by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 5, 2019
I subscribe to a service called Grammarly which checks my spelling and grammar as I write. Grammarly sends me a weekly report on how I’m doing. Two years ago it would tell me I was more accurate than 65-70% of their users, referring to grammar and spelling. I doubt even when I was young it would have been much higher. In recent months that number has fallen to 35-40%. And I can feel it. I have to proof my posts countless times and I still find errors after I’ve published. I’m appalled by how bad my writing has become. If I published my first drafts readers would think they were following Charlie Gordon into his descent phase from the book Flowers for Algernon.
I consider this good quantitative data on my cognitive decline. Grammarly does give me some good news. I’m generally more productive than 98-99% of their users, and my vocabulary is larger than 98-99% of their users. The first is explained by being retired and writing for two blogs. The second reflects long term memory. I can tell it’s my short term memory that’s failing.
I still don’t see this as an early sign of dementia, but I might be deluding myself. I think it’s just an aspect of normal aging. We’re used to seeing our bodies getting old because of all the visible physical changes. We’re not used to mental changes because they are less observable to ourselves and the people around us. Unless we talk or act differently, other people don’t see the changes. And we don’t feel the changes unless we try to do something and fail.
I have been noticing the number of times people ask me why I’m not talking. I tell them I’m just listening to them. Or say I’m thinking. But I believe it’s because it takes more effort to put thoughts into words, and when I do talk I can’t remember words, or I verbally trip when saying sentences. My cognitive problems are the most obvious when writing. If I’m just playing with the cats, watching television, or listening to music I feel fine. I believe we ignore our mental aging by doing less and saying less. Of course, many people also ignore signs of physical aging — that’s why so many foolish oldsters fall off ladders.
The real question is: Can we exercise the mind like we exercise the body? It appears we can slow physical decline by being more active. Is that also true for mental activity? My first reaction when I realized I was making more spelling and grammar errors was to quit writing. But I quickly decided that was the wrong approach. I believe writing exercises the mind. Instead of quitting I should work harder. However, I might need crutches. I thought about pilots who use preflight checklists, or how surgeons now use checklists to avoid making surgical mistakes.
I already pay Grammarly to keep an eye on me, but it’s far from perfect. In fact, when I see errors after I published it means Grammarly and I both missed them. I usually proofread my posts four or five times before I hit the published button. Often the most glaring mistakes are last-minute rephrasing where I don’t proof the whole sentence, or whole paragraph again. But other mistakes come from reading too fast and assuming I’m seeing what I read.
I believe my essays give the illusion that my mind is working just fine. Y’all don’t see how many broke things I fix. I use the internet to cheat. It really is my auxiliary memory. And I have unlimited do-overs. Most importantly, I can take all the time I need to say what I want.
I’ve always been a good typist. It’s been the most useful skill I learned in high school. What I typed used to be what I thought. Thoughts came out of my fingers. That’s no longer true. Now my fingers give me sound-alike words, leave out words, type words twice, and even throw in extra words. Quite often I end up typing just the opposite of what I was thinking. While typing this paragraph I created 8-10 alternate words to what I was thinking. Just that could explain the halving of my accuracy score in Grammarly.
[When proofing the above paragraph I had a new insight. What if my typing is as accurate as ever, and I’m merely typing jumbled thoughts when I once transcribed clear ones?]
Writing isn’t the only way I’m seeing increased cognitive problems. The other day I wrote “Untying a Knotted Plot” about my difficulty of understanding a short story. I had to read it four times. Admittedly, it is a complicated story. The author even wrote a couple of comments to help me. That essay was extremely difficult to compose. I struggled with trying to comprehend the story and write about it clearly. Every time I typed the author’s name I looked at the magazine to verify the spelling. I still got it wrong three out of eight times. I proofed the hell out of that piece because errors seem to be popping like popcorn. I felt like I was playing a very desperate game of Whack-a-Mole.
There’s another reason to keep writing. I want to document my own decline. Like the researchers in Flowers for Algernon, they tell Charlie to keep a journal. I’m going to be my own researcher and subject. I think it’s useful to be aware of my diminishing abilities. Aging is natural, and I accept it. I’m willing to work to squeeze all I can from my dwindling resources. What’s vital is being aware of what’s happening. The real problem to fear is becoming unconscious to who we are. Like Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
The reason why Flowers for Algernon was such a magnificent story is that we’re all Charlie Gordon. We all start out dumb, get smart, and then get dumb again. Charlie just did it very fast, and that felt tragic. We do it slowly and try to ignore it’s happening. That’s also tragic.