Breaking the Cognitive Decline Barrier

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 16, 2018

2008-2018

The above two drawings by Grace Murray were taken from “20+ Artists Challenge Themselves To Redraw Their Old ‘Crappy’ Drawings, Prove That Practice Makes Perfect.” They are an example of cognitive increase. Murray’s mind/body skills have progressed over time by an amazing degree. We seldom see such perfect proofs of cognitive progress. I highly recommend everyone visit this site and look at all the before and after drawings – there are now 14 pages of them. Parents and teachers should use this site to show their kids and students.

What I want to talk about is cognitive decline. I am not a scientist, and I am not using this term in a scientific way. I’m appropriating the phrase “cognitive decline” temporarily for this essay. For my purposes, it means both the mental and physical decline in our countless abilities. I believe our mind and body are a single unit. How well our mind works is dependent on the well-being of its integration with our body.

I have a friend that is worried about cognitive decline and wanted a baseline to measure against. I thought that was a fantastic idea. I’m not sure doctors can easily provide medical diagnostics to do such a job, nor do I think we can easily invent one on our own. My theory is we each need to keep an eye on ourselves and develop a series of baselines to follow over time. We have to become our own psychologists.

The baseline I want to describe is the ability to apply myself to a task and improve. It’s exactly what Grace Murray is doing with her drawing skills. I would like to believe that at age 66 I can still learn a new skill and show improvement over time. However, I struggle to do this. There is a barrier that I can’t break through. But I don’t believe it’s age-related per se. I’ve always had trouble applying myself to a task. I give up too easily. The baseline is not the skill, but the willingness to work at a skill.

Persistence pays off. That’s what the article about how artists show improvement over time reveals. They keep practicing and improving. The first cognitive decline barrier benchmark I want to observe in myself is that quality that makes me keep working to improve. That’s a very slippery target. My theory, as we age, we give up trying. We fall back on comfortable routines, rationalize the enjoyment of our indulgences, tell ourselves we can’t do it anymore.

This is not the only baseline I want to track. I’m noticing plenty of problems with myself, but this benchmark is a critical one to me. Most of my friends tell me they struggle to remember words, especially names. And again, we laugh about how those names pop up hours later. It’s like we haven’t forgotten but just can’t find our memories right away. Could we also improve our recall ability with persistent effort?

And it’s not just memory. We make fun of ourselves for not being able to do physical things that we once found easy to do. And we compare the times we’ve fallen or left the car keys in the refrigerator. Getting old is loads of fun when you can laugh at yourself, but it can be mentally wearing. We can even give up on fighting the good fight.

The worst thing about my cognitive decline to me is giving up. It’s so easy to just let things slide, or tell myself I can’t do that anymore, or accept I’d rather take a nap than do something on my To Do list. Most telling to me is not finishing what I aim to write.

I’ve been thinking about the nature of cognitive decline. I’m not sure, but I think we’ve always experienced it our whole lives, at least at times. I remember being young and tossing in the towel when things got hard, or struggling to recall words for a test, or being mentally impaired on dope or drink. I remember days when I could convince myself to jog five miles instead of my standard two but on other days set out to run five miles and only make two.

Cognitive ability depends on a lot of factors. When we were young, healthy, rested, well fed, we felt like we could do anything. As we age, and our body wears out the cognitive decline barrier changes. Stress is a huge factor. Like the sound barrier varying with altitude and temperature, cognitive decline varies with health and stress.

I’d like to believe I’m not too old of a dog to learn new tricks. I feel by writing this essay I’ve discovered something I can track and work at. Will I make the effort? That’s the cognitive decline barrier I have to break through.

Just look at these amazing next drawings. It tells me people can learn a lot in two years. Could I do the same thing from 66 to 68?

2014-2016

Art by DVO

What made this woman stick with drawing eyes until they are so vividly real looking? I’m only guessing here, but here’s what I think. She’s willing to work at the task for hours on end. She’s willing to study tutorials and acquire a large library of techniques that she’s programmed into her mind/body with that practice. I’d also guess she works with tutors or teachers that can critique her work. She’s also willing to forego other pursuits and interests and focus on this task as her primary ambition. Being young is probably a significant factor, but I’m not sure how critical it is. Can older folks learn to draw this well if they make the same effort?

The difference with being older is having the energy and stamina to work at anything for hours. But there’s also a difference between giving up completely, and working an hour at a time.

Since high school, I’ve dreamed of writing science fiction stories. I’ve taken a number of writing classes and even spent six-weeks at Clarion West. I’ve finished dozens of unpolished, unsold, stories, and a couple crude novel drafts. I have not succeeded in my dream because I haven’t stuck to the work. I haven’t taken my stories from 2014 to 2016 like the drawings above.

I wonder if I worked at writing short stories again could I make myself persist? Could I show improvement over time like this artist? Am I just too old? Or is the cognitive decline barrier too great to break through at 66?

Saying one of my baselines is the failure to finish is rather vague. If I can return to churning out 12,000-word stories of the same quality as before, then I haven’t declined. If I can’t, I have. What I’m really interested in, is if I can actually improve like DVO. Not just write a better story, but improve my baseline on trying, on being persistent?

(Writing this essay took more persistence than usual. That’s a good sign.)

JWH

4 thoughts on “Breaking the Cognitive Decline Barrier”

  1. Hi, Jim. Carla Keith here from the sci-fi book club. This is an interesting concept that is soon to become of greater interest as the Boomers age further. Length of life is not as important as quality of life. As medicine continues to maintain physical bodies, we need to think of how to keep minds active and engaged, and people socially connected. More seniors report problems with loneliness than any other emotional problem.

  2. The mind/body problem faces all of us as we age. Cognitive decline would seem to mirror physical decline. But cognitive decline is also complicated by maladies like Alzheimer’s and dementia. We can fend off some cognitive decline with a regimen that you’ve described with artwork and writing or learning a new language. But I think the real solution might be beyond our current technology: freeing our mind/consciousness from its corporal prison.

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