My Brain Is Not Firing On All Neurons

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 26, 2016

For years now I’ve be plagued by forgetting words, especially nouns and names. From what I’ve read, that’s just a normal part of getting older. It doesn’t make me worry because my peers are experiencing the same problem.

Recently I started studying math using the Khan Academy. At first, I figured I could begin with algebra, but quickly discovered I needed to relearn basic arithmetic. One of the disconcerting things I’ve experience is thinking I’m doing a problem right, then double-checking, still feeling I’ve got the right answer, submitting the answer to Khan Academy, and seeing, nope, I was wrong. Damn! Each time I discovered I had made a very simply addition or multiplication mistake. If I had been calculating something in the real world, I would have used my answer with confidence. What a delusion.


More and more, I’ll start a movie on television thinking I haven’t seen that movie, only to discover I have. Sometimes, even fairly recently. And sometimes, I even have to watch 10-20 minutes before I realize my mistake. This is unnerving when I realize I saw the movie just three months ago. That would worry me big time, but I’ve heard other friends my age describe the same experience. Just another kind of senior moment we’re all collecting. And we all feel we can remember movies better from 50 years ago than the ones we saw last week.

I’ve been noticing in the past year or two I don’t have the same sense of balance that I did when I was younger. For example, I’ll be toweling off after a shower, and catch myself starting to fall because I was leaning over too much. Although, I still amaze myself with how often I can catch something I’ve accidently dropped. Some reflexes seem sharp, while others are wimping out.

Evidently neurons in every part of our brains are failing, but we don’t notice until we need them.

I don’t think anything is particularly wrong with me considering I’m 64. But I’m developing a theory. Maybe not a very scientific one, but still it’s my theory. I’m wondering as I lose neurons I’ll lose very tiny abilities. I’m sure I’ve got billions of neurons, but I’m thinking as we get older, and our neurons wink out, we’ll only notice their loss in subtle ways. Like one of those signs made of an array of thousands of lights, but with a few dead bulbs. The sign still conveys it’s message, but you see some dark holes where a light should be. It starts to be a problem when the dead lights change the wording.

I always pay attention to folks older than me, those in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They generally have more problems than I do, yet they still function. Just slower, with more little glitches.

I’ve read that we can grow new neurons even late in life, and make new synaptic pathways. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe if I keep studying math that other neurons will learn what the lost neurons knew. This hope fits in nicely with that old saying, “Use it or lose it.” But it also reminds me of those old acts on Ed Sullivan where a guy keeps a bunch of plates spinning on top of sticks. He would have to run from stick to stick to reenergize each plate to keep them all spinning. That would imply that anything we stop doing regularly is going to fall off its stick and break.

I also have to assume since none of us get out of here alive, that we’re all fighting losing battles. So over time, the number of dying neurons will grow faster than their replacements. That might explain why I see old people pursuing a dwindling list of interests as they age. I already feel like I’m chasing after too many hobbies and that I need to cut some loose. It’s like that old movie Lifeboat, where one by one the weak passengers give up. That means more for the survivors, but it’s cruel. I guess that also explains why downsizing is so popular with older people. We throw our weak interests overboard to die to help our major interests to keep living.

That line of thinking makes me wonder if I should sacrifice some hobbies sooner, if it would let me keep other hobbies longer. Here’s some of hobbies I was hoping to pursue in my retirement years:

  • Essay writing
  • Short story writing
  • Novel writing
  • Learn to program Python
  • Learn to program R
  • Study data mining
  • Study deep learning programming
  • Learn how to draw
  • Study art history
  • Relearning Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Calculus
  • Learning Linear Algebra, Discrete Mathematics and Statistics
  • Learn basic electronics to build fun toys.
  • Learn to build and program robots
  • Build and play an analog synthesizer
  • Learn to recreate famous science experiments
  • Build a cheap supercomputer
  • Buy a microscope and study simple microorganisms

The Khan Academy practice is teaching me just how ambitious my math goals are for an old guy. If I live another 20-30 years I might achieve some of them, but it’s going to take considerable work. Would those neurons be put to better use studying writing? Or does studying math boost my overall brain power that will help with writing too?

