Life-Long Learning 10/22/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

This afternoon, starting at 5:30, I’ll be sitting in a classroom. At 57 years of age, I’m learning a new skill, and a very hazardous skill at that. I’ve never so much as ridden on a motorcycle, and yet I’m going for my motorcycle endorsement, and have purchased one in the hopes that it will be a new hobby, one that will take advantage of my love of driving and encourage me to get out of the house more often.

Motorcycling requires quick reflexes, and coordination of, quite literally, your entire body but most especially all four hands and feet. One hand and foot control the front and rear brakes so you don’t skid of flip, the other hand works the clutch and the other foot shifts gears, and there’s more to it than that. The class will teach motorcycle laws, safe riding practices, techniques and more.

But the key is, at my age, it’s entirely new. My father retired and basically, just stopped. He stopped fixing things, he stopped pretty much everything. When my mother died, he even stopped going out. This year, he decided he had had enough. He got bored. He didn’t exactly commit suicide, but I’m sure he basically willed himself to die. Because, I believe, he was bored.

Recently, I went in for a hearing check. I never thought about a connection between hearing and dementia, but apparently, if your hearing becomes too bad, the part of your brain that processes sound recognition begins to atrophy. This, in turn, has been linked to dementia.

This all adds up to one basic concept; keep learning. We preach this in higher education, and it’s very true. It’s the spice of life.

It’s funny that the phrase “fat-head” is an insult. As it turns out, the brain is mostly fat with embedded nerve cells. That’s why your brain tastes so rich. No, I’ve never tried human brain, or brains of any kind for that matter, but I’m told it’s a delicacy. I’ll have to try it sometime, but the reality is that, to be a “fat-head” implies a lot of fat, which should mean a bigger brain.

But even though the brain is mostly fat, it works like a muscle. The nerves have to make new neural connections for every new permanent memory we have. Just like muscle, if you fail to exercise your brain, it, too, will atrophy and waste away. You want to exercise your brain, just as you exercise your body for a rich, full and happy life.

I realize it’s hard to do everything right. I myself don’t exercise my body as much as I should, but that’s about to change. I have a very nice set of adjustable dumbbells that currently I cannot use because I’m living with my friend in his apartment on the top floor, and I don’t want to be rude to the people underneath us. But in a few weeks, I should be moving into my new house, and my dumbbells will be moving in with me. I don’t have a goal of becoming a bodybuilder, but I will exercise at least enough to begin moving in the direction of getting into shape. It’s something small, but better than I’m doing now.

Is it too late for me to start? I don’t think anybody would say “yes”. Neither is it too late to start making new synaptic connections. But learning shouldn’t be a burden, either. The only way to keep learning is to keep it fun. Just like with exercise, the dumbbells will let me exercise in the comfort of my own home, but I’m guessing it’ll get dull all too quickly. So, when the weather breaks, I’ll try to walk, swimming is excellent exercise, biking; I’ll mix it up with forms of exercise that feels more like play than work, and learning can be the same way.

Do you want to get into the lifelong learning habit? Learn about things you enjoy, or are curious about, or that strikes your passion. I’m hoping that my motorcycle will turn into a new hobby. It might not be “serious” learning, but it’s learning. I find I enjoy the sciences, but if you don’t, learn about what you do enjoy. If it’s history, learn history. If you’re curious about psychology, consider taking a course online or at a local college even if it’s not towards a degree. These days people are becoming more passionate about politics and news (for good reason). Reading the news is a great way to learn, and if you do it for a surprisingly short period of time, you’ll start making historical connections that will make you look brilliant in a conversation. Whatever it is, start exercising your fat head.

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