Can I Defrag My Brain?

Conventional wisdom says we only use ten percent of our brains.  Well, that’s been debunked by scientists in various ways.  There are plenty of articles on the net that explain why this meme is an urban legend.  We don’t have a lot of extra capacity idling under the hood, especially as we get older.  At sixty-two I feel my brain is so chock full of facts that to learn a new phone number requires forgetting another number.  It’s like my brain is a computer hard drive at 99.9% usage.  I need to delete files to make room.  With computer hardware we can defrag ours drives, putting all the fragmented files into continuous order, thus speeding up access to our data, freeing up space, and even discovering bad sectors.

Is it possible to defrag our wetware too?

I need to speed up access to my stored thoughts, fix links to lost facts, delete old memories to have space to learn new things, and make my old brain run more efficiently.  Is that possible?  I’m not sure if our wetware uses linked lists, but it sure does feel like it.  It seems like I recall information by association to related information.  And nowadays I often can’t remember particular tidbits of data because my links are broken.  What I need is to defrag my mind.

This little TED film is very enlightening.  It explains why multitasking is wasteful, and why I can’t think when I’m tired and hungry.  If I’m theorizing I can defrag my brain, I’ll have take energy use into consideration.  This DNews flick below shoots down the ten percent idea too, but it does claim we could do more with our brains if we worked harder.  I’m thinking I need to work more efficiently with the remaining capacity I have, especially since my mental abilities are obviously in decline, and I can’t add new capacity.  I’m not being a defeatist, but accepting the reality that aging involves decay.  I really wished I did have an auxiliary memory though.

One thing that really helps me defrag my brain is blogging.  Struggling to put my thoughts into a coherent essay is almost exactly like taking widely disperse file fragments on a hard drive and putting them in one continuous file.  Not only does writing help me organize my thoughts, but making them coalesce into a unified structure seems to delete smaller thoughts from my brain.  I have no idea if this is true or not, but it feels that way.  Each time I write a good essay I feel like I’ve deleted a bunch of aborted drafts and stacks of 3×5 cards.

Many scientists have describe dreaming as a way the brain cleans up each day’s experiences and throws out the unneeded memories.  This sounds like a kind of defragging of files too.  Often during the day when I’m too tired to write, I’ll take a nap and when I wake up my brain is clear again.  I think partly this is recharging the brain, like recharging a battery, and partly sleep must clean out chemical waste that clogs my neural pathways, but it also feels like my unconscious mind has been processing my thoughts too, like organizing paper files into folders for my conscious mind, because when I wake up my thoughts feel more orderly.

The first film takes exception with multitasking, and I think they’re right.  I find that my brain feels more efficient if I try to do fewer things.  Now that I’m retired I my brain seems freed up to think about new things.  I worry about less crap now, which makes me think the old adage, “Use or lose it” is a kind of mental defragging tool.  Want to erase memories?  Avoid thinking, worrying and studying a subject.

One of my life-long models of behavior comes from the  1950 science fiction film Destination Moon.  When making their initial lunar landing, our fictional astronauts use too much fuel, so they don’t have enough rocket juice to return to Earth.  The solution is to jettison as much mass as possible from the spaceship so the fuel they do have is enough to make it back home.  Many self-help books promote the idea that if you want to succeed with your ambitions its best to have only one goal.  I never could do that, and I’ve never been great at anything in my life.  Now that I’m old I realize the same principle applies to coping with aging.  The older I get, the more I realize I’ve got less fuel to get me through the day.  The key to fighting this problem is to jettison tasks that don’t matter so I have to fuel to to do what matters most.

But I’m learning to do things that the astronauts in Destination Moon didn’t know how to do – make more fuel.  Eating better, exercising, and sleep either give me more fuel, or makes my old brain run more efficiently so I can do more with less.  I’m still on a downward spiral towards an eventual heat death of my universe, but every little bit of order I gather now seems to fight personal entropy.

