I’m writing this in my dorm room in Maine where I’ll live for ten days of this semester of the Stonecoast MFA program. Bathroom is down the hall. I’m on 4th floor, and some of my girlfriends are on 2nd, so I’ve already been down there to gab. I’m giggling as I write this because I sound like a college kid, and in my mind I’m traveling back to the first time I lived in a dorm. I’ve even propped my door open so people can come in if they want.
One of the lectures here is “Mental Health for Writers.” The required reading for the lecture included the book Softwired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life by Michael Merzenich. I read it with care because I may feel that I’m twenty again, but I’m not. This book was about brain health and how to keep it healthy and avoid Alzheimer’s. The brain is a big organ to keep working, and the way to keep it well is to keep learning.
The author cites all kinds of scientific studies to prove his point of how we can train our brains. Doing crosswords and sudoku won’t do it. Those activities require information recall, but don’t require learning something new. This guy recommends learning a new language. Well, that’s not going to happen. I was lucky to get a C out of Spanish the first time I lived in a dorm. Of course, physical exercise is great for the brain, and I’ve been climbing the stairs to the fourth floor.
Another thing the author recommends is working jigsaw puzzles. Seems the brain has to work by looking at shapes and colors and making decisions about where a piece goes, trying it here and trying it there.
This is something I do, albeit usually just in the winter. Landon and Heather have kept me supplied with portraitpuzzle.com puzzles, a new one each Christmas. The first one was a big family picture of my mom and dad and my siblings, spouses, and kids. It was bittersweet to put that one together. I’ve put together several of my grandson, Jagger, in different stages of his life. Abby and Marshall gave me a 1000-piece puzzle with 101 similar cartoon reindeers, which I completed by demanding the help of anyone who dropped by during December. That puzzle really exercised my brain.
But the most important thing to maintain brain health is to be mindful and kind to others. The author Merzenich recommends this, but it’s something I’ve always known by following the example of my folks. As a mom, I asked my young boys to do an anonymous good deed every day. Usually, one of them would whisper in my ear what anonymous good thing he had done for his brothers. He didn’t quite understand the anonymous part.
Another thing that exercises your brain is to have a good attitude and to live a life of joy. That may seem hard as we age and face trying times, but I’ve made a vow to find joy in every day. And I hope you will, too.
Oh, and about this dorm. The door locks automatically when you go out, no matter if it’s just to go down the hall to brush your teeth after supper and before the 7:00 session. You must always have the key card with you. And I can tell you from experience that campus security exercised the brain with the kindness thing when an officer came to let me back in my room.