S3E11. And The Winner Is…

This year I invested a good amount of time (and for the purposes of this blog, cognitive effort) watching all 10 films nominated for Best Picture along with the 5 nominees each for Best Animated Short and Best Live Action Short. I also watched 1 film for its Best Actor nomination. Having done so, all I can say is:


I’m old enough to remember when movies had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m old enough to remember movies that had plots you could follow and you didn’t need a libretto to know what was going on.

I’m old enough to remember when you didn’t have to google the meaning of the movie after you watched it to find out what it was you just saw.

I’m old enough to remember when there were only 5 nominees for Best Picture, not 10.

I’m old enough to remember when the Saturday matinee cost 35 cents and you got to see not one, but two movies.

I’m old enough to remember watching on the big screen with its thunderous sound in a theater where ushers used their flashlights to find seats for latecomers and to hush you if you made noise.

I’m old enough to remember hundreds of moviegoers in a packed theater gasping, cheering, holding our breaths and crying as one.

I must be getting old!

This year it seemed that more of the movies presented cognitive challenges than in previous years. I mean, sure, we had ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ back in the day, but NOBODY knew what that was about, and there was no way in the world you could intuit or glean from the images he presented what director Stanley Kubrick intended. Reminiscent of watching that movie, I was still trying to divine the meaning of ‘Triangle of Sadness’ well after it ended.

How long did it take you to figure out what was happening in ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once?’ There was a rapid-fire explanation of the multiverse and the discovery of how to travel between universes, but…geez…really? Do you think that the multiverse theory is a comprehensible subject for a movie? If so, I’d like to introduce you to the Best Picture of 2023!

‘Women Talking’ was a very cerebral movie about an extremely emotional subject. It’s basically shot in one location (the loft of a barn) and the characters and relationships between them are developed solely through dialogue. Boring, you say? Far from it! It took me a few more days to process it all after the final credits faded from the screen. 

Even knowing what the movie was supposed to be about before watching it, I still didn’t get ‘Aftersun.’  It seems that the reflection of the grown-up daughter on a television screen at the beginning of the film (which I didn’t notice) was the only context given for what unfolds in the next 1 hour and 36 minutes. Needless to say, there was no dialogue at the end to wrap things up, either.

Am I getting old? Is this what age-related cognitive decline looks like? Or am I just too stodgy to appreciate the latest in cinematic chic?

On the positive side, not only did I love ‘Banshees of Inisherin,’ but I was able to figure out that it was an allegory for the Protestant-Catholic troubles in Ireland. It takes a pretty high level of cognitive functioning to come up with that. I surprised myself! It was especially gratifying when my theory was confirmed by a google search.

Did you notice that ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ was a re-make of ‘Star Wars’ where the impossible task of destroying the death star was replaced with the equally impossible task of blowing up the nuclear enrichment plant?

You probably didn’t see it, but the winner of the Best Animated Short was ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.’ It didn’t take me long to equate the boy’s quest to find his home to Dorothy’s in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’

It would appear, then, that my abstract reasoning is hitting on all cylinders. What’s more, a week after seeing the last movie, I was able to name all 20 nominees from memory, without having rehearsed them or creating a mnemonic to aid my recall. I’ll take that as a win!

So I’m going to conclude that my facilities are still intact and that it’s the voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences who have a penchant for weirdness in selecting their nominees.

And to be honest, I thank them for it. It’s clear that gone are the days of ‘just’ being entertained, of sitting back and letting the images wash over you, transporting you to a magical world. That is exactly what ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ was supposed to do, and I didn’t like it at all. Complain as I might about the quirkiness of many of the nominees, I’m actually glad to have been challenged, to have had to think about what I was seeing, even when I came up short, which was often the case this year.


S3E10. The Road Not Taken

We just returned from a 5-day trip to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, where we watched the UConn Women’s Basketball team play in the Big East Tournament. Spoiler alert: They won!

We love getting away on little trips like this (it’s only a 4-5 hour drive from home) and immersing ourselves in something totally different from our normal routines. Watching 6 basketball games in 3 days in an arena with 8,000 screaming fans definitely qualifies as different.

On this trip, though, I became acutely aware of just how different it really is and what I did and did not do to maintain my normal brain-healthy routines. 

Let’s start with waking up in the morning. I normally drink matcha green tea steeped with lion’s mane mushroom powder, turmeric, rosemary, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin and a little black pepper. Obviously, there’s no way I’m going to find that combination on the road, so I suppose the best I could do would be to ask for green tea. But I didn’t do that. I had coffee with half&half and sugar every morning. 

Shame on me! What is it about being away from home that makes me want to break all the rules? For reasons unknown, there is something very satisfying about doing that. I rationalize by telling myself that a couple of days off of my regimen won’t significantly jeopardize my brain health. Looking ahead to our next trip, though, I suppose there would be no harm in mixing together my powders at home, taking them with me and then making my own tea every morning.

The hotel had a decent breakfast buffet and I really enjoyed their granola (made with sugar), yogurt (sweetened) with a mixed berries sauce (sugar again) and some fresh fruit. This concoction had a distant relationship to my usual granola feast (kind of like mice and humans both being mammals) but it clearly wasn’t the same. Once again, there is nothing stopping me from packing a bag of my granola and using the buffet offerings to complement it to get a little closer approximation to my normal morning meal.

But it wasn’t just the granola. Breakfast pastries were also offered and I’m incapable of resisting them. Knowing full-well that they are processed foods loaded with sugar and trans fats didn’t stop me from sampling them all. At home, I can make sure we don’t have them in the house so I can’t be tempted, but on the road, I haven’t the will power to abstain.

My normal morning routine includes doing word puzzles and half an hour of BrainHQ training. I did the puzzles, but bailed out on the training which seemed like work. I suppose I saw myself as being on vacation and just didn’t want to do anything that required mental effort. 

I could have brought my recorder and practiced each day, but I didn’t. I doubt I would have practiced even if I had brought it, though, as doing so would have been completely incongruent with the whole mind set of the trip. The same went for listening to classical music for an hour each day. 

The hotel had a fitness center and a pool, so I brought my workout clothes and a bathing suit. Nope…that didn’t happen either. I could have found time to hit the treadmill, but I didn’t want to be tired when game time came around. I had my priorities!

Most restaurants had vegan and/or organic options, so I made some effort to stay on track with my eating: a veggie hoagie (or grinder as they say in New England), fish tacos and a turkey sandwich. I had no justification, though, for scarfing down the pizza and chicken wings and chocolate brownie. And I’d rather not go into what we ate at the service areas on the New Jersey Turnpike.

I try to read for an hour each night before bedtime and I could have since I download books and read them on my computer, but I was too keyed up after the games to do that. The truth is, I was only interested in checking out the box scores, watching highlights and seeing the post-game interviews with the UConn players and coach on YouTube.

Fortunately, the bed was comfortable and we slept well. It occurred to me afterwards, however, that I could have brought the diffuser and lavender oil as they wouldn’t have taken up much room in the suitcase. I just might do that when we go to South Carolina in 2 weeks for the NCAA Regional Finals.

So although I missed a number of opportunities, there was a brain-health upside to the trip. I was exposed to cognitive challenges galore, from navigating our way around the cavernous, architecturally-stunning Mohegan Sun complex to absorbing the sights, sounds and energy of the live college basketball experience, from the pep bands and spirit squads to the players battling on the floor. It was invigorating and I’ve got to believe it more than made up for the incremental brain-health losses I might have accrued from abandoning my regimen.

In hindsight, I really don’t feel any guilt about bailing out on my daily routine. I mean, it was a get-away and when you get away, the purpose is to get away from your routine, right?

The bottom line here is that I don’t regret taking the path I took…not one single bit!


S3E8. A Most Unlikely Music Man

Have you ever thought about your relationship to music? I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week in the context of writing this blog episode. My intention was to write about the brain benefits of playing and listening to music, but I got seriously sidetracked.

If I had to pick one word to describe my lifelong dance with music it would be ‘inadequate.’

Although my parents didn’t listen to music at home, they offered music lessons to their children. My older sisters played the accordion and piano, but I quit the piano after just 3 lessons. 

I’ve long regretted that decision for a number of reasons, but now you can add to that the fact that playing an instrument is correlated with a reduced risk of developing dementia later in life. The current thinking is that, like learning a second language, it develops a cognitive reserve that can be recruited when your primary circuits start to fail you. The good news is that you can still reap some of the benefits of learning to play an instrument at whatever age you decide to do it. For me, that was 70.

I’ve always envied those who could play an instrument and those who could sing. By elementary school, though, I knew that I couldn’t carry a tune. When Mrs. Wolfe, the music teacher, visited our classroom each week, I’d mouth the words to try to slip by unnoticed. Unfortunately, there was one day when she had everyone else stop singing so she could hear me. It was humiliating.

Even though I had no aptitude for music, my world was shaken when I was 10 and I went to the drive-in with my parents to see ‘West Side Story.’ I couldn’t get the tunes out of my head, I was in love with Maria and I started talking with a Puerto Rican accent!

Through my teens, though, my music insecurity increased (as did a boatload of other insecurities) as I realized that my friends all liked and had opinions about music but I did not. What was wrong with me?

Like all of my friends, I was captive to AM radio’s Top 10. We all had a bedside radio to play music to wake us up and to put us to sleep, and a transistor radio to keep us company the rest of the time. I pretty much didn’t like any new song when I first heard it and wondered why the DJs played songs like that, but then the more I heard them, the more I liked them.

I thought that that was a failing on my part, because I had friends who would get excited the first time a new song was played. In hindsight, I now know that what I experienced was pretty normal. It’s called ‘the mere exposure effect.’ Simply put, the more you see or hear something—unless there is something fundamentally offensive or odious about it—the more you like it.

Coming out of high school, I considered myself a soul man, happiest when listening to Motown artists like The Temptations, Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes and Smokey Robinson. But I enjoyed the popular lineup of artists from that era, too: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Simon & Garfunkel, Mamas and the Papas, et al. I had also developed a fondness for the doo-wop sound of the 50s which is what Cousin Brucie and Scott Morrow played on WABC-AM as ‘oldies.’ 

