- by Eileen Dreyer
Let me be the first to say that I never thought I would play computer games. I’m barely on speaking terms with the things as it is. But let’s be honest. What is the one thing that terrifies a creative person most? No, not the red pencil, although I admit it can cause nightmares.We fear the erosion of our brain capacity.
I’m sure I’m particularly sensitive to it, because I’ve spent the last ten years watching my dad slowly succumb to Alzheimers. And after you have spent an extended time with someone with dementia, the thing you know more certainly than anything else in the world, is that you are developing dementia as well.
I’m not certain if it’s just that spending hours desperately trying to think a way through the maze that is your loved one’s brain simply exhausts all the synapses, or your brain simply sets up new pathways to deal with it that temporarily shut down the regular ones, but when you walk out of their presence, suddenly you can’t remember the name of your children, your editor, or that shiny silver thing you get in to drive home.
And then, of course, you promptly lose your keys/glasses/editor’s phone number and immediately envision yourself sitting in an easy chair staring blank-eyed at the wall for the next twenty years. You hear all the experts say, “Oh, it’s perfectly normal to lose some mental power as you age,” but you know in your heart that you’re the exception. The trouble you’re having with your memory is pathological. The fear is silent; it’s private. We’re too afraid to share it with anybody else, just in case they suggest we go in to be tested.
To add to the mess in my case, I have rampant ADD. It was bad enough before caring for my dad. But now, it’s like a brush fire. I’m doing a thousand things at once and forgetting the simplest names. I know darn well that it’s no different than it has been my whole life. I’ve always sucked at names. If you see me at a conference, for the love of God, have your name tag on where I can cadge a quick glimpse without embarrassing us both (my favorite button is the one that says, HI. I DON’T REMEMBER YOUR NAME EITHER). But when I look at a face I should know and can’t place it, or its name, or its relation to me, and I feel that terrible clutch of panic. Is this the normal, ‘I have a terrible time with faces,’ or something more.
As you can imagine, this made me an easy mark for anybody selling ‘brain-improving’ stuff. I held off a long time, though. I think because I didn’t want to know for certain that my brain was atrophying like an appendix. But I finally gave one a try, and I have to tell you. It is advertised as a brain exercise. What it really is, is peace of mind. The one I use is Lumosity. They have little games you play to test and improve your memory, problem solving skills, adaptability, attention. And they’re pretty much fun.
I spend a little time each day (the word ‘little’ being an elastic concept) working the puzzles, and then get to work. But it isn’t the puzzles themselves that are the most wonderful part of this program. What it does is match your scores against people in your age bracket, and lets you know where you stand in the general population. You can see your progress–which is never steady. I could do a thesis on what deadline exhaustion does to cognitive function.
And what it has told me is that I might have Olympic level ADD, but my brain is working just find. And you know what? That sure opens up the room in my brain that has been inhabited by all that worry so I can now use it to write. So the creativity is better. The blood pressure is down. And the writing is if not better, at least less terrifying.
Each of us has his or her way to exercise brains, be it journaling or engaging in some other artistic endeavor, maybe returning to school. This one works for me. And my rationalization if I spend maybe a weensy bit too much time chasing pretend goldfish in a pretend lily pad, is, hey, at least it isn’t angry birds.
Have you ever felt that clutch of panic? What do you do to keep your cognition well-oiled? What has worked and not worked?