Middle-aged brains

A conversation yesterday with my older son, comparing his high school physics class with the one I took in 1979, reminded me that this year is my 30th high school reunion. (I don’t plan to attend – for all I know it’s already over – I had few friends in high school and I can find most of them through Facebook.) As he went through elementary school and middle school, I looked forward to when he got to high school and we could discuss subjects of interest. I thought I might even be able to help him with his schoolwork sometimes, as I thought I remembered things pretty well, if general if not all the details.

I have occasionally managed to help him with a math problem (though I find that I can only do so with a pencil and scratch paper – it seems I used to be able to do more work in my head but I’m not sure), but most of the time I find myself casting in vain to dredge up knowledge that I thought had been submerged just below the surface. Apparently a lot more than I thought has long since sunk to the bottom, rusted, disintegrated, or whatever else happens to knowledge left too long unused.

I read somewhere, a few years ago, that studies have shown that the brain of a young adult is better suited to absorbing new information, while the brain of an older adult (older meaning past young-adult age, not “old”) is better suited to synthesizing different pieces of information. It’s been over ten years since I last took a for-credit class (when I got my MBA), so I can’t say how my brain is doing in that regard. I still love learning, but I haven’t had to submit my learning to a written test in a long time.

Fifty-seven-year-old Sue Shellenbarger accepted her teenage son’s challenge to take the SAT this year, forty-one years after taking it the last time. Today’s Wall Street Journal has the fascinating account of her test preparation, taking the test, and the results. I’m not particularly keen on emulating her, though I will take refuge in claiming that it is to avoid the unnecessary expense. I had very good scores thirty years ago, I find it highly unlikely that I would get as good scores again, and I have no desire to prove myself right.


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