In college, EVERYBODY had strong feelings about their music, except, it seemed, me. I clung to my R&B and resisted acid rock for a long time, but exposure to new music was inevitable as the occupants of every dorm room had record players which were blasted at all hours of the day and night.

Two doors down on my floor freshman year at Brown was a 6’9″ basketball player from western Pennsylvania coal country who loved Broadway musicals. I owe him a debt of gratitude for introducing me to ‘Hair.’ 

Sophomore year, three Canadian hockey players shared a suite next to the triple where I lived and played Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Helpless’ over and over again because they were homesick (‘There is a town in north Ontario…All my changes were there…’). Thank you.

I inhaled Janis Joplin, James Taylor, The Band, Led Zeppelin, Santana and—at long last—Cream. Sally brought me to her college’s library, sat me down in a listening room, placed earphones on my head and played ‘Abbey Road.’ OMG! Friends turned me on to Laura Nyro and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The only artist I ever ‘discovered’ by myself was Elton John. I had decided not to go home on winter break my junior year and was listening to the campus radio station WBRU one snowy night when ‘Your Song’ came on. I bought the album the next day.

Yet somehow, 4 years later, a guy who had no musical aptitude and whose musical tastes were dictated by his surroundings and who had never seen an opera or a symphony found himself the director of a 3,365-seat performing arts center that was the home of the New Jersey State Opera and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Talk about feeling inadequate!

I knew I was ignorant when it came to classical music so I decided to attend performances and sit in on rehearsals when I could, hoping to learn what all the fuss was about. What a rare and wonderful opportunity I had!

The problem, though, was that after settling into my seat, my mind would soon leave the music behind and think about anything and everything else. One night, I found myself composing a memo while I was supposed to be watching ‘Madame Butterfly!’

This inability to focus bothered me for years. What was wrong with me? Years later in graduate school, I learned that there were different attentional systems in your brain, some that attended to outside stimuli and some that attended to your internal dialog. I theorized that my internal attentional system must have been stronger than my external system. That would explain both my failure as a concert-goer and my ability to tune out distractions when studying. It certainly was a double-edged sword.

While doing research for this blog episode, I discovered that my guess was on target. That internal attentional system focuses on what is now called ‘mind-wandering’ or ‘self-generated thought’ and it is believed to be your brain’s default system. This means you have to expend cognitive effort to focus on outside stimuli, thus consuming units of a limited amount of attentional resources. When your brain gets tired of sustaining its attention on something in the environment, it will revert to ‘listening’ to what you have to say to yourself.

Fast forward to the present.

My music exposure is way up since I re-connected with Sally who has a truly enviable and remarkable relationship with music. I’ve attended more concerts with her in the last 12 years than I had in my first 60! Earlier this month, we saw Mandy Patinkin in Wilmington and last night we saw a Linda Rondstadt impersonator at a community theater here in West Chester. Next month, we have tickets for Yo-Yo Ma in Philadelphia and in June we’re seeing Bryan Adams. In between, we’ll probably go to nearby restaurants a few times to hear Sally’s nephew Jake perform. (He’s really good. You can check out his latest single here.)

Going back to that Yo-Yo Ma concert in March, it will consist of Beethoven’s 4th symphony and his Archduke Trio. I’ve been listening to those pieces and having a fabulous time doing so. I’m hearing classical music like I’ve never heard it before, tracking the various instruments as they flit about one another, being tickled by the trills and thrilled by the crescendos. And now that I’ve heard each piece a number of times, I actually LIKE them! Admittedly, my mind drifts away periodically, but I seem to be better able to sustain my attention than in the past. 

Inspired by that success, I decided to try to spend an hour each day listening to all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies with the goals of staying focused and learning to like them.

As luck would have it, that decision makes brain-health sense. Sustained attention is an important cognitive function which has been linked to other cognitive functions like learning and memory. The research also tells us that listening to new music is protective against cognitive decline. I’m pretty sure, though, that you actually have to listen to it and not just have it as background music while your mind jogs off in other directions.

Now when you add an hour each day listening to Beethoven to the time I spend practicing the recorder and the time I’m listening to my playlist while working out on the treadmill, you get more than 2 hours each day when I’m immersed in music…and all of that time is challenging, interesting, fun and brain healthy.

And you know what else? I’m not feeling musically inadequate anymore!  😀


S3E2. No Shock; Just Awe

Last week I mentioned a video about the role of microglia in maintaining brain health and I said that I was in awe of the symbiotic relationship between microglia and neurons.

That got me thinking about what it means to be in awe of something. One morning this past week, I found myself dawdling in bed, conjuring up images of things that inspire awe in me.

The time I looked up at the sky on a crystal clear winter’s night and saw five planets came to mind. For the first time ever, I could visualize the fact that they were all in the same plane as they circled the sun.

As I stood there, I tried to think about the context in which this was happening. I tried to imagine my standing on the dark side of the earth, looking out at the planets, spinning around a star that is hurtling through a galaxy that is but one of billions in a universe that is ever expanding.

You want awe? That’s awe!

But then I took it in the other direction and imagined billion-year old light from faint stars reaching my eye, triggering an electric impulse down my optic nerve into my brain where it made a multitude of connections that triggered chemical reactions in countless synapses as electrons were traded among atoms that were composed of even tinier bits of matter and charges that floated in an indeterminate quantum soup whose forces control the universe.

Yup. That’s awe, too.

And then there’s the awe inspired by the the colors of fresh-cut flowers on the coffee table rejoicing in the morning sun. 

I stand in awe of musicians whose hand-ear coordination moves their fingers at lightning speed to produce a sequence of a mind-boggling number of notes that seem to defy the standard laws of memory.

Forget about our modern world of digital wizardry, I’m still awed by the magic of radio. Think about it: we can emit an electromagnetic impulse from a single point that expands to occupy every cubic inch of space for miles around in a way that allows anyone anywhere within that range who has a few transistors to detect those oscillations and translate them back into the sounds from which they were made.

I’m in awe of Amazon.com.

Being at the racetrack and watching Secretariat win the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in world record time was the epitome of awe-in-motion. Watching the video still gives me goose bumps.

I’m in awe of the fact that last year, there were 19,603,733 people living normal lives in Chile. No, there’s nothing special about Chile in this context. I could have chosen Namibia (2,658,414) and experienced the same awe. It’s just that I don’t often take time to think about all the things that are going on at any moment, but when I do, it’s often awe-inspiring.

Closer to home, I am in awe of Sally’s resilience, compassion, energy, and uncanny ability to expose the questions lurking within every passing moment.

Finally rousing myself from exploring the wide world of awe, I sat down at the computer to check overnight emails, my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the headlines from the New York Times. As I scrolled down, there were the usual articles about politics and Ukraine and COVID, but then there was this: “How A Bit Of Awe Can Improve Your Health.”

Talk about serendipity!

Or was it? Just a few days earlier, I had typed the first draft of last week’s episode and wrote that sentence about being in awe of microglia. Is it possible that one of the cookies The Times has placed in my computer monitors my typing and uses that information to select articles for my feed? If so, I am DEFINITELY in awe of that technology!

I’ll never know whether it was serendipity or cyber stalking, but in any event, the article was most interesting. First of all, it provided a definition of what awe is which validated my morning’s mental meanderings:

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”

Nice. Simple. Clear.

The article went on to explore the emerging research suggesting that a daily dose of awe can be healthy for you. Needless to say, non of these studies had yet been done when I was in graduate school from 1996-2001, and we spent no time discussing the emotion of awe in class. Awe was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind on the acute inpatient psych wards where I worked for 10 years where most patients were battling for survival and not self-actualization.

But awe does seem to have value in contributing to a sense of well-being, lowering stress and enhancing happiness. Although the proper ‘dosage’ of awe (both in frequency and intensity) hasn’t yet been determined, there is evidence that a couple of moments each week may be beneficial.

How do you get those moments? The key seems to be in mindfulness, or just taking time to think about what is happening, where you are, and what you are doing in a context greater than yourself. For example, you could put your internal dialog on pause while brushing your teeth tomorrow morning and ask yourself: “How did this water get here?” I’ll give you a hint: start with water evaporating from the earth’s surface and rising into the air to form a wisp of vapor in search of a cloud.

As you can see, it doesn’t take much…awe is all around us just waiting to be unleashed. 

I wasn’t able to find any research directly linking dosing yourself with awe and brain health, but, clearly, it can’t hurt you, and it sure does feel good when it happens, so you might as well go for it!


S2E52. The 2022 ‘Journey Awards’

The end of the year is traditionally a time to compile ’10 Best’ and ‘Best and Worst’ lists, so I thought I’d take a crack at it with some of the best and worst brain health events of the year for each of the 5 pillars of brain health. I thought about calling the list the ‘MOTYs’ for ‘Mistakes of the Year’ awards, but that didn’t seem to leave much room for celebrating the good news, so I went with the ‘Journeys’ instead.

Here they are:

1. Cognitive Challenge

There was plenty of competition in this category: playing computerized games on BrainHQ, traveling to foreign lands, reading books, writing this blog, and learning to play the recorder. As stimulating as they all were, I’m going with learning to play the recorder as the most rewarding cognitive challenge pursuit of 2022. It’s there for me nearly every day and it’s a rush to be able to play a piece or hit notes that I wasn’t able to master a month before. Learning to play meaningful melodies from across my lifespan never gets old. All in all, a pretty nice experience for a guy whose musical aptitude probably falls in the bottom twenty-five percent!

2. Exercise

One of my favorite lifetime brain health pursuits became an unexpected challenge. I was barreling along during the first three months of the year, working out 5-6 days/week, gaining strength, feeling great and losing weight. Then in April we went out to Minneapolis for the NCAA Women’s Basketball finals and I came down with COVID, which knocked me for a loop. It left me with a weakness that persisted for nearly 6 months. Working out was hard and definitely not enjoyable and I never got back into it consistently. My workouts now, when I do them, are shorter and slower. The weights I lift are lighter. So exercise definitely gets the ‘worst performance in a brain health pillar’ Journey Award for 2022.

