Math For An Aging Brain

A Personal Essay

By Gene Wilburn

In my 76th year I decided to re-engage in the study of math. It’s important for seniors to keep their brains active, and entire books have been written about the plasticity of the brain and the desirability of keeping it stimulated. Yet one tires of a daily round of crosswords, sudokus, and Solitaire.

Even so, why math? Partly it’s because math fascinates me with its precision, logic, elegance, and beauty. Plus, math is hard. Hard, but not unreasonably hard. It requires effort, which is the point of studying it. Math is also open ended—you can grow with it, taking it as far as your ability allows. This makes math a progressively stimulating brain exercise. There’s always something new to challenge your thinking.

To put my relationship with math in perspective, some background is in order. Before immigrating to Canada and becoming a Canadian citizen, I grew up in the U.S. at the time the former Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik I, the first man-made orbiting satellite, in 1957. This triggered a call for a new generation of scientists and engineers.

President Ike and the Republican Party (which in those days was pro science) highly encouraged students to study science and engineering —today called S.T.E.M. studies —to catch up with the Russians and to usher in a new scientific and technological era. The transistor had been invented, television was transitioning from black-and-white to colour, rockets were sitting, and sometimes exploding, on launch pads, and exciting things were afoot. I wanted to be part of it.

Being an impressionable teen who, though tall, played basketball rather poorly and baseball even worse, I decided I’d become an engineer rather than pursue my childhood fantasy of becoming a sports star. I wasn’t sure, exactly, what engineers did for a living, but I owned a pair of engineering boots and thought them grand. In my naïveté I imagined that any profession where wearing them was considered de rigeur was the profession for me.

And so I began the math studies of a typical university-bound high schooler of the day: algebra 1, plane geometry, algebra 2, analytic geometry, and a mishmash of precalculus, including trigonometry, functions, slopes of lines, and limits . I was a solid B+ student, decent but plodding.

Off I went to university, slide rule dangling from my belt in a leather holster. I spent my first year flailing away at calculus, chemistry, engineering drawing, and vector analysis  and doing poorly in all of them. The only class I liked, and excelled at, was English Composition.

In a life-changing epiphany, it occurred to me that I could switch majors to English, which I did, and for which I’ve been grateful my entire life. I changed abruptly from S.T.E.M. studies to the Humanities, and I couldn’t have been happier. Literature, philosophy, history, French language, art, and music became my focus. I didn’t miss mathematics at all —then.

But life is strange, taking unexpected turns. In the end, against any reasonable probability, I became a kind of engineer after all. Propelled by a deep fascination with personal computers, I self-studied my way into the field of Information Technology, learning the skills needed to undertake a new profession: programming, database design, networking, web design, and infrastructure management. Over the years I’ve worked in IT, variously, in a cultural agency, a government department, a small business operation, and a large financial organization, all in Toronto. It has been an engaging and satisfying career.

Now, as I enter what are sometimes referred to as the “Twilight Years,” I find myself re-attracted to the study of math, though not with any specific goal in mind other than keeping my brain supple  by challenging myself with problem solving that transcends crosswords and sudokus.

With this goal in mind, I ordered a widely-used university textbook on precalculus. My god, I thought, can a math textbook really cost $170? How do today’s students afford them? The sticker price caused my senior’s fixed income to stutter. At least the graphing calculator app I selected for my iPad was free.

Ever since the book arrived, I have attempted to learn at least one new concept each day, or to work on an existing set of math problems until I get them right. Speed is not an issue. Slow and steady is the path.

Not that math study has so far helped me remember why I’m standing in the pantry, staring at the food shelves, or trying to recall what day of the week it is, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, I sense that my memory is improving. This is anecdotal, to be sure, but when I mentioned to my family doctor that I was reviewing math, he was delighted to hear it and encouraged me to continue, saying that he wished more of his senior patients would engage in a similar pursuit.

I’m aware that the study of math is the last thing in the world most seniors would want to undertake. Too many of them have had unpleasant experiences with it during their school years. Nor is the study of math something you can readily share with family or friends. People are impressed if you tell them you made a hole-in-one playing golf yesterday, or even if you finished under par, but they’re not perceptibly eager to hear that you successfully solved and graphed a dozen polynomial nonlinear inequalities.

Studying math is a solitary pursuit, almost a meditation on the nature of numbers. What distinguishes my study today from my studies as a young student is that there are no deadlines or exams. I can take my time. But I no longer wear engineering boots; they’ve been swapped out for fuzzy house slippers.

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