Taylor: Retraining my mental muscles

I don’t object to learning new skills, or new ideas…but I’d rather snack on a doughnut than deep-fried cockroaches.

With Christmas just a month away, I’ve started using my 2016 datebook. Yes, an old-fashioned book-book, the kind with paper pages and little corners that tear off, so I can find today more quickly.

Other people prefer to use iPhones, iPads, Androids, or whatever—almost anything with a touch screen that scrolls like a slot machine in Vegas. They keep their appointments there. Also their telephone numbers. Meeting agendas. Family photos. E-mail. Boarding passes. Games. Movies.

But heaven help them if their batteries get discharged.

Paper, I like to remind them, doesn’t need batteries. Or cell towers. Or satellite connections. And it never gets hacked.

Paper doesn’t make me feel as incompetent as those electronic thingies.

I tell my granddaughter about the first adding machines I used—mechanical monsters, with rows and rows of buttons and a lever that made the internal gears spin around and print out an answer.

My granddaughter looks at me as if I used to have tea with T.Rex.

I realize that I’m more comfortable with what I’m familiar with. I don’t object to learning new skills, or new ideas. I enjoy conversations that light up my mind; I love reading books that stretch my mental boundaries. But I’d rather read them in English than Arabic; I’d rather snack on a doughnut than deep-fried cockroaches.

Why do things differently, if I don’t have to?

At the same time, though, I think some new things are worth making the effort. For a month or so, I’ve been struggling to learn to play the recorder. The tenor recorder, with holes about twice as far apart as on those little plastic recorders everyone had in school.

It is not easy. I’ve spent a lifetime typing on a keyboard. My muscles expect one finger stroke to produce one letter. On the recorder, every note requires a co-ordinated combination of seven fingers and a thumb.

And only a sadist would devise an instrument where playing the next note up requires covering the next hole down!

So I’m having to retrain my muscles.

And I wonder sometimes if mental muscles need retraining too. A spate of books recently have talked about the plasticity of the brain, its ability to build new neural pathways, perhaps to compensate for damage caused by accidents or illnesses.

Contrary to common assumptions, the human brain does not retire at 55. It is just as capable of learning at 70 as it was at 20. Indeed, maybe more capable, because the prefrontal cortex, the part that makes decisions and sets goals, is still developing in many 20-year-olds.

But mental muscles can get into ruts, just like finger muscles. I don’t want to use examples here—they can too easily move the focus from the general principle to the specific. Let’s say that, in my formative years, idea A plus idea B led to conclusion C. As I mature, I think differently about A and B, but they still evoke conclusion C. Because those synapses connect automatically.

Sometimes, it’s as hard to train neurons to make different connections as it is to train fingers to play a new instrument.

But I persist. Because I think it’s worth it.