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Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Exorcising the untrained brain


Once at a Japanese hospital -- after first camping in the outer waiting room for an eternity and then sitting in the inner waiting room for half an eternity more -- I heard the nurse hold the following conversation with the doctor, whose desk was parked around the corner, just beyond my sight.

"Next is a foreigner."

"Oh?" answered the doc.

"I know you hate them. But you have to hang in there."

"All right. Send him in."

And I thought . . . "OK, this makes us even. 'Cause I hate doctors!"

Yet this doctor proved likable. An elderly fellow, he sat ramrod straight in a pressed white coat, with a twitchy smile over a dapper gray mustache. On his desk rested various toys -- beanbags, puzzle cubes, handgrips and so on. Soon it became apparent that it wasn't my foreignness that bothered him at all. Rather it was that other devil, the English language. Once he knew I could speak Japanese, he relaxed considerably.

Enough to advise me to start training my brain.

"Who knows when senility might strike!" he said, as if it might be lurking behind the curtain with an ax. "You have to keep your brain sharp to fend it off."

"Doc, I'm here for a skin condition."

"Senility," the older man warned, "can be prevented by a few minutes of simple mental stimulation a day, aided by some easy muscle enhancement." As he spoke, he tossed the handgrips with one hand and squeezed the puzzle cube with the other. "See?"

"And my rash?"

"Which would you rather be? Itchy or nuts?"

I surmised that -- if I worked at it -- I could probably be both.

"No, no. Senility results by not working at it. By letting your mind go to seed. Never ever waste a single opportunity to exercise your brain."

"I see. Should we speak in English, then?"

That stopped him. His face heated into an unhealthy red, and the puzzle cube in his hand almost cracked from pressure. He mumbled something about "the dark side," and the nurse rushed in and told him to hang in there. Meanwhile, I sat back and scratched.

With an ever-rising population of grandmoms and granddads, Japan has birthed a new health fad: senility -- or rather how to prevent it. Oldsters are continually advised to use their heads against the demons of dementia. So now traditional elderly diversions such as gateball, garden work and others have been joined by books of picture puzzles and math problems, not to mention video games geared just for geezers. The older generation is also pounding the drum on the sudoku boom.

"You have to work at good health, including that of your brain." The speaker is now my wife, who is crazy about both health and popular fads. When the two come together, she can hardly resist.

"Who wants their brain to go soft and flabby? Not me. No, I want my brain to be hard and lean like a world-class bodybuilder."

I can see it now -- her flexed and greased-up brain on the cover of Muscle magazine.

"Oh, stop teasing me and start teasing your brain. You're gonna be sorry when mine's in tip-top shape and yours is so pudgy that all you can think about are doughnuts and milkshakes."

"That's pretty much all I can think about now."

"Then you have to start training at once!"

Her first method is a simple as one, two, three. In fact, that's all it is.

"Easy arithmetic helps keep the brain nimble and bright. Go ahead. Quiz me."

So I feed her routine multiplications and sums, with my slow-mo delivery akin to a kindly coach lobbing fat pitches to a little leaguer.

She barks out the answers . . . "18! 47! 12! 33! 61! 9! 50!" . . . all of them wrong.

She is also out of breath. "It's OK," she pants. "In grade school I was exactly the same. It shows my brain is still young. If I got them right, then I'd be worried."

Next come easy memory drills.

"What," I ask, "did you eat for supper last night?"

Her brows ripple with concentration. I'm not sure what her brain is doing, but mine is imagining a drum roll.

"Rice . . . miso . . . and . . . fish."

"And the night before?"

"Rice . . . miso . . . and . . . fish."

This continues for an entire week of dinner menus. All correct because those foods adorn our table every single night.

"OK, how about lunch?"

"Lunch? When?"

"Yesterday."

". . . We had lunch yesterday?"

Slowly she flips through the food chain until she finally hits the right answer: rice, miso and fish.

"Trick questions aren't fair. Otherwise, my brain is as keen as a razor."

"And here's my secret." She sits me down and begins to twiddle her thumbs. Rapidly.

"The fine muscle movement that occurs in actions like twiddling your thumbs is great for the brain. I've been twiddling my thumbs since I was a girl. Sometimes for hours. And now we see the results."

But she has a caution. "Just don't stare at your thumbs while twiddling. It can drive you mad."

I let her go for several moments and then stop her with a shake.

"Don't you think we're too young to be worried about dementia? Sure, if senility can be slowed down or prevented, wonderful. But it's nothing to worry about now. We've got another 20 or 30 years."

"That's where your out-of-shape brain is wrong. If you'd been twiddling your thumbs all your life, you'd know senility can pounce at any moment. We've got to be ready."

"Oh, sometimes I think we're more than ready."

"I mean we've got to be ready to fight it off."

I ask her what might be the first sign of approaching senility.

"It varies, but often it's repeating what you say."

And the second sign?

"It varies, but often it's repeating what you say."

Hmm. Maybe both our brains need a metaphorical jog around the block. Maybe all our brains do. After all, the "dark side" is indeed dark.

So either twiddle your thumbs or twiddle some sums, but by all means . . . hang in there.



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