Another year is drawing to a close and there is no denying that I am growing older. It is 40 years since I graduated and 25 years since I became a professor; however, counting the years does not give you a sense of age in the same way as the aches and pains that follow any serious exercise or the length of time that minor injuries take to repair [see ‘Moving parts can no longer be taken for granted‘ on July 28th, 2021]. These signs make it abundantly apparent that my body is ageing, albeit slowly, and providing incentives to take care of it through regular exercise – sitting writing blog posts is not sufficient! But, what about my brain? Apart from a tendency to forget people’s names, I am unaware of any signs of ageing. In fact, in many ways my neural networks feel more vibrant and capable of assembling in new complex patterns than ever before [see ‘Thinking in straight lines is unproductive‘ on July 29th, 2020]. Of course, that might be my mind fooling me in which case I will rely on others around me to let me know that it is time to retire. Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores that “It’s not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” I am stilling pursuing ideas and aspirations, some of which I report in this blog, so perhaps it is reasonable to assume that they are keeping old age away.
Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Penguin, 2014.
Mike Carter, The Joy of Birds, FT Weekend, 15 October/16 October 2022.
I am an habitual user of a fountain pen. It is the only writing implement that I carry with me since I enjoy writing with a fountain pen and because I can keep track of one pen but no more than one. I have used it, and its predecessors, to make notes in a series of forty notebooks that stretch back to when I started as a research assistant forty years ago. I used to record laboratory results in my notebooks but nowadays I have a research team who perform all of the work in the laboratory. I still use my pen and notebook to record meetings, ideas and notes on papers. I find the process of writing notes by hand to be conducive to both remembering detail and connecting fragments of information into new thoughts and ideas. I am not alone in having these experiences. Researchers have found that taking notes by hand improves the performance of students in answering conceptual questions compared to students who use a laptop to take notes. When you write on a laptop, it is easy to delete words and re-start a sentence, whereas to create a coherent set of notes in a book you need to craft a sentence prior to committing pen to paper. Perhaps the latter process allows a more persistent assembly of neurons to be formed in your brain [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from a planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020]; or maybe it is just the irregular spacing between handwritten words which creates a more distinct pattern that can be more readily recalled than the repetitive single spaces in typed text. I certainly feel there is a connection between recalling the image of a page from my notebook and remembering the content even though I cannot usually read the words in my mental image.
Crumb RM, Hildebrandt R & Sutton TM, The value of handwritten notes: a failure to find state-dependent effects when using a laptop to notes and complete a quiz, Teaching of Psychology, 49(1):7-13, 2022.