As I get older, I realize my mind is slowing down. I was never a quad-processor kind of thinker, but I’d like to believe my brain could chug along like a good ole AMD X2 chip. Now my thoughts feel like they are powered by the original Pentium. I’m starting to pay attention to the people around me, and realize we have unequal minds when it comes to gray matter CPU speeds. I’m also wondering if working with machines is pushing everyone to think faster.
In our culture, we mostly judge people by their covers, but when it comes to brain power we’re as diverse as our physical features, and we seldom take that into account when communicating. In a classroom of third graders or even a college calculus class, all the students are expected to learn the same material at the same pace. Is that fair? When I was a kid I had supercomputer ambitions. It took decades to accept my brain was just ordinary, like computers built to run Microsoft Office.
At work I’m a computer geek, and friends envy my tech knowledge. I’m thankful I’m good at something because I’m so bad at everything else. My brain struggles to remember the names of the people I already know, and it seldom remembers new names, but I’m surprised at how fast I learn technical tidbits. But even that ability is eroding with age.
The other day I was helping a young women who had asked me about putting words on photos in Microsoft Word – something I didn’t know how to do within Word. Her hands flew over the keys showing me her project and files, and I was amazed by how fast she could think, type and traverse folders with keyboard shortcuts. I pulled up Google and searched on her problem and found a good solution, but before I could tell her anything, she read over my shoulders what to and was ready to go. This girl had a mind like an Intel Core i7.
I could tell her young brain, about a third in age of my rusty noggin, could process input far snappier than I could. I admired and envied her fast thinking, wishing I was young again, because now is a fabulous time to be young working with computers. On the other hand, I have to worry about slower thinkers, and the fact that I’m slowing down myself.
Is it me, or does the world feel like it’s speeding up? Aging has me feeling like a lethargic cold blooded lizard living among fast thinking mammals. My wife often gets impatient with my slow mental processing and tries to finish sentences for me. This is why I love blogging – I can take as much time as I want to put my thoughts together.
Speed of thought is relative though. Usually people complain that I go too fast when I help them with their computers, so I have to slow down. When helping most people I show them the routine, let them walk through it once on their own, and then they are usually good for solo flying. Some people I have to repeat the steps 2-3 times. Occasionally I get people who have no knack for computers and I can show them how six times, let them write the steps down exactly, watch them four more times and then they still call me back 15 minutes later. Often I have to learn on-the-spot how to solve the problem people want me to teach them, but few people notice how I do this. Google is the magic word, folks.
On one hand, I worry about these people who don’t seem to be adapting well to the machine age. I admire the ones who refuse to run at gigahertz speeds and reject interfacing with machines. I think I stand between two generations, the ones who lived without computers and didn’t need them, and the next generation of cyborgs that think like a CPU co-processor.
But computer literacy doesn’t always run along generational lines. Even though it seems we’re forcing everyone in our society to use a computer, not everyone is a PC or a Mac. My friend Laurie, who is a scholar of reading literacy, hates that other skills add the word “literacy” behind their noun to refer to their minimum standard of expressing knowledge, so we need to think of another term for people who work well with computers – cyberbiotic?
As much as I admire fast thinking, I also have to worry if speeding thoughts aren’t the best way to think. Has anyone notice how fast they edit TV shows and movies today, with the average length of film cut getting shorter and shorter over the years? This makes the action go faster and faster. I can’t watch The Amazing Race anymore because its quick edits are jarring to me. When I watch an old movie from the 1930s, the pace suggests their time had calmer thoughts, and the long meandering sentences in a 19th century novel implies even more leisurely thinking.
I think it’s unfair that practically everyone has to use a computer in their jobs in the 21st century. Computers do enhance creative pursuits, but does every task need to be computerized? It’s as if we’re all adapting to living inside a new digital reality. Will this cause us to breed humans with faster and faster minds to keep up with computer evolution?
I’m not sure the average person ever thinks about the speed of thought, but it’s obvious one of the inequalities of life that we suffer. And I’ve noticed not all young people are fast thinkers either. In the old days, when kids had learning disabilities they were called slow. When everything speeds up, will people with average ability be considered slow too?
Minds are not like computers, but there are many fascinating comparisons. Fast thinking can be compared to having a brain like the latest Intel chip, while old minds can be likened to the ancient 386 CPU. Human memory is a far cry from computer RAM, because computing would be impossible if machines had recall times and error rates of gray matter memory. Now that my memory is slipping away, I know that memory is often more important than processing speed. I can still think fairly fast, but it often takes me hours to recall specific words and names. The computers in the Apollo space capsule that went to the Moon were less powerful than the computers in today’s cheap telephones. Efficient programming and accurate memory can overcome major CPU limitations.
I’ll bet a person with a slow mind but good memory can beat out a fast mind with a poor memory in many job categories. But there are other factors, such as Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. A person with a mathematical mind can pursue careers that average Jacks and Jills can’t. Nor would gimpy math minds want to have to work with numbers. I wanted to be an astronomer when I was a kid, and got through high school physics, college calculus and several college physics courses before I ran out of mathematical momentum. I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of Bob Dylan, but I have zero point zero musical ability.
If I had been tested in the 7th grade and told about the limits of my brain, and informed that I could be an astronomer if I was willing to practice math two hours a day, would my life have been different? The mind is like a muscle, it can be improved with exercise – like I pointed out in “10,000 Hours to Greatness.” This really is a case of “If I knew then what I know now.”
We all hear about kids in other countries that must grind through hours of study to keep up with the standard. Now that everyone is competing with machines, will everyone have to run faster and faster? Maybe I could have pushed myself to work harder as a kid to become an astronomer, but will future kids compete with AI astronomers?
We all hear about how our educational system is in crisis, whether that’s true or news media chicken-littling, I think it’s a mistake to make an educational system that essentially tries to be one size to fit all. Would kids try harder if you customized their curriculum to fit their personal ambitions, matched to their brain speed and the amount of time they wish to practice?
Politically we like to think we live in an egalitarian society. And as growing adolescents we like to think we can be anything we want when we grow up. Socially we like to think we live in a classless society and can marry whomever we wish. Our churches teach us to believe that God created us all equal. Good or bad, I think we’re diversely unequal in our ambitions, the speed of our thoughts, and how much attention time we can apply to any task.
As I make my to-do list of projects I want to pursue in my waning years, I think I’m far more realistic because of this knowledge about my limitations than when I was young daydreamer planning what I could do with my life.
Maybe I’m just feeling sorry for myself and my slowing mind. Maybe it’s the way of the world for every new generation to speed past their elders, and for the elders to crab about the speeding youngsters. I turn 58 in eleven days, which is still pretty young, but I’m already looking forward to living in a retirement community where things move at a slower pace. Hell, if I move to the land of the ancient, they’ll think I have an Intel Core i7 mind, at least for awhile.
JWH – 11/14/9