Should I give up my plans for math and electronics and gamble all my neurons on writing?

Of course, relearning math might be a complete pipe dream anyway. I’m currently studying 5th grade math. I might not have enough new neurons to get through algebra or geometry again. I’m working on an essay this week where I’ve hit the wall. I’m pretty sure I could get further if I gave up most other things I love to do each day.

It could be that neurons are like time, we only have so much, and as we get older,  we need to ration our neurons.


What Are The Limits of Individual Knowledge?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 2, 2014

This week I watched my favorite nature documentary, My Life as a Turkey for the third and fourth time – and never gets old. Joe Hutto was given 16 wild turkey eggs which he hatched with an incubator and then let the chicks imprint on him. Hutto spent a year alone with his brood in the Flatwoods of Florida, being their mother, and becoming a turkey. The more time Hutto spent with his turkeys, the more his mind adapted to the natural world. Hutto, a naturalist, had already spent much his life in nature, but at one point he said that normally he saw three rattlesnakes a year, but when he was with the turkeys he saw that many or more a day. He eventually learn over thirty vocalizations the turkeys used to communicate with each other. While he was with the turkeys reality revealed itself to him at a level he had never known before.


Now my point is not to talk turkey, but explore the capacity of the human mind. Hutto, by living with wild turkeys was able to see their minds were vaster than anyone ever imagined. He learned that animals live in the moment and see so much more of reality than we do, because our minds can’t stay focused on the present, and spend too much time dwelling on the past, or anticipating the future, places that don’t actually exist.

I am using examples from the natural world to think about thinking. The Inuit, the native people of the North American Arctic, were hunters who could traverse great expanses of frozen land and sea without maps or other navigational aids until they started using GPSes. The method of navigation by brainpower alone is called wayfinding, and the Inuit were highly skilled at it. I’m sure they also understood their prey like Joe Hutto understood his turkeys. Now that the Intuit use GPSes they have lost the capacity to live on the ice like their ancestors.

My guess is the maximum capacity of human brainpower is close to what humans experienced when living in nature and at the edge of survival. Becoming farmers, and then industrialized urban dwellers, provided us with ways to slack off. It’s only when we push ourselves to the extremes, in science, sports, mathematics, war, academia, business, do we get close to our operating maximum. Most people never push themselves in their day-to-day jobs, and watching television hardly taxes our abilities. It’s no wonder that video games are so popular, because they do push our minds to work harder.

We use machines and technology to make our lives easier, and even though we think we’re much smarter than those that have come before us, that might be an illusion. Our collective knowledge is greater, but probably not our individual knowledge. Just because I live in an era of computers and robots on Mars doesn’t mean I know how to create them, or even describe the science used in their creation.

We live in a time when everyone thinks they know everything, and the people who act with the most certainty seem to know the least. This is why I doubt the human race is smart enough to avoid extinction. I’m not being cynical about people, just trying to guess their real potential. I love computers, but I’m starting to think we’d be smarter without them. But I don’t think we should give them up either. It’s obvious the next stage of evolution is machine beings.

I think we need to invent ways to push our own brain capacity, and learn to amplify our individual knowledge by working together in new forms of social knowledge acquisition.  We see this in teams of inventors or entrepreneurs who apply their collective knowledge towards a common goal. We revere and praise the individual, but we might need to start recognizing great teams, and study how they work. Or how and why collaborative systems like open source software and Wikipedia succeed.

One example of that is climate science. Climate deniers tend to be individuals, but they are arguing against an army of scientists working together with billions of dollars worth of cybernetic minds  and scientific tools. It strange how often average citizens side with the deniers. Can any one individual ever understand enough to explain anything thoroughly about reality? We need to recognize the limitations of our minds, and how collective knowledge works.



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