Pruning

Do you remember how, as a kid, you were always convinced that you were smarter than all the grown-ups around you? Older people always just seemed a bit slow on the uptake, right? Not all kids were equally smart, of course, but with a few exceptions, all grown-ups ever had on you was a bit of life experience and specific education.

I remember how that felt. I remember the utter conviction that I was going to do great things – rockstar-great things, not just contributing-member-of-society-great things. I was going to make Gandhi look like a slacker, or perhaps make Herman Melville seem barely literate, that’s how great the things I was going to do were.

That feeling, however, was accompanied by a mind that was constantly making new connections. I could remember the events of a previous day in sequence with incredible vivacity, except, of course, for the bits where my mother told me to do something I didn’t want to do. And it’s quite possible that the moments that painted me as less than an incredibly wonderful person did not survive entirely intact either. For the most part, however, my memory was great. I grew up in a religious home, so memorizing Bible verses was a part of the routine and back then I could memorize a chapter of Isaiah in about twenty minutes and recite it back the next week without too much trouble.

I…I can’t do that anymore. I’ve been keeping a food log as part of my new diet, and if I don’t write something down as soon as I eat it, I find myself later staring off into space for long stretches of time trying to recall exactly what it was I ate for my morning snack. When I work on the etymology posts, I find myself having to reach for my reference books to jog my memory about ideas I spent five years studying in college. And at work? My boss called to tell me I didn’t need to help out with an event that was going on at another site, and thank heavens he did. I don’t think I would have made it either way because I had completely forgotten that the event was happening that day.

As I was bemoaning my horrible brain decline to John last night, he informed me that our brains must be about done pruning themselves. Apparently children have vast amounts of neurons, which enables them to process the incredible amount of new information they face every day as they’re learning how to deal with the world. As we get older, we’re more comfortable with things like tying our shoes and walking and using language and making sense of social situations and everything else our brain habitually has to manage, so our brain starts trimming away the redundant connections in order to make our synapses more efficient. The side effect seems to be that keeping track of things like, say, what day it is becomes more of a challenge.

In short: I’m getting old.

John and I have decided to start teaching each other things we used to know really well ourselves in order to combat the effects of synaptic pruning, but I really don’t know how much trigonometry and the poetry of Catullus (in Latin, of course) are going to help us remember to pay the light bill. You know I’m no fan of dependence on technology, but seriously? How did you people ever survive getting older without the help of electronic reminders?

2 thoughts on “Pruning

  1. Every time you train your body to do something new physically it creates a new pathway and the more of these pathways you create the less likely you are to suffer from things like Alzheimer’s when you get older. It can be something as simple as training your left hand to do something your right hand has been doing all along.

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  2. The good news is, though, that those wonderfully efficient neurons, axions and dentrites support the creation of ‘familiar’ paradigms and ‘schemas’ which allow learning new information to become easier as we age: The more paradigms we have, the more we will be able to learn. Therefore, we really become potentially smarter as we age.
    Unfortunately, I have no strong paradigms for technology so……… Actually, as I think about it, your concern about robots becoming the overlords may be justified if, as humans, we allow technology to do our ‘learning’ and don’t exercise our brains to create new paradigms. HMMMMMMMMMMM
    Love you

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