Brainpower – Use it or Lose it

I’m worried about my brain. I don’t think it’s working as well as it used to. I can’t remember things; I’m getting my words mixed up, I can’t find the right words to express myself.

What is happening to me? Is it dementia? Alzheimer’s? Do I have a brain disease? Do I need to see a doctor? Or is this just normal for someone of my age?

I’m forty years old. I don’t work. I have, for the last six years, looked after my two young children.

So, what’s happening to my brain? Why isn’t it working as well as it used to?

I’ve been giving this some considerable thought over the last few days – well, as much thought as someone with an apparent mental impairment can. And the answer seems fairly clear.

I’ve let it go. I’ve become lazy. Quite simply, I’ve not been using my brain as much as I used to.

I read less and what I do read tends to be dictated by the charms of my persuasive children. “Dad. Read this. It’s really good.” Anything to encourage them to read more.

Then there’s daytime television – a mind-numbing mass of game shows, soaps and tittle-tattle that gradually lures you in until you are trapped by its overwhelming addictiveness.

And finally, there’s the children. I’ve spent too much time with them, excused, as I have been, from the real world of work and socialising. Children are fun, loving, even challenging. What they are not, is a great source of stimulating conversation.

It can’t be right. I am an educated person. There has to be more to it than this.

There’s a phrase in financial management that anyone who handles a budget will be aware of, “Use it or lose it”. If you haven’t spent the money allocated by the end of the financial period, then you will have to surrender it. I believe the same expression equally applies to brain power; if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

I’m no medical expert but I have a particularly clear image of the brain. The brain is divided into different areas, each having its own role…numeracy, emotions, communication and so on. Our brain power is determined by the size and density of each of those areas but also by the multitude of bridges (synapses) that link these various areas together – the more bridges there are and the stronger those bridges then the more effective the person is at engaging the different parts of the brain and getting them to work together.

It’s like an enormous shopping centre with stairs, escalators and lifts letting people move from one floor to another. Their positioning, their convenience, their capacity determines the way people move around the shopping centre. The effectiveness of these links has a direct bearing on individual shops and the number of customers they can attract.

The brain operates similarly. Signals travel from one area of the brain to another via bridges. The stronger the bridge; the stronger the signal.

Shopping centres are designed with this in mind. It’s called footfall – the number of people who walk a certain path. It needs to be maximised. It needs to be managed.

Educationalists are also now focusing more on these links or bridges, getting children, particularly young children, to specifically develop their thinking skills rather than to just concentrate on learning subjects.

That’s what I must do.

I don’t think my recent loss of brain power is down to any structural weakness (I hope not anyway). My condition (if I can call it that) is due to a lack of upkeep… I’ve let the bridges that connect the various parts of the brain get into a state of disrepair. It’s like a house that has not had anything done to it for a while. It has started to look neglected. Little things at first – the paintwork, the guttering, missing roof tiles, the overgrown garden, and then, before too long, it’s dampness, leaking pipes and crumbling brickwork.

I have some serious maintenance to do. I hope I can do most of the repairs myself rather than having to get somebody in to do them. Surely I haven’t let it get that bad.

The brain is no different from any other part of the body. Lack of use leads to decay. If you don’t use your muscles then they lose their strength. Nature doesn’t like waste. If something’s not being used, if it’s not needed, then, by some law of nature, it will gradually be switched off. That, I fear, is what has happened to my brain.

I realise that it’s going to be a long and demanding journey to get back to full mental strength. It’s always difficult to get your fitness back. Anybody who is physically fit will know that if you stop exercising for a while – either through injury or through some lack of motivation – it always takes a long time to get back to the fitness levels that you previously had.

But at least I’m making a start. Training has commenced and my mind will now be getting regular workouts. So, just like that abdominal six pack, I’m on my way to intellectual prowess.

Update: This article was written several years ago, and I am pleased to inform you that, despite advancing years, my brain power seems to have regained some of its lost strength. Of course, I still forget things and I still sometimes doubt my mental agility but, overall, my brain seems to operate at the level want it to do.

©Copyright Steve Oxley 2019