One thing I’m learning lately is being a news addict is counter productive.  More news means less news remembered.  I love reading the “news” on the internet about all kinds of subjects, watching news shows and documentaries on television, and reading as many books as I can, but I’m discovering it’s better to take in fewer stories and concentrate more on one idea at a time.  This is very hard to do, because so much is going on in the world and it feels like I’m missing out if I don’t pay attention to everything.  Not watching the NBC Nightly News feels like I missed out on what went on around the world that day.  But you know what?  I’ve watched thousands of episodes of the nightly news and I can’t remember 99.9999% of what I’ve seen.  I record the news on my computer’s DVR, and I’m learning to skip through certain kinds of stories.  This has a defragging effect on my brain.  Eventually I might stop watching the news altogether, but right now I can’t break that habit.

I’m finding it more satisfying to read a whole bunch about one interesting topic than learn a little about a hundred different of subjects.   I think either way I’m going to forget most everything I learn, but it’s more satisfying to gorge on one subject than graze on a thousand.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll retain a little more of that one subject. 

This is analogous to a computer’s CPUs and multitasking.  Our brain’s main loop can time slice many subprograms, but the more we have going, the slower our brain runs.  Having fewer interests and worries speeds up processing on the functions we do keep running.

I don’t know if it’s scientifically possible to defrag my brain, but I sure am trying.

JWH – 7/9/14

3 thoughts on “Can I Defrag My Brain?”

  1. I’ve been meaning to comment for a long time, Jim. Am I too late? 🙂

    I read your posts in email, and I’m always saving them, thinking I’ll comment later, when I’ve caught up with all my other emails. Of course, I never get caught up. Heh, heh.

    Anyway, I had a classmate in high school who expressed similar concerns. He said he didn’t want to learn anything that wasn’t immediately and undeniably of use to him, because his brain had a finite capacity and he was worried about filling it up.

    If we lived forever, maybe his point would be valid. Even as it is, we don’t remember everything. We can’t. However, in the age of the Internet, facts can easily be found online, so we hardly need worry about which we remember. If you’ve even got a vague recollection of hearing or seeing something, you can easily Google it. (I take notes sometimes, too.)

    Narrowing your focus to just a few issues can make you more of an expert in those issues, I suppose (although, without taking an advanced degree in those issues, you might end up just reinforcing your existing beliefs, rather than really becoming the expert you thought you were).

    But I’d say that a wide variety of interests is better for recognizing relationships between varied subjects, better for identifying cognitive bias and other errors, and better for exercising your brain. Yes, your brain needs energy, but it also needs exercise. And unlike physical exercise, wearing a path between two familiar points won’t do any good at all.

    Jim, I think you worry too much about losing your brainpower as you get older. That’s possible, of course. But I’ve known some very bright people who were a lot older than we are! And I’d say that the biggest danger as you get older is just that you get too rigid in your thinking.

    I don’t worry about having fragments cluttering up my brain, because I can sometimes connect those fragments into something new. (A blog is a good place for that.) And you don’t have to remember the details of the nightly news in order to recognize patterns from it.

    I’m just the reverse of you. I want to learn about… everything. I’m not an expert in anything, but I really have no desire to be. But then, I’ve always been like that. I’ve known people who remained enthusiastic for year after year about their one small area of interest, but that’s not me.

    So, much of this is probably just our own innate differences. There’s certainly nothing wrong in narrowing your focus. But it’s not for me.

    PS. One way I try to keep my brain exercised is by reading blog posts like yours. They always give me something new to think about. Thank-you!

    1. Mainly this essay was a preemptive strike against that movie Lucy, where they promote the idea we only use 10% of our brain, and if we used more we could work miracles. I hate that belief. A lot of science fiction, and much of comic books promote that silly meme.

      My brain is stuffed. Most of my friends feel the same way about their brains. We’re all having more and more senior moments. I’m not too worried because even though I have lots of memory lapses, I’m having fewer than my friends. It’s like that old joke about two men hiking in the woods and they come across a bear. One man throws off his pack to be able to run better and his friend says to him, “You can’t outrun a bear.” And the other guy replies over his shoulder as he starts running, ” But I can outrun you…”

      I know my brain is going, I’m just trying to keep it going longer. And I’ve found writing about my leaky brain to be a way to keep it going longer. Laughing at the holes in my head is good therapy.

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