3. Sleep

There really was only one contender for this award: my month-long experiment to change my circadian rhythm and sleep pattern in preparation for our Mediterranean cruise. It led to quite novel experiences, like going to bed at 6pm and waking up at 2am, but I think it worked. Upon arriving in Greece, I was tired pretty much when I was supposed to be tired and woke up within an hour of when I was supposed to wake up. The results, though, were somewhat confounded by the fact that I didn’t sleep at all on the plane and spent a couple of days recovering from that sleep deprivation. So now that I’ve figured out the circadian rhythm thing, I’ll have to work a little harder on the sleeping-on-the-plane thing next time we travel abroad.

4. Social Engagement

Thank goodness for Sally! She sets my social calendar and keeps me engaged. Without her efforts, I would definitely meet criteria for ‘hermit.’ But I don’t feel as though I’m meeting my obligations here. I enjoy being out with people and I enjoy listening to the conversations, but I’m finding myself talking less, so much so that Sally has commented on it several times. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I’m not talking as much at home, either. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. My mind is going all the time, I can hear just fine, I don’t have any word-finding difficulties and I have no problem following conversations. It’s just that I don’t often feel the need to say anything. Isn’t that weird? Becoming more subdued and withdrawn are often listed as warning signs of an impending dementia and fall under the category of ‘personality changes,’ so there’s that. Come to think of it, I get frustrated and irritated more easily than I did a year ago, so maybe this is something to keep an eye on.

5. Diet

This is a no-brainer: the 2022 Journey Award for best brain health dietary contribution goes to granola! (See S2E50: Granola Revisited). On the other hand, there have been several notable lapses in my regimen. I gave up overnight fasting, not for any empirical reason, but just because I lost the will power to do so once I reached my weight loss target. And now Sally and I are treating ourselves to an ice cream sandwich nearly every night. Again, no reason to do that except for the sheer delight of indulging in a guilty pleasure. This year’s Journey Award, though, for the biggest diet disappointment, was my attempt to drink a small glass of red wine with dinner each night. I conducted a noble months-long search for a palatable, organic pinot noir, but alas, to no avail. As good as it was, I just didn’t like it. And to make matters worse, even nursing a 4-ounce ‘dose’ left me a little tipsy. I reviewed the recommendations on drinking red wine and the bottom line was if you don’t already drink, then don’t start. In my case, it appeared that the neuro-toxic effect of the alcohol was greater than the augmentation of resveratrol effect. Since I eat red grapes every morning in my granola and I’m not a fan of supplements, I dropped red wine from the menu. 

And that’s my brain health year-in-review best and worst list, the 2022 Journey Awards.

Thank you so much for reading the blog. I hope it’s been helpful, interesting and/or entertaining. If so, I’d appreciate it greatly if you’d recommend it to your friends and family at www.MistakesOnTheJourneyToNowhere.com. It might be a nice change for them from bingeing on Netflix.

Wishing you a happy and brain-healthy New Year!


S2E48. Decision-Making

Judgment, problem-solving and decision-making are closely related activities that require a higher level of processing than, say, memory or attention, because they  require you to invoke a group of brain processes simultaneously.

To do these things successfully, you need to create and maintain a space in working memory where you pull-up and examine memories of similar situations and evaluate them for their relevance and importance to the question at hand. Frequently, you must do this under time pressure (which invokes processing speed) and in the face of strong emotions which obstruct the entire process by narrowing your ability to think things through.

Decision-making tasks activate both the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex, both of which are early targets of the dementing process. It’s no wonder, then, that we start making errors of judgment about the same time our memory starts to fail us.

A few weeks ago, Sally brought some breakfast pastries home from a nearby French bakery. Upon their arrival, I ate half the cheese danish.

Later that evening, I was craving something sweet and reached for the other half. I paused, though, because it is our custom to split delicacies like this and I had already eaten my half. 

Cue the decision-making process:

I knew this particular pastry was really good and I was not all that interested in the chocolate croissants she had also brought home. A vague ‘memory’ popped into my head that Sally didn’t really like cheese danish and preferred chocolate croissants.

“That’s what I’ll do!” I thought, “I’ll eat the rest of the danish and not have any of the croissants to make up for it.”

That, of course, was a bad decision, especially since Sally was sitting right there and all I had to do was ask her if I could have the other half of the danish. Somehow, I forgot to pull up the memory that says you let people decide for themselves instead of deciding for them.

A week later, I was making Sally a grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster oven. It was lightly browned on top which was exactly how she likes it, so I lowered the door and slid a spatula underneath one slice to remove it. Unfortunately, though, I only succeeded in sliding it to the back of the oven.

Using a potholder, I pulled the rack out a few inches and tried again. I got one slice out but then managed to push the other slice off the rack at the back of the appliance where it landed vertically on the heating element.

Smoke started to billow from the unit and I remembered thinking, “Oh lord, will it set off the smoke alarm? Will it blare throughout the building? Will the automatic sprinklers be triggered?”

I knew I had to act fast and decided that if I was really careful, I could reach in and pull it out, which is what I did. The melted cheese, though, was hotter than I anticipated, and my arm reflexively jerked as I was withdrawing it from the oven, tapping the hot metal for just an instant.

But an instant is all it took to singe my skin and leave a 1 inch burn on my forearm.

Once I had Sally’s sandwich safely removed to a serving plate, it dawned on me that there had been a pair of aluminum salad tongs in plain view, sitting in a crock not a foot away from where this all unfolded. How could I not have thought of using the tongs?

Hopefully, the burn has permanently seared that piece of learning into my brain for quick access next time.

As I write this, I’ve made another decision. This time, though, it was a deliberative process that unfolded across the span of a few weeks.

One day, Sally announced that she was going to get her hair cut short after having let it grow out during COVID. I joked that that meant I should get mine cut, too, for the same reason. But then I started to think seriously about it.

I recall making a decision when COVID hit between letting my hair go long or getting a buzz cut that I could maintain with my beard trimmer. It was a coin-toss decision then, but I decided, what-the-hell, Sally has never seen me with long hair and it might be fun to have a pony tail.

So that’s what I did. And although I liked the pony tail, I didn’t like the look when I ‘let my freak flag fly,’ which was exactly the look that Sally adored.

But when I look in the mirror with my hair flying in all directions, I didn’t see me. Add to that the shedding all over the apartment and the maintenance (I actually started to dread taking a shower because it took so long to shampoo and condition it), and the decision pretty much made itself.

So my hair comes off next week. We’ll use a longer attachment on my trimmer than I use for my beard and see how that works. It won’t take long at all for us to learn whether doing it that way instead of going to the barber was a good decision or not!


S2E44. Greece!

We made it! We’ve spent the last several days island-hopping around Greece and as I write this we’re docking in Dubrovnik. I’ll be honest: I haven’t focused much (if at all) on brain health. I’ll assume you can understand why. Nonetheless, I’ll try to put together a few thoughts before heading out on our next excursion.

I felt I was prepared for the flight last Friday, having adjusted my sleeping and eating rhythms to accommodate 5 of the 7 hours we would cross during the flight. Serendipitously, Greece set its clocks back by one hour for daylight savings time the night we arrived, so I was gifted one more hour of transition time. What was left to absorb, then, was minimal: just 1 hour, or the equivalent of flying from Chicago to New York.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get much sleep on the plane. I used a neck pillow, lavender oil, loose-fitting clothes, and I ate a banana, but all to no avail. The engine noise, fellow passengers conversing loudly, and the impossible task of getting comfortable all conspired against me. Consequently, I was not a happy camper the next morning when we landed in Athens.

The good news, though, is that I don’t think I felt any effect of the time zone changes. Once I caught up on my sleep, I was fine.

Sally, on the other hand—having not made any effort at all to prepare for the time-shift—was…fine!

It seems that for both of us, the quality of the previous night’s sleep was far more impactful than the 7 time zones we had crossed.

Traveling is a brain-healthy activity because it presents a variety of unique cognitive challenges. Going on a cruise provides those opportunities in spades.

First off, there’s getting oriented on the ship. It took me several days to figure out how to find the important locations: our room, the different restaurants, and the theater. Oh, you could find your way around by reading the signage, but I wanted to be able to do it on my own.

First, I figured out that the various restaurants, although they were on different decks, were all at the back of the boat while the theater and the main lounge were at the front. These landmarks replaced north (theater) and south (restaurants) in my personal navigation system. Then I noticed that the even numbered rooms were ‘west’ and they got higher as you traveled from ‘north’ to ‘south.’ So as long as I could keep an image in my head of where the theater was (‘north’), I could figure out where anything else was whenever I emerged from an elevator.

Conversely, after only 2 days, Sally just knew which way to turn to get to where we were going.

Then there are the excursions with guides who present volumes of information along the way, on-board lectures, adjusting to at least a dozen different accents spoken by members of the crew, and absorbing the sights and vistas themselves. Add to that sampling new foods and meeting new people and you’ve created an intense synapse-stimulating environment.

On the other hand, maintaining a brain-healthy diet just ain’t gonna happen! I’ve been like a kid in the proverbial candy store pigging out at the buffets on sweets, pastries, carbs, meat and more alcohol than I’d consumed in a very long time. Leafy green vegetables? Nope. On the positive side, I am eating a boatload of fish and I’m making an effort to dose myself with fruits every morning at breakfast. I’m not at all looking forward to stepping on the scale when we get home.

We walk a lot on our daily excursions. Even though I don’t find myself breathing hard, I’ll assume that I’m getting my 30-minutes of cardio every day. There is a ¼-mile jogging track around the boat and a fitness center with treadmills and resistance machines, but I’m tired enough at the end of the day without pushing my limits with intentional exercise.

So I hope you’ll excuse me if I leave it at that for now and get back to the task of thoroughly enjoying this trip. I know…it’s a tough job…but somebody has to do it!


S2E38. Dementia Prevention: Brain Games

The notion that playing brain games on your computer can help prevent dementia is rooted in the research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

Neurogenesis is the process whereby you can grow new brain cells at any age. Neuroplasticity is the process whereby you can grow new connections between neurons.

In theory, then, anything you do that (1) grows new brain cells, (2) increases the number of synapses between neurons, (3) strengthens cells and/or (4) protects them from harmful chemical interactions should all help slow down the process of cognitive aging. The recipe is pretty simple: bulk up your brain mass while minimizing the things that can cause it to atrophy. 

