02 January 2013

These aren't secrets, or so I thought

When discussing things with my mother and her worries about molecular brain plasticity for the elderly, she put forward her worries about same and what to do and so forth and so on.

I am no fount of wisdom, I'll say that right up front.  If you want wisdom there are tons of peddlers for it.

Instead of wisdom I put forward to her the proposition that for one to have brain plasticity it is of little good unless one is doing something with the poor organ of thought in the first place.  A plastic lump achieves no good ends, especially if left to its own devices as gravity will work its ways with it.  Plasticity is something found at the limits of cognition for the individual, save in the cases of advanced decay or disease or disorder or such like.  If your brain is coming out of your ears it is way too plastic to do you any good, and if it is decayed by these other things then staving them off is your best next option.  So without those in play comes the next bit, the hard part of life: actually using one's grey matter for something so as to keep that baby plastic in the first place.  If you don't got that, then worrying about its future state isn't going to do you much good at all.

Thus I changed course and pointed out that she had been a pianist in her younger years and that activity, that reading of music and translating it through your visual cortex into finger movements which got one tones from an instrument, was a good route to go.  I pointed out to her that in my younger years I had been known as a voracious reader and that I apparently was out-reading everyone in my class, amongst my teachers, and possibly in the entire school.  Sure a lot of it was SF and fantasy, horror and other trivialities, but that most SF was modeled on historical events, social conditions and that actually reading up on the history, itself, became a mandatory object to understanding the future-set story.  Thus history, biography, science texts... all grist for the mill so to speak.  Reading, for me, was an enjoyable activity and I liked doing it.  In fact I started doing something early on to help get more read and I related this to her.

I taught myself to walk and read.  Which is to say be upright, walking, mobile and read at the same time.  Like walking and chewing gum, but with no mastication involved but with much attention diverted to subject matter of interest.  This is called in the modern parlance: multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking means you are doing two tasks simultaneously and neither of them well.

Thus reading and walking is an extremely hazardous proposition, but a bit less so than running with scissors.

You must train yourself to do this and the way I started... what at age 8 or 9?... somewhere around there... was simply at home.  Learn to avoid the sofa, tables, chairs, and start in with peripheral awareness to mobile obstacles like other people or the cat.  You do not walk quickly doing this, nor read quickly, and your full concentration is now not just on reading or walking but what is known in the military parlance as: situational awareness (SA).  At best your walking speed is not so hot an nowhere near enough to get a workout: as a workout it sucks.  Your reading and comprehension rate are about 1/10th what you normally expect: that sucks.  Your SA is much, much better than it ever has been before you did that: it has climbed by 20% given a rough stick waving towards that.  That is actually pretty good, come to think of it.  Your SA starts to steady out along the way but the peripheral perception improves by leaps and bounds, to the point where, years and years later when I learned to drive, I could notice that idiot skidding out of the side across multiple lanes of traffic and about ready to deliver his engine into the driver's side door of my car with me in the way.  That sudden, sharp shift of my vehicle over the curb (sorry, there went the strut) saved my life.  It was due to vastly improved SA.  Things like that have happened a few times in my life.  Improved SA is not to be ignored, really, but generally is.

Now, where was I?

Ah, walking and reading!  After a period of time, and that I expect would vary from person to person but all I have is personal experience to go on, your confidence increases, your walking rate... increases some you are in a home with set dimensions, after all... but your reading rate and comprehension rate also goes up.  That can take a few weeks.  You can also learn to do other things while standing around and reading, like stirring a pot of boiling pasta on a stove, that is perfect as it requires not much attention and you get physical feedback via your hand.  I don't recommend doing dishes and reading, however.  Nor utilizing stairs, those suckers are deadly and require full attention.

If you are worried about brain plasticity, reading and doing some other relatively safe routine while doing so, although neither of them well, is a way to keep the old grey matter in use.  Balance, locomotion, feedback, peripheral vision, SA and reading material all are a bonus in this.

Having grown up in an area where bad weather constitutes that season from anywhere from late OCT to early MAY means that there was limited opportunity to expand the capability, but expand it I did.  I walked to school and, during times of half-way decent weather, I could walk and read while spending time training myself to be aware of the great outdoors that I was not interacting with but wanted to make sure it didn't interact with me.  Sidewalks and, later, boulevards became walking venues and the sight of me reading in the early morning walk to school, about a mile, and stopping at the corner, looking up from the book and looking both ways to cross the street would have been something a bit out of the ordinary, I expect.  The sidewalks were mostly level, but not fully.  People parked their cars in their driveway where it intersected the sidewalk on an intermittent basis.  Trash cans were a twice weekly feature.  People.  Cats.  Dogs.  That green fuzzy creature from Alpha Centauri... you know, the usual stuff to avoid.  Again, slow and measured and I allowed extra time to get to school for the first few weeks until I found myself at school with time to do the homework from last night.  Which meant less to carry.  Which meant a faster walking rate.  Almost like it was a plan or something!  And when I found I could do most homework in a few minutes of dead time at the end of one class or before the beginning of another.... really, most of that stuff is easy to do.

Derived efficiency increased as I prioritized dull or pointless tasks from the 'I hate this and will procrastinate on it' category to the 'get it out of the way IMMEDIATELY to get time back in life' category.  Mind you I did learn to creatively procrastinate for mind-numbing tasks and some of the 'homework' I put into the category of 'abuse' and didn't do and yet did well in the tests and such. 

