nor pretending to be absorbed in one of the out-of-date magazines that somehow surface, unsubscribed, in every office. Rather, she sat staring out of the window, serenely confident in her persona as a silver-haired, matron, largely immune to the vagaries and vicissitudes that plague the rest of us as we shuffle through our mortal coils (sorry Hamlet).
I have to admit that I was intrigued by the tranquillity that persisted even in my office. And the sharpness; she didn’t miss a thing I did.
“I see you have performance anxiety,” she said, staring at my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop.
I managed an embarrassed smile and put my fingers down on the desk. “How do you mean?” I stuttered through a particularly deep and noticeable blush.
She blinked mischievously. “You keep hitting the ‘caps-lock key’ instead of the ‘shift key’.
“And you hit the ‘z’ instead of the ‘x’ once.”
I sat back in my chair –I didn’t know what else to do at that point. “You notice things, don’t you?”
The smile she produced almost cracked her already wrinkled face. “You have to keep alert at my age, young man…” Another mischievous expression surfaced –this one in her eyes. She knew only a matriarch would dare to call her newly-met specialist ‘young man’, and she revelled in it. “For example, that man holding the baby in the black and white photograph hanging on the wall behind me is not smiling…” I moved my head slightly so I could look at the man. I had put it up to make the point that men also love little babies, but I have to say I couldn’t remember whether or not he’d been smiling. “He needs to change the diapers, but the photographer probably didn’t notice. Or care…” She said this with a raised eyebrow.
“That’s impressive, Sharon…” But as soon as I said it, I realized the statement was ageist. Patronizing. Like saying ‘How could a person of your age be that aware?’
She smiled, but carefully this time –as if she suspected a trap was being laid. “Do I hear an un-vocalized ‘but’ in that sentence?”
I blushed again. “Not at all… But I was wondering how you do it…” My blush deepened as the ‘but’-word tumbled unexpectedly from my mouth.
“Mind games,” she said simply, and shrugged as if I should have known that.
I was puzzled at her reply. “You mean you are trying for…” I searched for an appropriate, yet polite word for one-upmanship.
She chuckled and reached out for my hand before I could finish my thought. “Dominance? Heavens no. I mean those brain programs you download on your computer to freshen up the mind.” She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment as if she were searching for something inside her head. “Maybe it’s just the one I bought, but it seems to train you to look for patterns and discrepancies and even remember things… When they are presented to you as problems, at least…” It didn’t really seem like a whole-hearted endorsement. She sounded as if the program had missed something important.
In the silence that followed, I felt I had to say something; and I was beginning to wonder if the program would help me. I’d love to be able to glance at a picture and know if a baby needed changing. “I may look into that, Sharon,” I said, although somewhat lamely I think. So I tried it again: “Do you think it has made a big difference in your mental performance?”
She shrugged. “I suppose so… I mean I’m beginning to get better scores on the performance evaluations, at any rate…”
“You seem a little hesitant to recommend it, if I may say.”
She smiled and a little sigh escaped before she could prevent it.”Damning with faint praise?” A tiny shrug followed. “If you need to know how to recognize a Ford from a Toyota driving by, it’s great. If you need to know whether one alarm clock stayed ringing longer than another alarm clock –or a lamp, for that matter- by all means, download the program…”
“But…?” She was clearly unhappy with the results.
“But I still forget why I went to the fridge, or where I put my keys.” She looked out of the window behind me for a moment. “And I still remember things I would rather forget…”
I was immediately reminded of Macbeth as he talks to his doctor while preparing for battle:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Perhaps there are reasons a mind should grow old; and maybe what we really need is a program that helps us to remember mainly the good things. I’m going to wait for that one.