But it’s not just a theory. The research supports this view.

Exercise grows new cells, increases synaptic connections and strengthens the quality of transmission of electric impulses from cell to cell by thickening the axon’s myelin sheath.

A brain healthy diet provides nutrients that support neurogenesis as well as antioxidants that help clean up neuron-killing chemical detritus (e.g., beta amyloid and tau) that are residuals of your body’s immune response (i.e., inflammation).

Sleep expels toxins that accumulate on a daily basis and also increases the strength of neuronal connections (synapses) which form long-term memories.

When we engage in cognitively challenging activities—especially new and novel tasks—we create more connections. That is why reading a book, learning to play an instrument or to speak a new language, and navigating around a different environment (e.g., traveling) are all brain healthy activities.

But what about playing computer games? The evidence is spotty, but it seems that there might be something there. Enough, anyway, to justify millions of dollars of new research to try to nail down just what it can and can not do.

In S2E29: Brain Training Is Hard Work! I discussed the intense effort I expended during my first week of working with the BrainHQ program. Now, 9 weeks later, I have some data I can report.

First, let me say that I over-did it. Playing these games for an hour each day was exhausting. However, it did allow me to quickly work my way through all 29 tasks covering 6 different functions: attention, brain speed, memory, people skills, intelligence and navigation. After 5 weeks, I dropped down to 30-minute daily workouts, which was much more manageable.

So how did I do?

The program provides you with a percentile ranking that shows how your performance compares to others in your same-age cohort. After 9 weeks, my scores have leveled off and I’m not seeing any more improvement. I placed at the 89th percentile overall among 71-year olds, with individual domain scores that range from the 86th to the 94th percentile.

What is valuable about this is that I now have a baseline measure of my mental status. Going forward, if I maintain my 89th percentile ranking relative to my same-age peers, it will mean that I am aging normally. If that number drops, it will mean that my cognitive decline is a cause for concern. If it goes up, it will be a cause for rejoicing as it will suggest that I am not experiencing the expected pace of cognitive decline.

That information has practical value, too. It appears that measurable and accelerating cognitive decline starts to appear about 6 years before a diagnosis of dementia is usually made. If I continue to play these games on a regular basis over the coming years, my scores should serve as an early warning system of any emerging cognitive problems.

The alternative, of course, is to get a full neuropsychological workup every year. Playing computer games is a lot cheaper and more fun, though.

The knock on using brain games to promote brain health is that, although you can get better at the games, your new learning does not generalize to everyday life and so it has no clinical or practical significance, even if your scores continue to improve.

This past Sunday, though, I actually had a real-life experience for which I directly attribute my success to one of the games I’ve been playing. 

In this game, designed to enhance your speed of visual processing, the computer screen is divided into 8 pizza slice shaped segments. Images of 11 birds are then briefly flashed all at once around the periphery. One of the birds, however, is different from the rest. For example, it might have a white body instead of a rust-colored body, or a white wing instead of a black wing. The task is to click on the slice of the screen where the odd bird appeared.

The more I played this game, the better I got. After a while, I was stunned at how accurate I was with only the briefest glimpse of birds on the screen.

Which raises the logical question: So what?

I’ll tell you what! Last Sunday, we were having breakfast at the home of Sally’s son and daughter-in-law. Tammy mentioned that she had seen a bird fly away from their backyard bird house, but couldn’t tell if it was a blue jay or a bluebird. 

As we stood around talking in the kitchen, out of the corner of my eye through the sliding glass doors I saw the flash of a bird in flight. It was only a flash of color that lasted less than a second, but I was able to process its shade of blue and size, realizing immediately that it was a bluebird.

Impressive, huh?

Then we moved outside to eat breakfast. While we were seated around the table, Sally’s grandson Ryan (who recently graduated from college) brought out a bottle of champagne to make mimosas. When he popped the cork, it rocketed through a gap in a vine-covered fence and landed on the lawn beyond. I was the only one who saw where it went. 

Pretty cool, eh?

OK. So it’s no big deal…but it does suggest that something good is happening inside my head thanks to my computer game playing. 


S2E29. Brain Training Is Hard Work!

As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, my disappointment with my short-term memory led me to subscribe to ‘BrainHQ,’ a computerized cognitive training program. This past week was my first week using it and…man o’ man!!!…it’s hard work!

Before I continue, let me reassure you that I am not shilling for BrainHQ. I chose it from the myriad of online cognitive training offerings because it is being used in a range of research programs and has some published studies to support it. Having said that, the data is mixed and the jury is still out as to whether or not this particular program (or any purported brain-enhancing program) generates any meaningful improvement in one’s life.

But—just as I decided that in regards to diet that if I’m going to put something in my mouth, then it might as well provide something that supports brain health—I came to the same conclusion about computer games. Instead of wasting an inordinate amount of time playing a mindless but addictive game like ‘Bubble Shooter,’ I might as well get some benefit out of that same block of time by playing games that just might provide some health benefit. 

To see if it was really worth doing, though, I spent time this week looking at some of the recently published research about the effects of cognitive training programs. One study that caught my eye was a meta-analysis (i.e., a study that analyzes the data from many studies all at once) of changes in brain connectivity attributable to cognitive training. 

You might recall from S2E23: Repaving Your Cognitive Infrastructure that our brains develop neural circuits that connect distant areas that are used simultaneously to complete tasks. As we age and our abilities start to decay, we recruit more areas to help perform the same functions. This is made possible by brain plasticity and is at the heart of cognitive resilience as a protective factor against dementia.

The meta-analysis I read combined data from a number of fMRI studies and revealed that computerized cognitive training changed these pathways and linkages. There were increases in activity in some areas and decreases in others. The overall pattern was to move in the direction of restoring the circuitry that existed before age-related attrition began. In effect, it (roughly) restored your brain to the way it was two years earlier. That’s pretty impressive, no?  

If I’m understanding it correctly, when your frontal lobes begin to atrophy, your brain recruits neurons from other more posterior regions to pick up the slack. But cognitive training strengthens your frontal lobes so they no longer need to use the support they had previously requisitioned. Thus the frontal areas showed more activation and the more posterior areas showed less. Fascinating!

So I jumped into my training with the fervor of a new convert and immediately set a goal of ‘working out’ for an hour every day. This, apparently, was considered a very aggressive plan of action as BrainHQ recommended 20 minutes/day at least 3 times a week as a good place to start.

The program allows you to target a variety of brain functions (e.g., attention, speed, memory) and so I went after memory instead of following the suggested general approach which covers all the bases. Was I in for a surprise!

It was really hard. The tasks included both audio and visual versions of the ‘N-Back’ card task that I described in last week’s episode (S2E28), as well as an audio version of the card game ‘Concentration.’ 

The program is designed to push you to a challenging level without frustrating you to the extent that you quit. So the exercises start off easy, progress until you fail, and then drop back to easier versions. The sweet spot is when you maintain an 80% correct response rate.

I struggled with the frustration, though. On the N-Back card task, I mustered up all the attention and focus I could to visualize the briefly-shown cards in an order that would help me identify the correct one when the time came….but I didn’t get very far.  😦

All of my best efforts not withstanding, my visualizations of the cards would disappear shortly after a few new cards were turned over. It was as if an evil magician was doing a disappearing act inside my head. Poof! Now you see it…now you don’t!

I beat up on myself because I knew that my performance represented a decline from my peak abilities. Yes, I know that this is true for all of us if we are fortunate enough to get to this age, but having it slap me in the face like that was a little hard to take.

About three days into my training, I recalled something I learned in graduate school. Your brain has a ready supply of neurotransmitters on call to maintain a high level of focused attention for about 45 minutes. After that, you can still focus, but your efficiency drops off. I used this fact when I was taking hours long exams by stopping every half hour and doing deep-breathing exercise for 3 minutes to restore my neurotransmitter reserve before returning to the test. It seemed to work then, so I applied the principle again now: I divided my hour of daily exercise into two 30-minute sessions several hours apart. I could feel the difference and see the improvement in my performance during the second half of the workout. 

(Come to think of it…45 minutes is about how long I can practice the recorder or read a book without losing focus. Interesting!)

The good news here is that, after a week of training, I can see that I’ve made progress on all of the tasks. Not a lot, but progress, nonetheless. Enough progress to keep me from quitting. But, damn…this is hard work!


S2E28. Working Memory Workout?

A majority of the mistakes and cognitive errors that I have documented in this blog involve failures of working memory. Working memory is where we hold information online while we manipulate it and/or consider what to do with it. It’s where we hear our internal voice. It’s the central cog in our executive functioning network.

Consequently, it’s not pretty when you start to experience declines in your working memory abilities which, as it so happens, are usually the first to go as we get older.

So I was intrigued by an article in The New York Times last week that reviewed a new book (The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind) by neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak in which he asserts that exercising your working memory can forestall its decline and possibly even restore prior losses. The article covers his 7 key recommendations and you can read it here.

Regular readers of this blog know me well enough to figure out that I downloaded the book and read it this week. It reviews all the usual types of memory and he adds a few new ones of his own construction. He pays more attention to brain structures than most books of this type, but he keeps his narrative breezy and conversational, including examples ‘ripped from the headlines,’ as they say.

He recounts the usual litany of techniques you can use to better remember lists, but I was most intrigued by his lengthy discussion of working memory and exercises you can do to actually strengthen it.

One such exercise was to name all of the United States presidents in chronological order, beginning with FDR. Then do it in reverse order. Then do it alphabetically. Then do it in reverse alphabetical order. If you want to try this, I’ll give you a hint: there are 15 of them.

It took me a little while one sleepless night to master this task. As I did so, I felt like I could actually see the places where my working memory let me down and where answers were swimming nearby but just out of awareness.

He recommended making other lists that you can manipulate in similar ways, and to practice organizing them in your mind every day. 

He also recommended daily practice with what is known as the ‘N-back task.’ The easy-to-do-at-home version of this only requires a deck of playing cards. First, you select two cards that will be your ‘trigger’ cards, say a ten and a three. Then you turn over the cards one by one, look at them, and place them face down in a pile. When one of your trigger cards appears, you have to name the card that preceded it. This is the ‘1-back’ version of the task. After you’ve mastered it, you can make it more difficult by trying to name the card that was two cards before the current card, or ‘2-back.’ 

