Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brain Challenges

This year my oldest child will turn 40.  When you have a 40-year old child, there's no denying you are getting into the "old" stage of life.  On the news they refer to people my age as "elderly".  It makes me laugh.  I'm definitely not thinking of myself as elderly.  But people age differently, and some of my age definitely do seem much much older.  What is the difference?  Is it how we think about ourselves?  Is it keeping ourselves fit in mind and body?  It is genetics?  Is it simple luck?

It's probably a little of all of those things.  We can't do anything about the latter two - illnesses and genetic predispositions can take a toll over which we have no control.  But we can certainly do plenty about the first two.

I was thinking about this today as I did the daily Sudoku on the Washington Post site.  I do that puzzle Wednesday through Sunday.  I skip Monday and Tuesday as they are too easy now -- I am solving them faster than I can put down the numbers.  The WP puzzle is rated by difficulty one through five stars.  The puzzles begin at one star on Monday and progress to five on Friday.  Then the weekend is usually a three-star on Saturday and five on Sunday.

My goal is to finish quickly without making mistakes.  In Sudoku, one mistake is fatal and you have to start again.  No guessing either.  A guess is simply a gamble.  Sudoku is a logic puzzle in which you use various techniques for determining the placement of numbers.  Sometimes you determine what CAN go in a spot, and sometimes you determine what CANNOT.  I have developed my own techniques and methods, but it still requires some thinking and deducing on my part.

I like to test myself as I play.  I look at a row/column/square and see how quickly my brain can determine what numbers are still needed there.  I am at my sharpest when I can take it all in in a single glance and know exactly the numbers needed.  I am at my dullest when I have to actually run through the numbers 0 through 9.  It is proof to me that my brain at certain times functions more optimally than at others.  And thus this game has become a little something more to me.  It's a way of watching my own mental capacity as I age and determining the things that seems to make me sharper.

I am usually pretty sharp in the morning after a cup of coffee - but not if I've had little sleep.  I'm very sharp right after a workday that has involved learning a lot of new material.  I can run through a Sudoku, make stunning Scabble plays, solve some tough crossword clues, sight-read piano music.  It seems my brain is most available to me when it has had some challenges and has had to work hard -- but is not yet over-tired.  I am not at all sharp right before bed.  I always have a crossword and a Sudoku on the nightstand, but it is often only a matter of minutes until I can no longer concentrate and I am falling asleep.

I'm rambling on a bit here, but this is all important stuff to me.  It helps me to see how people keep their brains fit and accessible into older age.  Two things seem to be important:  Sleep.  Mental challenges.  No doubt, food plays a part in this, too.

As I approach retirement age, I have begun paying more attention to what my retired friends do with themselves.  I worry that retirement will not offer sufficient mental challenges that I want and need.  Perhaps the puzzles and music do help but are they enough?  I can't answer that.  I'm still figuring this out. But I do have an easy way of keeping tabs on how I'm doing so far.

(By the way, I love the diagonal Sudokus that offer one more dimension to the puzzle.  I'm always looking for those.)


Artist said...

Congratulations to your sudoku talent! By the way I like the photo.

Becky Stauffer said...

Not so much a talent really, as a time-waster. Doesn't it sound a little like I'm trying to justify all the time I spend puzzling? :)

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Sudoku is totally addictive. I only do the hard ones, but sometimes it takes an embarrassingly long time to finish one. My brain is fuzzy around the edges by nature, "madly off in all directions". Is that picture recent? It can't be, unless you gave birth at 5!

Becky Stauffer said...

You are so kind, Ieneke. Yes that photo was taken last November at my best friend's house on my daughter's birthday. It was such a happy occasion and don't we always look our best in photos taken at such times.

You live in the Kootenays? The man I have been seeing for over two years is from an obscure little mountain town in BC and he has told me so much about the country there. I absolutely will visit one day and see all the beautiful and charming places. How lucky for you to live in one of nature's wonderlands!

Nicholas V. said...

Hmmm, who was it that said "Old is someone who ten years older than you"?

I feel definitely older when I see our students who seem to be younger every year! However, like you, I definitely do not feel old (by the way, you look too young to have a 40-year-old child!) and can be definitely childish sometimes!

I like sudokus, but much prefer the cryptic crosswords (English type), which can be very challenging, but at the same time very amusing.

Becky Stauffer said...

Cryptic crosswords sound like fun. I'll look for them. I do crosswords every day. And I have 20 online Scrabble games going at once. How do I have time for anything else!? (Not complaining.)