Give the Mind Equal Training
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When Eric Hoffer was 70, he began a journal. Hoffer was alarmed by what he perceived as a loss of his mental functions. So he decided to make a daily entry of his thoughts on the human situation. Six months later he decided his fears about his ability to reason and remember were unfounded. His recorded observations were up to the standards he had always set for himself. Age had not diminished his powers of observation and his ability to express his conclusions about them. I suspect one significant reason for his maintainance of the usual Hoffer performance was the exercise the journal provided. The mind is not different from the body. It requires daily training. Only through regular use will it continue to function well. Just as the body maintains its power and endurance and agility from regular exercise, so does the mind. Mental fitness, like physical fitness, encompasses diverse capabilities of the mind including memory, creativity, reasoning, observation. Studies suggest that losses vary in individuals. Men may have more problems with vocabulary. Women with problem-solving. We should plan our day so that our mind is put through its paces the same as our bodies. We are told of any number of old people who produced works of genius at an advanced age. On inspection they prove to be people who attend to the care and feeling oif their minds. They developed the muscles of their brains. "As long ago as 1911," writes Daniel Goleman, in The New York Times, "Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a pioneering neurobiologist, proposed that cerebral exercise could benefit the brain." Goleman was discussing a recent report that the development and the growth of the brain go on into old age. Experiments on elderly rats put in an enriched environment showed that they increased in dimension and activity of brain cells. There were also other changes indicating the brain cells had become more active. What Santiago proposed was, of course, not new. Read Cicero or Seneca on old age and you will see this theory is not new. The Greeks held to the holistic concept of the mind/body machine. Each must be trained. Each requires exercise. Age is held at bay, even conquered by remaining active. What it requires is daily maintainance. The brain might be said to be tireless. And in one sense the body is, too. Both can operate in the basal states indefinitely. The sedentary body, however, is physically circumscribed. It lacks strength and stamina and speed. It is no longer flexible. And so it is with the mind. Tireless it may be, but in productive as well. It also lacks the mental skills of memory, imagination, problem solving, data processing, retention and recall. Creativity ebbs away. The less time I spend in my mental gymnasium, the more I lose in mental function. Unquestionably there is a loss on brain function with age. I don't have the rapid recall I had when I was younger. But I am not running races at the same speed either. Still, the word finally comes, and the race does come to an end. Except for speed, the quality of my thinking and the quality of my running remain the same. I share with the runners up front an experience that has no qualitative difference. So too with thinking, remembering, and imagining. My brain must wrestle and run, must climb and strain, must stretch and dance. The body's most important quality is endurance. The brain's is attention. Hoffer's concern was just that-awareness. Some loss of attention is natural. In age, things don't seem as important as when we were young. Why bother noticing them? For just that reason. Realizing their unimportance makes us aware of just how funny life is. From the vantage point of age we can observe all the high comedy going on around us. Attention can also bring us moments of joy when we suddenly see meaning and happiness in what we are and do in life. But attention comes only to those who work at it. Those who daily practice their skills, and keep in touch with themselves and their functions. Chance, they say, favors the prepared mind. Whatever your age, when your brain is in trim, you are prepared for a great thought, or a moment of illumination that can make your day-and when it becomes a regular experience, it can make your life.