I immediately pulled out a deck of cards and tried it…and failed miserably at the 2-back version. I did alright with the 1-back version, actually having the most difficulty remembering which were my 2 trigger cards!

This piqued my interest in working memory tasks and so I googled it. I discovered quite a number of sites offering (for a subscription fee) computerized versions of a wide variety of working memory tasks. 

I tried a number of them and quickly discovered how limited my working memory is. I was especially bad at tasks that required me to remember visual images. In fact, I noticed that I retained virtually no memory of the images and had to resort to semantic memory to complete the task, i.e., naming the images that had flashed on the screen and remembering the names, not the pictures.

Neuropsychological tests are very good at isolating and identifying your weaknesses, and these were no exception.

Dr. Restak talked about my condition in his book. It’s called ‘hypophantasia’ which is the inability to retain fleeting visual images in your mind’s eye. Conversely, people who are exceptionally adept at doing this have ‘hyperphantasia.’ My first wife was such a person. She could walk through someone’s house once and later draw a diagram of all the rooms on every floor…to scale! Most of us have abilities that fall somewhere along this spectrum from hyper- to hypophantasia.

This experience alarmed me enough to want to initiate a structured workout routine to try to improve (or at least slow the deterioration) of my working memory. My recollection, though, was that—Dr. Restak’s exhortations notwithstanding—the research is mixed about whether computer games and tasks can actually improve your cognitive abilities. In most cases, it appears that you can get better at the computerized task, but that it doesn’t generalize to improve your ability to perform other tasks of daily living. What was I to do?

Right on cue, I received an email from one of my college roommates, Tom, with an article from The Boston Globe about several large-scale, age-related cognitive studies that are being launched in New England. Among the variables being tested are brain training techniques. The program offered by a company called BrainHQ will be used in these studies.

Well, if it’s good enough for the researchers, then it’s good enough for me! So I went to www.BrainHQ.com and subscribed for a year for $96.00. My intention is to do a 1-hour workout each day…if the frustration from getting too many wrong answers doesn’t overwhelm me.  

Wish me luck!


S2E14. Do Something Different

In terms of cognitive challenges to keep your brain healthy, games and puzzles are fun, but they don’t provide any added brain benefit. The more you engage in them, the better you get at doing them…but that doesn’t help preserve the abilities you need to live independently, like memory and executive functioning.

The recommendation, then, is to do something different to challenge yourself: learn a new language or learn how to play an instrument or go on a trip.

Go on a trip? You don’t have to ask me twice!

The NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament was played over the course of the last month. I’ve been a fan of the University of Connecticut Huskies since I was a graduate student there from 1996-2001, and Sally caught the fever from me.

So three weekends ago, we made the 4 hour drive up to Storrs, CT, where the first 2 rounds were played on campus. When the Lady Huskies won those games, I went online to get tickets for the next 2 games which were being played in Bridgeport, CT, the following weekend. And when they won those 2 games we made the decision to do something we’d never done before: go to the Final Four in Minneapolis, MN!

This is where the cognitive challenge came in. We had 72 hours to figure out how to get tickets, book a flight, and get a hotel room. We started on the drive home from Bridgeport with me driving and Sally googling hotel rooms.

She found a hotel that was 3 blocks from the arena, so we booked it. When we got home, I searched for tickets online and learned that TicketMaster runs a brisk scalping business. I didn’t want to go all that way (about 1,000 miles) to sit in the nosebleed seats and watch the game on the giant monitor, so I took a deep breath and bought lower-level tickets for a price I never imagined I would pay for any event.

Finally, I went to the American Airlines site to book a flight and, hopefully, use my 65,000 frequent flyer miles. Not only were the available flights at lousy times, but they told me I needed to purchase an additional 200,000 miles at a cost of over $3,000 to get the seats!

That sent me over to Travelocity where I found non-stop flights between Philadelphia and Minneapolis at reasonable times and at an affordable $500 for the round-trip.

Planning done!

Last Friday, we took an Uber to the airport, arriving in plenty of time. After boarding the flight, though, we learned that there was a mechanical problem and we’d have to de-plane while they fixed it. That put us 2 hours behind schedule, so when we arrived in Minneapolis, we took a taxi to the hotel instead of taking the tram as we had originally planned.

We checked in and immediately left for the arena where the 2 semifinal games were being played. UCONN was in the 2nd game and we defeated Stanford. On to the championship game!

The next morning (Saturday), we were having breakfast in the hotel when an older woman approached us and asked if we wanted to buy her tickets for the final. She was a Stanford fan and she and her husband were going back to California instead of going to the game on Sunday. The tickets were in the first row behind the team bench!

Having paid as much as we did for our seats, my first reaction was: “Not interested.” But then I thought about it. First row! So I went over to talk with her and her husband. They wanted half of what they paid for the tickets which they bought directly from Stanford at face value. What the hell…you only live once!

Now we had to figure out how to consummate the transaction. I didn’t have any cash and the tickets were only accessible on a cell phone (apparently they don’t print tickets anymore. Who knew?).

I recalled seeing a ‘transfer tickets’ feature on the app we had to use to buy the tickets, so I knew how she could deliver the tickets to me. Luckily, she had a Venmo account and I was able to make the payment to her that way. 

The transaction was completed in less than 5 minutes. It must have been a sight, though, watching these 70+ strangers figure out the technology to make it work.

But I wasn’t done yet. I went back up to the room and went to the TicketMaster site to see if I could sell my original tickets and recoup a little of what I had paid, or at least get back what I just spent to upgrade my seats.

It is possible to sell your tickets there, but apparently you had to register with a bank account to do so, and I hadn’t done that. Damn!

But wait…I recalled seeing a ‘sell tickets’ menu button on the mobile ticket app and so back I went. Yup…there it was! 

Placing the tickets up for sale was easy enough, but how to price them was the challenging part. It was only about 32 hours until game time, so I needed to get this right. I figured that a lot of fans of the semifinal losers (Stanford and Louisville) would be trying to sell their tickets just like the couple we had just met. And there wouldn’t be a lot of demand for tickets since only people in or within a few hours drive of Minneapolis were likely buyers. So instead of going for a killing, I took a safer path and offered the pair for $500 (we had paid $300 for the first-row upgrade).

In about 2 hours, I received an email notification that the tickets had been sold!

On Sunday afternoon, we took a bus to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It’s a beautiful facility and we spent our time in the Impressionism and Modern Art galleries. Directionally challenged as we are, finding the exit was an adventure, but we kept meandering until we got there…to discover that it was snowing outside! So instead of walking back to the bus stop, we called an Uber.

That night at the arena, the seats were great! The UCONN pep band was to our right, the cheerleaders directly in front of us and the team bench was on our left. It would have been perfect if we hadn’t gotten clobbered by South Carolina 64-49.  😦

The next day we took the tram from downtown to the airport. The connections were a little tricky, but we muddled our way through it. The flight was on time and we got an Uber from the airport. We were home by 7:30pm.

Once I finished licking my wounds from the defeat, I got around to thinking about all the cognitive challenges that this adventure entailed. Going to new places, orienting yourself, and figuring out how to get from point A to point B were at the top of the list. Then there was the task of mastering new technologies. And most of all, you have to react to a lot of unique decision-making inflection points. These are the things that are generalizable and help you preserve and grow vital brain circuits. 

And best of all, when all is said and done (and unlike doing Wordle, jigsaw puzzles and crosswords), you have a great story to tell when it’s over!


S2E6. Real-Life Wordle

A week ago Thursday, Sally tried to print the New York Times crossword puzzle. Unexpectedly, the page that came out was blank, so she asked me if I could do it.

First, I tried to print it from my computer in order to rule out that the problem was with Sally’s MacBook Pro, but I got a blank page, too. Then I tried printing a different page from my computer to rule out that the problem was with the Times website.

Same result.

Then I turned the printer off and waited a minute before re-starting it. Another blank page emerged, so I knew the problem wasn’t with the printer’s software.

Next I tried to copy a page directly from the printer’s flatbed.

Whoa! It printed the colors but the black was missing. At that point it dawned on me that I had been getting blank sheets because the pages I had been trying to print were in black-and-white and the black ink wasn’t printing.

I checked the ink level and and, unexplicably, it showed the black cartridge was more than half-full. Odd…

But I replaced the cartridge anyway and…it printed perfectly!

A few hours later, it occurred to me that the process I used to solve the problem was a lot like playing Wordle. If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s a link that explains it.

Basically, the Wordle program selects a 5-letter word each day at random and you have 6 guesses to figure out what it is. You receive feedback after each guess telling you which letters (if any) are in the target word and whether you’ve guessed the right locations for any of those letters. You solve the puzzle by using the information you learn from each guess in order to make your next guess. I’ve been able to solve them all since I started playing and it usually takes me four guesses…but it’s the thinking it through that’s fun!

Can you see why fixing the printer reminded me of Wordle? Each attempt I made to print the crossword provided me with new information that I used to create the next attempt. With each try, I learned what was not the problem, thereby narrowing my remaining choices until I hit upon the solution.

(Yes, yes…I know…If I started out by trying to print a picture in color, I would have solved the problem in 2 tries instead of 5!)

So why am I writing about fixing printers and playing word games? Because they both rely on executive functioning, in this case, the ability to develop and implement a strategy and to learn from new information.

In dementia, it’s not just memory that goes. It also hits your prefrontal cortex and impairs your reasoning and ability to execute complex tasks. Typical symptoms are having trouble balancing your checkbook or following a recipe correctly. 

Having played it for a month now, I’m thinking that Wordle might be a good measure of executive functioning that could be used as an early warning sign for mild cognitive impairment. Here’s why:

For a simple game, it’s actually a pretty challenging cognitive task. You have to learn from each trial and apply that information to your next guess. You have to focus on—not only the letters that are part of the solution—-but on those that you have been told are NOT part of the solution. And you have to pay attention to location, as well. 

Because all the information from each guess is available to you on your device all the time, short-term memory is not a major contributor to solving the puzzle. The game really isolates two factors: your executive functioning and your ability to recall words. Both are affected in dementia.