Don't try that sort of stuff unless you have a retentive memory and good compositional skills.

Don't kid yourself that you have them, either, unless you can demonstrate them.

It may seem like an amazing and simple idea to prioritize stuff you don't like to the top of the task heap but it leads to all sorts of long-term changes in how you approach those tasks.  I consider those to be 'mono-tasks': those that require one and only one mind numbingly dull thing to be done that must be done that you don't like.  What happens when the repetitive and dull mono-tasks go to the top of your heap?  You figure out how to do them quickly and efficiently: you prepare for them.  All of school I categorized like that, in case you hadn't guessed by now.  From Kindergarten to my last year in University, all save for a few classes and instructors that were great, the rest went into the 'mono-task' heap that ate up time.  Yes I would read through the course work in, say, English the first week.  Why not?  No, really, why not?  Do you think you will learn more going chapter-by-chapter than by going by the flow of the sometimes supposed story?  I can think of only a few cases where the reading was so dense, so compact, so hard to get through that I needed to slow down to about half my normal reading speed to get the last 20% of my comprehension in play... Moby Dick comes to mind.  Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle English is another.  Hmmm... can't include Dune...or unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire... nor Way of the Pilgrim... those were 'pleasure reading'.  I probably would have gotten to Canterbury Tales at some point, but not in Middle English, that was one of the few real treats of University.  Even if you don't like to read what is the rule for those mono-tasks you don't like: prioritize them to the top and get them done and out of the way.

Self-inflicted efficiency is the best kind and makes for life altering habits.

Outside of work that sort of thing makes sure you get presents for other people the moment you see them.  That was before online shopping, of course, you would go broke doing that now.  Oil change?  Early morning, the first open time slot in the schedule.  Ditto car inspection.  Any bill that comes in that needs to be paid goes out the next day.  Pay off all bills in full and only go into hock for the big things in life: worrying about interest (or even worse not worrying about it) will destroy your life.

At work the dull tasks you get handed go to the top of the list... and finished as fast as humanly possible no matter when it is due.  I didn't hang around the water cooler or its equivalent.  I didn't go out for lunch but ate it at my desk.  Tasks got compressed.  I enjoyed technical reading (computers, lithography, color space, networks, all sorts of fun stuff) got put AFTER doing the mono-tasks.  Stuff due weeks down the road, unless they had some other time-dependent part to them, got done as fast as possible.  I had no inbox, nor outbox.

The secret was that I applied the exact, same efficiency principles I had taught myself at school to work.  To my entire life.  That does not mean that you can achieve equivalent results but the principle is an important one, I think, of first finding something pleasurable that you like to do and realizing that to get more worry-free time to do it, you must get rid of the worry creating things.  I didn't worry about things and still don't.  Those things that would create worry get done as fast as humanly possible: done and out of the way.  Without the things to create worry you then fill your time with other things that do not create worry.  That doesn't mean bad things won't happen to you.  What it does mean is that you won't worry yourself into them and you are better prepared to deal with them if and when they happen.

That list of stuff that happen to be problems in my physical and mental condition?

I deal with them.  I do all that is possible to make sure they are addressed, ameliorated, side-lined, treated, and otherwise put out of the worry-picture.  That means I increase my SA to address secondary issues with them as they are purely physical and mental things that have their own signs and signals to them.  I don't worry about them. 

Why bother?  Worry is a waste of energy and time in which I can be having a life, such as it is these days.

If you look back on my articles on history, sewing, woodworking, firearms, disaster prep... all of that stuff... realize that I am not operating at any high rate of capability, at least compared to where I was in my life up to 2004.  So?  I don't worry about it, I don't moan about my situation.  I am exploring my interests, my capabilities, recovering what I can and what I can't I don't worry about: there is far too much good in life to spend it in worry.  Having worries does not mean I have active worry: acknowledging that there are things that can go wrong does not mean I obsess about them.  Quiet the contrary they are dealt with and then I go on learning about what it is that I do have left.

How does one order their life like this?

Consciously.  It can't be done by osmosis.

I've never needed a 'self-help book' but I do have books that teach me how to help myself be it from casting aluminum or building a workbench or reading de Vattel to learn about what the structure of Nations actually is and how it comes about.  There is a gulf of difference between 'self-help' books and books that expect you to help yourself.  I make errors, I make mistakes, I don't always get it right... the FIRST TIME.  The second time I do a bit better.  The third time its almost as if I know what I'm doing.  I've been an expert in a large government agency... no, that isn't right because it was acknowledged I had multiple areas of expertise, but I am not an editor, I do not have a parasite living with me, I'm not royalty and I am certainly not divine so being 'experts' just doesn't do it.  What did that take?  Learning, teaching myself, using prior skills and bonusing off them, and prioritizing tasks... and I didn't give a damn if I was an expert or not, it was necessary to do the damn job.  I actively did not want the credit, either. 

I can't eat credit like that. 

It does my soul no good at all. 

Seeing other people learning from what I've done and being able to lead a better life because of it... that allows me to know I've had some value to others in this life and it is worth more than all the gold in the world. 

And I still can't eat it but it is a good feeling that lasts beyond all others.

These things are not secrets to leading a good life.

They just seemed blatantly obvious to me.

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