Exercising our brains on a daily basis has been shown to stave off dementia in old age in much the same way physical exercise keeps bodies from atrophying. I exercise 6 days a week. On the seventh day I do an hour of stretching. Until recently I hadn’t been as diligent with my mental fitness. After all, we’re vain people, and we can’t see our brains in the mirror. It’s too easy to neglect it. A common theme in most of my writing is the importance of parents to be fit so that they can properly take care of kids. I should not neglect staying mentally sharp as well. What six year old doesn’t ask ridiculously impossible questions like, “Why is the sky blue?” (I happen to own the book “Why The Sky is Blue” that’s dedicated to the subject). What about when we punish our kids by banning them from a favorite video game and they ask “Why?” and give us a good reasonable argument why they shouldn’t be banned; I hated it when my parents said because I said so! Shouldn’t parents be mentally ready to teach as well as to debate? Moms and dads need to spend part of their free time lifting brain weights. Reading, writing, doing puzzles and arguing are but a few healthy activities that serve the dual purpose of keeping our brains active and nurturing the brains of our kids. Parents need to take the time to exercise their bodies as well as their minds.
Stephen King reads between 60 and 100 books per year. He’s a writer, of course, and that makes sense. Even for the rest of us reading is essential to our creativity and vocabulary strength. Books serve two purposes. Good fiction writing stimulates our imaginations. They also support good vocabulary. My kids sometimes ask me for a definition of a difficult word. Usually I know how to use it in a sentence, but I can’t give a precise meaning. Reading builds my vocabulary and makes explaining the finer points of grammar to the kids easier. If I didn’t read as much as I do then I wouldn’t be able to communicate very well with my kids. I wouldn’t have the right words, and my kids would grow up without an appreciation for locution (see, there’s one right there).
It’s obvious that non-fiction writing is almost solely for information. I don’t read textbooks to learn how to write or to increase my vocabulary. For that matter, I don’t even do it for pleasure (although I know a few people who do). I do it because I want to learn something that I can pass on to my kids. What about the availability of on-line information? Kids should learn that the internet is no replacement for an authoritative book. A friend of mine recently wrote an article about it where he mused on inherent lie of social media. Blogs and other internet musings can give us a good starting point, and they certainly give us lots to think about. However to really learn something we still need books and print media from authoritative sources. Being good teachers means we need to be good readers.
I write every day, and I get better at it every day. Writing forces me to express myself in a way that other people can understand. A lot of people use impressive words and confusingly long sentences in their writing. Those people are ivory tower blow-hards, and nobody willingly reads their writing. The purpose of writing is to get a point across in as few words as possible and as clearly as possible. Writing clearly is an exercise in empathy. Empathy requires viewing life from alternate perspectives. That’s what writers do, and that’s why writing is such a great mind enhancer, we consider things we might normally take for granted. We have to use dictionaries and thesauruses so that our writing is captivating and clear. Again, with kids it’s all about communication. Writing and reading go hand in hand. We read to stretch our imagination and we write to express ourselves. When we can adequately do both of those things then we’ll be ready to explain exactly why the sky is blue to a six year old; we won’t say just because.
Puzzles and Games
How much do you want to stretch your brain? A lot? Good, because here’s Galileo’s paradox.
“With finite sets, a part is always smaller than the whole. But with infinite sets one part of the set can be just as large as the whole. Often it looks as a paradox, but from the mathematical point of view there is no paradox.”
“Some of natural numbers are perfect squares, such as 1, 4, 9, 16, 25 … . Each natural number is an exact square root of one perfect square. There are as many perfect squares as there are natural numbers. This can be seen by pairing the natural numbers with the perfect squares to show that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the two sets:”
Does it make any sense for there to be as many perfect squares as there are natural numbers? No, it doesn’t. But, then I’m not a mathematician. I’m just some guy who occasionally ponders infinite numbers for the hell of it. Michio Kaku explains this paradox (using a visualization called Hilbert’s Hotel) perfectly in his book Hyperspace which I read years ago and which is responsible for my continued frustration with conceptualizing the infinite. The point here is this: infinite numbers might be out of my grasp, but the more I think about them the easier everything else seems by comparison. Any paradox or puzzle will do.
The same goes for Chess, the Chinese game of Go (play it here) or any other thinking game. We don’t need to be Garry Kasparov to put our brains to good use. Teaching our kids these games is rewarding for us and for them. Even checkers is a good thinking game. I’ve talked about how the right video games can force us into solving puzzles too. There are so many methods to keep our brains from stagnating. We simply need to solve problems rather than have answers fed to us by TV. The worst thing to do is plop down in front of the TV and vegetate.
My dad used the dinner table as a debate forum. Almost every night we argued politics or religion or something that stirred passions. I didn’t realize until I moved out that most of the time he didn’t even believe what he was arguing, that he was doing it to play devil’s advocate. My mom hated it; she frequently left the table in disgust at what she saw as family infighting. It wasn’t. I’ve started to do the same with my kids. They’re too young for in-depth topics, but I’ve taken a cue from my dad and started to argue just to see how they react. As they get older they’ll get better, and that will compel me to get better and smarter to keep up with them. One day they will be able to take any position and defend it regardless if they believe it. Keeping myself sharp is going to help the boys learn wit and rhetoric. Our goal is not to start family feuds and flame wars, it is to learn to debate without stirring passions. My dad probably could have done a better job at that last part. I’m constantly reminding my boys not to get angry or they will lose their focus and the argument. There is nothing more American (not that that’s the focus of this article or anything) than a good dinner-table debate.
The inspiration for this article came from my twin sister who called me yesterday because her 4 year old son had asked her one of those ludicrous questions I mentioned in the introduction. A bell must have gone off in her head. It said, “Holy cow! If my kid is thinking like this at age 4 then I’m doomed.” She would be doomed. If she didn’t study and stay mentally fit she’d be faced with a teenager who would run mental laps around her. She would be backed into saying just because; she would have to rely on God given parental authority rather than home-grown intelligence. I for one would rather keep myself fit in the head so I don’t have to deal with a smart-ass teenager who always says I told you so!