As I do the puzzle each day, I have to take my time because I make a lot of mistakes. (Fortunately, a guess is not recorded until you hit the ‘return’ key, so you have time to correct errors.) I’ll get excited about a guess and then realize it uses a letter that I already know is not part of the solution. Or I’ll place one of the letters in the solution in a position that I know it can not occupy. Or worse yet, I’ll come up with a word that does not use all the letters I already know are part of the answer. 

Can you see how easy it is to make mistakes? Can you see how critical it is to check and double check your guesses before submitting them? Can you see how the errors you make in Wordle might translate into the kinds of real-life errors you make around the house?

I hope there are neuropsychologists out there running experiments to test whether performance on Wordle is correlated with cognitive decline. If so, I can’t wait to see the results!


S2E1. Brain Resilience

Happy New Year and welcome to Season 2 of “Mistakes On The Journey To Nowhere!”

I thought I’d kick things off on a positive note with a discussion about brain resilience and cognitive reserve. The two terms are somewhat interchangeable and they both point in the same direction: factors that can protect us in the presence of dementia pathology.

There is a wealth of research associating the presence of beta amyloid and tau proteins with the occurrence of dementia. That is why many drug companies are searching for ways to remove these deposits as a way to slow down or eliminate them as a risk factor.

However, there is one finding that points in another direction. About 30% of those with high levels of these damaging chemicals (as determined by autopsy after their deaths) never developed dementia while they were alive. 

How can that be? Either the whole plaques/tangles/beta/tau hypothesis is wrong, or these folks possessed some quality that enabled them to function at a high cognitive level in spite of the damage that had been done to their brains. The latter appears to be the case.

So what is it that allows about ⅓ of us with dementia pathology to escape its ravages? As with most dementia research, the findings are correlational and not yet proven to be causal, but they all seem to lead in the same direction: it helps to grow lots of neurons and stimulate the production of synapses and neural networks throughout your lifetime. Later in life, then, when a given pathway is short-circuited by a chemical blockage, your brain is able to use an alternate route to complete the task. It’s a little like taking back roads when there is a car accident and traffic is backed up on the interstate.

The ability to do this is referred to as brain resilience or cognitive reserve.

As always, there seems to be a genetic component with some of us hard-wired to grow more connections and have larger brains. But, as always, a lot of it is environmental and behavioral, too.

Having gone to an academically stimulating elementary school is helpful. So, too, is having a college degree, as compared to those with only a high school education. Having a cognitively complex job (as opposed to performing manual labor or having a repetitive factory job) builds resilience. Learning new things at any age is protective.

Looking back over my life, it looks like I was very fortunate, indeed. I attended high-quality elementary and high schools and then received my undergraduate degree in Economics from Brown University. When I was 44, I returned to graduate school for my masters and Ph.D. in clinical psychology. That was 6 years of the most intense brain-stimulating work imaginable leading to a cognitively challenging career. 

In fact, I’ve re-trained 5 times over my life to pursue new careers (urban planner, performing arts center director, B&B host, clinical psychologist and political operative). And now I’m trying to teach myself how to play the recorder!

Let’s follow this building-more-brain-cells-and-connections path to promote resilience a little further. It’s not just lifelong learning that does it. It turns out that exercise also creates new connections in wide areas of the brain. Who knew? So it turns out that my running for 57 years probably also increased my cognitive resilience. Too bad it never made me any faster! 

BTW: exercise also helps promote the formation of the myelin sheath that protects the brain’s pathways which should, in turn, help reduce the short-circuiting we all experience from time to time because the electrical signal traveling down that pathway will have a greater likelihood of reaching its destination at full force.

(Caveat emptor: You might see ads for supplements intended to increase the production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in order to facilitate these results. From what I can tell, the research is really preliminary on this and these products are jumping the gun a bit.)

So the very good news here is that the brain retains its ability to create new cells (neurogenesis) and to re-wire itself (plasticity) to the very end. By constantly seeking out new learning opportunities and exercising, we can increase our brain’s chances (resilience) of overcoming the insults we’ve inflicted upon it over the years.


S1E41. A Brain-Healthy Lifestyle Is…

…a full-time job!

When I first started learning about brain health back in May, I would come across the phrase ‘lifestyle changes’ pretty often. It referred to the likelihood that if you were a typical American, you would probably have to adopt several changes to your current lifestyle if you wanted to ward off cognitive decline and dementia.

These were things like changing your diet to minimize intake of sugars and saturated fats, and getting off your butt and exercising several times each week.

I thought: “Piece of cake…I can do this!”

I’ve been implementing those ‘lifestyle changes’ for about six months now and…you know what? Those changes make up the better part of my day! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I enjoy implementing the recommendations… but it’s turned into a full-time job.

Here is an accounting of what my new ‘lifestyle’ looks like from the perspective of the number of hours per day devoted to each of the five pillars of brain health:

1. Exercise: 1.7 hours. I’m working out six days each week. My workouts themselves take between 40-60 minutes, so I’m easily surpassing the 150-minutes/week brain health recommendation. But let’s add to that total my cool-down time (when I drink a pint of pomegranate juice mixed with filtered water) and the time it takes to shower. That gives me about 12 hours/week, or 1.7 hours/day devoted to my exercise regimen.

2. Diet:  2.0 hours. I’m still learning how to eat right which means that I’m still researching diet recommendations and recipes. Then there’s the grocery shopping, prep time (I’m now making my own granola and sauerkraut), cooking, and the actual eating. I’d say that this consumes an average of 2 hours each day.

3. Cognitive Challenge: 6.0 hours. I start my day by doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles. Figure 2½ hours there. I try to get half an hour of recorder practice in daily (but don’t always succeed) and then Sally and I listen to a vinyl album each night after dinner. Let’s call it 1 hour daily for music. Add another hour for reading books. I would like this to be a daily routine, but so far it’s more likely to be binge-reading the week before book club meets. I’ll add an hour for on-line activities like social media and reading the newspaper. Finally, I spend about half an hour each day thinking about, researching and writing this blog. If my math is correct, that adds up to 6 hours/day.

4. Social Engagement: 1 hour. This is my brain health weak spot. Compared to Sally who is out-and-about most of the day nearly every day, I am a veritable recluse. But I do manage to get together with others about twice each week. Although I work out in our apartment’s fitness center, there is rarely anyone else there. Same for when the pool was open. On nice days, my jogging path is the ⅓ mile loop around the building and I wave or say hello to everyone I see. On rare occasions, I will share the elevator with someone. None of this adds up to a ‘relationship,’ though, nor does it meet the criteria for ‘social engagement.’ So let’s be generous and round up to an average of 1 hour/day of ‘real’ social interaction with someone other than Sally.

5. Sleep: 9 hours. No…I don’t get 9 hours of sleep each night. It’s more like 7-8. But we do get in bed at 10:30pm and usually get up around 7:30am. This allows for time to fall asleep, wake up a few times in the middle of the night, lie awake for a little while in the morning before getting up, and still log the recommended 7-9 hours of solid sleep. It also facilitates our intermittent fasting schedule which has us stop eating at 7:30pm which is 3 hours before going to bed.

Here’s what it all adds up to:

1.7 Exercise

2.0 Diet

6.0 Cognitive Challenge

1.0 Social Engagement

9.0 Sleep

There you have it: 19.7 hours per day devoted to my newly-adopted brain healthy lifestyle. That leaves about 4 hours free for other pursuits. In the spirit of full disclosure, though, I’ll admit that I allocate about 1½ of them to my nap!

Now the question is: What will I do with all that free time?  😀


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S1E40. Road Trip

Growing up in the 50s, I knew the names of a number of famous people without knowing what it was they had done to earn such notoriety. Their names alone came to stand for excellence in their chosen fields: Enrico Caruso, Rudolph Valentino, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, to name a few. The highest praise one could bestow on an aspiring singer would be to say: ‘He’s a regular Caruso.’ On the other hand, a common way to say someone wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer was to say: ‘He’s no Einstein!’

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the names I learned without knowing anything about him other than that he was an architect. In fact, I still didn’t know much more about him until this past week. But that changed when we decided to combine our fall foliage viewing with the 4-hour trip to his most famous residence, Falling Water.

But why, you ask, am I writing about Frank Lloyd Wright in a blog about dementia? Good question! It’s true that his best work was done when he was in his 80s, but that’s not why I’m writing about him.

One of the brain health findings I’ve come across is that travel to new places may be protective. It stimulates all your senses in a variety of ways which help stimulate brain cell growth. As we began planning our getaway, though, it occurred to me that you have to be functioning at a pretty high cognitive level in the first place to execute a road trip.

For starters, you have to have the desire and interest to go somewhere and not be overwhelmed by the logistics of actually doing it. In this case, the initiative came from Sally who said she wanted to do a road trip to see the leaves turn and I connected that with a suggestion some friends made a few years ago about going to Falling Water.

But it’s not like we can just get in the car and take off like we might have done in our teens and twenties. At this age, if we go somewhere on the spur of the moment without telling anyone, we might find our car make, model and license plate number flashing on the interstate in a ‘Silver Alert!’

Instead, we do our background research and make a plan. When will peak foliage occur? How long will it take to get to Falling Water? What days do we have free? Where will we stay? Do they have guided tours once we get there?

And there was one more big decision to make: which car would we take? My Volvo gets better gas mileage, but Sally’s Subaru has a much bigger windshield for viewing the scenery. We opted in favor of the view, but that introduced a layer of risk. She had run over a nail two weeks earlier and one tire was leaking air. She took it to the dealership and they put in a plug, but it didn’t stick. They had to re-do it twice. Was it really safe to drive? What if it went flat en route? We decided to roll the dice.

The weekend before our scheduled departure, I did a YouTube search and found great documentaries on the story behind the building of Falling Water and the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. On the eve of our departure, we watched Ken Burns’ 2-part biography of Wright on PBS. After 60 years, I finally now know why his name is synonymous with modern architecture.

Next up was finalizing the game plan: figuring out what time to leave in order to get to the first tour on time; packing (clothes appropriate for the forecast weather, medications, computers); turning off the air conditioning in the apartment; setting the alarm to wake up on time.

If you can do all of this planning and scheduling, your cognitive abilities are pretty much intact.

If you can shift your plans because you met someone on a tour who gave you a good recommendation, you are functioning well.

