My brain drain

As you read this, I’m writing an exam. I know this isn’t a big deal for most people, but it’s a very, very big deal for me: it’s about, oh, um, more years than I can count since I last wrote one, and you forget how to do it.

This one involves algebra, geometry, and arcane grammar laws. Thanks, I know you share my pain.The passage of time erodes your brain. But at what point does that become a problem?

I heard once that the language school at the Sorbonne in Paris is wary of accepting students over the age of 30, or somewhere around there, because their experience suggests 30’s when your ability to absorb a new language goes into decline. I was desolate. That seems very young to be past it.

Then a friend pointed out how much more fun it would be to turn one’s back on the classroom and instead learn French, ageing-Lolita-like, on the lap of Sebastian Chaval (or similar), and I immediately felt more cheerful. Those prissy ageist Sorbonne academics (who are probably all over 30 themselves) are welcome to one another.

I’ve never found out whether there really is a watershed for learning certain things (and of course that Sorbonne language thing might be a myth), but in absolute terms, science doesn’t notice your 30s coming and going. Middle-agers of the world, make yourselves a cup of tea and celebrate the news that the middle-aged brain is pretty elastic and supple: big thoughts live in the frontal and temporal lobes, and the white matter in those lobes peaks at – wait for this – around 45 or 50 (white matter is just as significant as the grey matter of the brain). I owe this information to a fascinating story on Health24 about the secret life of the brain – check it out for an indication of how your brain (and those of your children, and/or parents) rate.

The other thing I’m pleased to report is that the youngsters who’ve grown up on computers and calculators are, in fact, rather more plodding, intellectually speaking, than those of us who grew up in the good old days of reciting our times tables at school. So if you can tell me, without thinking, what 12 x 11 =, any sagginess you might have gained over the years is offset by a quicker mind.

Now if only I could tell you, without thinking, what, if x + y = 8z, the arithmetic mean is of x, y, and z, I’d be more confident about this exam...

Until next time, don’t forget the omega 3 (brain food).
(Heather Parker, Health24, September 2008)

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