If you can keep your balance for two hours on a rock-strewn trail booby-trapped with tree roots hidden by fallen leaves, you are doing well.

If you can find your way back to the trailhead after missing a turn on your hike, you’re doing well.

If you can cut your stay short because it was impossible to sleep on your bed’s sagging mattress at the B&B, you’re functioning well.

Realizing that you miscalculated when the leaves would turn, if you can drive north in search of peak foliage without a map, keep moving in the right direction and find a hotel in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, you are doing well.

If you can survive meals at local eateries like See-Mor’s All-Star Grill and Hoss’s Family Steak & Sea House, you can be thankful that you dodged a bullet.

If you can keep your sense of humor during all of this, you are doing extremely well.

But most importantly, if you can embrace with wide-eyed wonder and amazement a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home, you have much for which to be grateful!


  1. That leaky tire didn’t give us a lick of trouble during our 500-mile adventure.
  2. Having travelled four hours west in search of foliage, we finally found it on the way home…2 hours north in the Poconos.


S1E37. This Is Your Brain On Music

Music therapy has been used effectively for some time to treat agitation in dementia patients and to help surface personal memories. Its potential role as a protective factor in staving off cognitive decline, though, has been less well-researched, but there are indications that it might be useful.

A lower incidence of dementia has been found among professional musicians than the population in general. People who had some musical training in their lives experienced slower cognitive decline than those who did not. Listening to music, singing, and playing an instrument have all been linked to enhanced cognitive performance.

One of the 5 pillars of brain health is to engage in cognitive challenges. Learning to play a new instrument is often cited as an ideal undertaking. After all, playing music requires you to learn a new language that involves hand-eye coordination, short- and long-term memory, fine-motor control, and auditory and visual symbol discrimination. What more could you ask for?

So I decided to teach myself how to play the recorder. You know…the flute-like instrument we all played in 4th grade.

The problem, though, is that I have a less than intimate relationship with music. 

When I was 7 or so, I started piano lessons. I learned the notes pretty quickly, but I was completely flummoxed by the prospect of playing different notes with each hand at the same time. I quit after my third lesson.

In 5th grade, I used to lip-sync during group singing in Mrs. Wolfe’s music class because I knew I couldn’t carry a tune. As an adult, I have a singing range of about 6 notes that I can hit with any consistency.

When I started to listen to the radio, I was drawn to the doo-wop sound of the ’50s (oldies) and then Motown (The Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes and Smokey Robinson). Of course, I loved the Beatles, Four Seasons and Beach Boys. 

While in high school, I asked my parents for an electric guitar. It turned out I had no ear for music and couldn’t even tune the damn thing!

In college, I was pretty much a creature of my environment when it came to musical taste. If I heard a song enough times, I liked it. I depended on my dorm mates to buy the albums and do the playing. The only artist I ever discovered by myself was Elton John after I heard ‘Your Song’ for the first time.

When I was the Director of Newark Symphony Hall, I attended performances by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and New Jersey State Opera. But without any training or background in classical music, neither held my attention. I would drift off into my inner world until the applause at the end of a piece jolted me back.

The language of music is as foreign to me as the language of science is familiar. About 15 years ago, I bought a book called ‘Music Theory for Dummies.’ I didn’t get very far. 

So here I am, back at it, taking another shot at finding personal harmony with music. I bought a teach-yourself-recorder workbook that came with a CD so I can play along and check myself. So far, so good. I’ve learned 10 notes already and can play ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ I’m understanding full notes and half notes and rests and 3/4 time. I’ve even been introduced to F# and the key of G Major!

We’ll see how far I get, but it’s been a better-than-expected launch.

In addition to learning to play the recorder, I’m also listening to more music. When we moved, Sally and I made the decision not to throw out our vinyl, even though we hadn’t played any of the albums or 45s in more than two decades. Keeping them, though, came with a commitment to actually play them. Having set up a sound system and purchased a pair of awesome speakers the first month we were in the new apartment, we now set aside time after dinner each night to play an album from our combined collections. 

A lot of Sally’s music is new to me but I find I’m enjoying it on first hearing. When playing my music, I notice I’m picking up more of the words and hearing more instruments than I recall hearing before; it’s not so much a blur as it used to be. 

Apparently, something good is happening inside my brain!


S1E34. The End Of Alzheimer’s Program

This week, I read the book so you don’t have to. Here are my take-aways:

Dr. Dale Bredesen is a leading advocate of a comprehensive approach to treating symptoms of dementia. The book The End of Alzheimer’s Program is an update of his 2017 publication The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline and includes lessons learned from 8 years of treating patients with the protocols he developed.

He rejects the notion of a single cause of Alzheimer’s and other dementias in favor of a holistic approach that focuses on the things your brain needs to function and the things that get in the way of its doing so. The program seeks to protect your brain and ward off cognitive decline by using diet and behavioral changes to support its essential activities while minimizing toxins that impair its ability to function properly.

He argues that the effort to find a drug that eliminates beta amyloid, for example, is misguided. You have to ask “How did it get there in the first place?” It turns out that beta amyloid is produced as part of the brain’s immune system to combat toxic invaders. So a remedy that is available to you right now is to identify the toxins (both chemical and biological, like rogue microbes that escape from you intestines and break through the blood-brain barrier) that are affecting you and eliminate them. Once you’ve done that, your brain’s immune response will not be triggered as often and you will not produce as much amyloid. It turns out you can manage a lot of this through diet.

Moreover, your brain has a natural way of removing beta amyloid after it has been created. It happens when you sleep. Therefore getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night can help ward off cognitive decline.

Bottom line: to a great extent, you can determine your own cognitive future by adopting a brain healthy diet and adding behavioral elements like exercise, sleep hygiene, stress management, cognitive challenge and social interactions.

Sound familiar?

He makes his case with meticulously documented references to the existing and emerging body of research and supplements it with case studies of people who were able to reverse their cognitive decline using his program. At times, it reads like an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” or “House” where the doctors are unable to cure the illness until someone discovers that a rare toxin is causing the symptoms. They eliminate the toxin and the patient recovers.

As it pertains to dementia, the idea that you can reverse symptoms is pretty radical and flies directly in the face of the old notion that dementia is an unavoidable part of aging. As Dr. Bredesen documents, though, there are a large number of dementias that can be traced back to chemical, environmental or behavioral causes that can be rectified.

Which brings us to his program. It begins with an extensive battery of tests to identify the pathogens that might be affecting you as well as determining your levels of good chemicals and compounds. Once these factors are identified, you can design a diet that will correct imbalances and eliminate neurotoxins at their source. Progress is documented through ongoing testing and tweaks are made as you chart your reactions to the changes you have implemented.

Most of the book is spent going into great detail about how your diet affects long-term brain function. I’ll admit, I glazed over at the extended paragraphs laden with scientific terminology describing the chemical compounds and intra-cellular functions that were involved. Although he says he intends the book for consumers, it seems his real audience is physicians who he hopes will adopt his program. I can see how the book would be a great resource for someone who is guiding you through the process, but it definitely contains way too much information for most of us. Nonetheless, there are plenty of general recommendations and steps you can take to get started.

The chapters on exercise, sleep, stress management and cognitive challenge are informative, brief and a lot more digestible than the diet section!

Finally, Dr. Bredesen emphasizes that dementia is a process that takes years to develop. Your brain does its best to ward off attackers and to clean up the detritus after each daily battle. Over time, though, debris piles up and at some point the accumulation begins to take a toll on your cognitive functioning.

The good news is that most of this seems to be reversible if you start working on it soon enough.


S1E27. I’m Puzzled!

One of the 5 pillars for maintaining a healthy brain is to engage in daily challenges to your automatic, hum-drum, run-of-the-mill thinking, i.e., to exercise your brain as well as your body. 

For me, that includes researching & writing this blog and reading books. The experts in the field recommend big projects, too, like learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument. They generally don’t recommend the commercially available cognitive training systems that claim to reverse or prevent cognitive decline. Those products appear to improve your skill at doing the computerized tasks without enhancing your performance in real-life situations.

One other recommendation, though, is to do various kinds of puzzles that force you to activate different brain regions and challenge your skills.

I’ve been doing the New York Times daily crossword puzzle for about ten years now, but my acquaintance with it goes back a long, long way.

My senior year in high school, John Lanterman would bring the puzzle into calculus class and four of us would sit in the back row and work on it while Mr. McGarry was solving equations at the blackboard. That was where I learned the word ‘ewer.’ 

When I tried to do it myself, though, I found it absolutely impossible. I gave up trying after a few futile attempts.

Six years later, out of college, I was living with my future wife and we would get the Times every Sunday and work on the puzzle together. It was a week-long project and we rarely completed it.

Now fast forward 40 years. I started doing the Times crossword puzzles online and found I could do them! I’m guessing it was the combination of their changing editors and my learning a lot of new words over the years. 

The Monday puzzle is the easiest and they get progressively harder through Saturday. Thursday’s is the most fun because it breaks the rules and requires a novel approach to solving it (e.g., putting 2 letters in a square instead of 1, or using the black squares to represent letters). The Sunday puzzle is bigger and not as hard as Friday’s or Saturday’s, but it has a theme built into it to make it more interesting.

Occasionally, there are clues that stump me (like who played a certain character on ‘Game of Thrones’) and so I’ll Google the answer. It’s nice to have the option to cheat. 😀

In terms of brain health and cognitive decline, what I’ll be looking for is the time when I’m cheating a lot more or when I just can’t complete the Friday and Saturday puzzles.

There is another New York Times word puzzle I’ve taken up in the past year called ‘Spelling Bee.’ In this one, they give you 7 letters including 1 designated letter that you must use to make as many words as possible. They assign points for each word and then rank your score from ‘Beginner’ to ‘Genius.’ As of now, I’m able to hit the ‘Genius’ level every day, so I’ll be watching to see if my scores drop into the ‘Amazing’ or ‘Great’ range in the years ahead.

In the past 3 weeks, at the suggestion of Sally’s friend Val, I’ve taken up doing jigsaw puzzles online. Now this is really something out of my comfort zone. I was never any good at it, watching others assemble them with great dexterity, matching piece after piece, while I looked on unable to place a single one. My color perception isn’t that great and I don’t have an eye for detail. I have great difficulty visualizing spatial tasks and rotating objects in my mind. In other words, I have no business trying to do jigsaw puzzles!

As it turns out, though, this site provides a format that makes them do-able for me. For starters, you can select how many pieces in the puzzle, from 40 to 216. But best of all, the pieces are presented in their proper orientation, so it’s a lot easier than doing an actual cardboard jigsaw.

I love doing them! It takes me about 2 hours to do a 216-piece puzzle, and I’m elated when I am able to discriminate among subtle gradations of color and match 2 pieces. I’m learning new strategies and I enjoy the intensity of the effort required to succeed.

Best of all, it’s changed how I view the real world. I’m now much more aware of shadows and shades. I see a hundred different greens in the wooded area outside our window and I zoom in on the branches and not just the leaves. Wherever I look, I envision my view as a jigsaw and think about how best to crop it to make a better puzzle. 

Over time, I’ll be watching to see if it starts taking me longer, of if I get frustrated and just can’t complete a 216-piece puzzle. In the meantime, though, I’m just enjoying my new-found skills and hobby!

All together, I would say I spend about 3 hours each day puzzling. Time will tell if that’s a good thing or not!


S1E25. I Fixed It!

I’ve been remiss. In the introduction to this blog on my home page, I promised I would share my triumphs as well as my failures. I think I’ve done a pretty decent job sharing the failures, but no so much in reporting victories. Let’s fix that!

About eight years ago, Sally bought a funky clock that displays a set of moving gears and has no hands. What it does have is a black arrow that is fixed in its position pointing up towards the ceiling and a wheel with the hours marked on it (with 3 marks between each hour to denote 15-minute intervals) that makes a full rotation every 12 hours. 

(If you are reading this in an email, I strongly encourage you to go to the website here to see a picture of the clock, as my descriptive powers and your imagination will only carry us so far!)

Instead of two hands that move across the face of the clock in a clockwise direction, then, it has a clock face wheel (separate from the rest of the assembly) that is placed on one of the gears which moves it in a counterclockwise direction. To set the clock, you place the wheel on the gear so that the fixed arrow is pointing at the correct time. For example, if it’s 3:15, you would place the wheel above the arrow at the first hash mark between the 3 and the 4.

We hung the clock on the wall in the office but, to our dismay, it ran fast. So fast, in fact, that we would have had to re-set it every day if we wanted it to be of any use in telling time. Instead, we just left it in place and let time stop when the batteries died.

Fast forward to last month when Sally took the clock off the wall, packed it and brought it to our new apartment. There was a perfect spot for it and we were eager to hang it. To be honest, I had forgotten that it didn’t work, but it is such a cool design that I decided to spend a little time trying to figure it out before putting it up.

Looking at the control mechanism for the first time, I realized that all of the visible moving gears were for show. They had nothing whatsoever to do with rotating the clock face and, of course, there were no hands that needed moving. 

There were 2 hidden gears engaged in moving the time-keeping wheel, one larger than the other, and that was it. Fascinating!

On my next trip to the supermarket, I bought 2 D batteries. In a world dominated by AAA and dime-sized lithium batteries, I got a kick out of dropping these two big old clunkers into place. As soon as I did, all the gears went into motion.

I hung the base with all its moving parts on the wall and then settled the cogs of the clock face wheel onto the larger of the 2 drive gears…and waited.

The next morning, I awoke to find the clock was already half an hour fast. Bummer. After thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that maybe it would slow down if I placed the wheel on the smaller of the 2 eligible gears. In fact, that was my only other option.

I tried to think through why that might work, but to no avail. I hadn’t ever tinkered with clocks and so I had no prior knowledge about gears to draw from. I never owned a 3-speed bike, either, and so I didn’t have the opportunity to learn about gears that way. I just couldn’t see why the smaller gear would turn the clock face wheel more slowly, but, hey, it couldn’t hurt to try, so I moved the wheel to the smaller gear…and waited.

The next day there was substantial improvement: the clock was only about 4 minutes fast, which was better, but not quite good enough. What now? I was out of gears to try.

I spent about half an hour at the kitchen table just looking up at the clock. It finally occurred to me that maybe if I added some weight to the bottom of the wheel it would slow it down because the battery would have to work harder to move the gear. Intuitively, it made sense.

A few minutes later, though, I realized I might be in trouble if I added weight to the bottom of the wheel because it would be out of balance as the wheel rotated and the weight was no longer directly under the gear. Hmmmm…

…but if I put weights at the 3, 6, 9 and 12-hour marks, then the wheel would be balanced throughout its rotation. Problem solved.

At that point, I don’t think it took me more than a minute to come up with the idea of using quarters as my weights. So I got out the duct tape and affixed two quarters to the back of the clock face wheel at each of the four locations, set the wheel back onto the smaller gear…and waited.

The next morning, I awoke to discover that the clock had kept perfect time! It’s now a week later and the funky mechanical analog clock is keeping the same time as my computer’s digital readout.

This was truly a high-five moment for me because I have next to no mechanical abilities at all. I just don’t have that gene. So to think something like this through and come up with a solution that worked was quite the cognitive victory.

But what about the thought process that led me to the answer? Was it just luck? Was I the proverbial broken clock that was right twice that day?

Reflecting back, I realized that most of what happened was intuitive. Or, at least, it seemed intuitive. At the time, I could not verbalize why the smaller gear would slow down the clock (although I did figure it out several days later). It seemed logical that weight would slow the turning of the gears. Did I have some long-forgotten experience that taught me that this was true? And the decision to use 2 quarters instead of 1 or 3? It wasn’t based on any kind of formula or algorithm; it just felt right.

All of which raises another question: Why ask why? What matters is that I fixed the clock and it was a nice victory. I’ll take it!

BTW: It’s now 8:30pm.  😀


S1E16. The Name Game

No…not the Shirley Ellis 1964 version (“Nick, Nick, bo-Bick, bo-na-na fanna fo Fick…).

I created a new version after noticing I was blocking on names in everyday conversation. Although I clearly knew who I was talking about, when it came time to say their name, I would blank out and it would take me 5-10 seconds to retrieve it.

That got me thinking about remembering names in general. There are plenty of articles on the web about how to better remember names when you are first introduced, but I couldn’t find anything about how to recall names of people who were well known to you.

So I decided to test myself by trying to remember names of people who I hadn’t seen in years.

I started in 1972 (the year I graduated from Brown) and tried to recall names up to about 2011 when I left North Carolina to move to Pennsylvania to be with Sally. 

I had no trouble at all conjuring up mental images of their faces. After all, these were people with whom I had long-term relationships, like professors, co-workers and neighbors.

A few names appeared right away. For the most part, though, I had to work hard to find them. I would often get the first name fairly quickly, but it might take me 15 minutes or more to find their last name. Having done this for a week, I’ve successfully recalled dozens of names from my past, with only 2 remaining unidentified.

All of which got me wondering about what was going on in my brain. 

Memories of faces and memories of names are stored in different places in our brains. Designing and implementing a strategy for finding both and linking them takes place in another area altogether. And then there are the pathways that connect all three regions.

So what did I learn about myself by playing the game? First, I can recall a lot of faces. More accurately, I can recall important faces. There are hundreds of patients I saw as a psychologist and guests I hosted at our B&B who didn’t leave retrievable memory traces.

Second, although they are hard to find, my memory for names is pretty good, too. The memory of the name is intact as is the pathway connecting it to its face.

Third, my ability to create a task, develop a strategy and implement it is also working well. I tried multiple approaches when my initial search failed: going through the alphabet to test first letters (similar to how knowing the first letter of an answer in a crossword puzzle makes it easier to solve), trying to recall how many syllables were in the last name, replaying memories of my interactions with the person instead of just viewing their face in my mind’s eye. And then there were the times when I just gave up…and the name popped into my head ten minutes later!

But it wasn’t like I could go straight to the file folder where I knew the answer was. Most of the time I was staring into empty space, knowing that the answer was not where I was looking. I could feel when I was wrong and also when I was on the right path. When I did unearth the correct name, it was as if all the associated circuits lit up simultaneously and I instantly knew for certain that I was right.

So if I had to guess, I would say that my weakest link might be the pathways connecting the involved modules. It would make sense (to me, anyway) that they had atrophied over the years for lack of use.

But is this normal aging? I have no clue! In my brief web search, I couldn’t find any published research about this subject. The failure to connect faces with names and identities is well-documented in Alzheimer’s Dementia, but I couldn’t find anything about difficulty making those connections earlier in life being a risk factor.

So if you decide to play the game, please let me know how you make out. I’d love to hear about your experience.

In the meantime, feel free to reminisce a bit with Shirley Ellis’ memorable  lyrics:

The name game. Shirley! Shirley, Shirley

Bo-ber-ley, bo-na-na fanna

Fo-fer-ley. fee fi mo-mer-ley, Shirley!

Lincoln! Lincoln, Lincoln. bo-bin-coln

Bo-na-na fanna, fo-fin-coln

Fee fi mo-min-coln, Lincoln!

Come on ev’rybody, I say now let’s play a game

I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name

The first letter of the name

I treat it like it wasn’t there

But a “B” or an “F” or an “M” will appear

And then I say “Bo” add a “B” then I say the name

Then “Bo-na-na fanna” and “fo”

And then I say the name again with an “”f” very plain

Then “fee fi” and a “mo”

And then I say the name again with an “M” this time

And there isn’t any name that I can’t rhyme

Arnold! Arnold, Arnold bo-bar-nold

Bo-na-na, fanna fo-far-nold

Fee fi mo-mar-nold. Arnold!

But if the first two letters are ever the same

Crop them both, then say the name

Like Bob, Bob, drop the “B’s”, Bo-ob

Or Fred, Fred, drop the “F’s”, Fo-red

Or Mary, Mary, drop the “M’s”, Mo-ary

That’s the only rule that is contrary

And then I say “Bo” add a “B” then I say the name

Then “Bo-na-na fanna” and “fo”

And then I say the name again with an “”f” very plain

Then “fee fi” and a “mo”

And then I say the name again with an “M” this time

And there isn’t any name that I can’t rhyme!


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