Guitar Zero

Impulse buy alert! It was such an impulse that I can’t even recall what actually prompted it. I’m interested in brain health, lifelong learning, and rock ’n roll, so there’s a prompt in there somewhere. I’m certainly getting forgetful in my old age.

Here’s the gist of the book; a psych professor named Gary Marcus takes a sabbatical to learn to play guitar, testing on himself the notion that it’s way more difficult to learn technical stuff late in life. When I say late in life, I’m talking about maybe forty years of age.

Awesome book. What a cool guy.

I’m forty five and I’m worried about my brain. I can tell it’s struggling, which is a bad thing, because I’m already not very smart. Logic problems that used to be easy, aren’t. Things I used to remember, I don’t.

But I’ve also made progress. I feel like I can relate disparate sets of knowledge better than I’ve ever been able to. From an emotional standpoint, I feel like I’m more open-minded and thoughtful than ever.

But is it too late? Am I past my “critical period” of learning? Am I destined to be a dumb guy who sits around all day watching TV? Should I just get used to people shaking their heads in disgust when I spew profanities towards them after they tell me something that doesn’t comply with my world view?

I hope not. Marcus gives me hope, and I’m starting to take action. Here’s what he says about “critical periods” as they relate to language:

The more people have actually studied critical periods, the shakier the data have become. Although adults rarely achieve the same level of fluency that children do, the scientific research suggests that differences typically pertain more to accent than to grammar. Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, there’s no magical window that slams shut the moment puberty begins. In fact, in recent years scientists have identified a number of people who have managed to learn second languages with near-native fluency, even though they only started as adults. (Kindle loc 84)

Note, “near-native fluency” is really, really hard.

Studies do abound that show how much more efficient it is to learn complex stuff at a young age, but is age a factor? Is it the only factor?

If kids outshine adults, it’s probably not because they are quicker to learn but simply because they are more persistent; the same drive that can lead them to watch the same episode of a TV show five days in a row without any signs of losing interest can lead a child who aspires to play an instrument to practice the same riff over and over again. (Kindle loc 1433)

Aha, so now we are getting to the heart of the matter. The more I look into it, the more evident how flimsy it is to use the excuse of “I’m old” for being stupid. In fact, at some point people will respond to my “I’m old” comments with, “Nope, you’re just lazy and close-minded with no drive.”

That will hurt, but it won’t crush me. In fact, it may push me to try and build more gray matter. That’s what it’s all about – increasing your gray matter by learning new stuff. Your physical, emotional, and intellectual selves all act the same way, use it and it gets stronger, and better, and faster. It may not even matter what that use is, be it learning music or otherwise.

People develop more gray matter when they develop skill in music, for example, but gray matter has also been shown to increase as people learn to juggle or learn to type. (Kindle loc 519)

There is a lot of rich stuff in this book about your brain. It’s a great mix of Marcus’ personal experience matched up with scientific studies. Marcus does some wonderful work here and I’ll eventually read a few of his other books.

The psychological parts of this book are very rewarding. That’s not all though. I haven’t even touched on the musical aspects yet, which are just as rewarding. This book has re-invigorated my respect for music and makes me want to learn more about it. I won’t go to the length of picking up an electric guitar and trying to learn some chords, but I am going to start paying more attention to things. I just want to be able to at least entertain the thought of thinking about music like Marcus began to after learning to play guitar:

I also understood the music I heard vastly better than when I’d begun the project. I could pick out bass lines, recognize different drumming patterns, and tell what techniques different guitarists used. I had developed a sense of arrangement and how different songs were put together. (Kindle loc 2882)

I don’t know for sure how I’m going to get there. The problem is, time. There’s not much of it. Being able to take a one year sabbatical would be nice.

In the interim, I’m trying to integrate things that improve my cognitive well-being into my everyday life. This blog is a good example from a couple of angles. The setup and administration of it is unfamiliar territory, requiring research and application of new skills/knowledge. Additionally, writing is outside of my comfort my zone, and anything outside of the comfort zone is a cognitive bonanza. On another front, I’m changing my running style from a heel-strike to a forefoot-strike. It requires a ton of concentration to retrain an important mind-body connection which has been in place for thirty plus years. It’s like learning a new skill. Plus there’s a lot of support for the cognitive benefits of regular exercise.

These items really don’t take any incremental time, but may not be adequate. At some point, I need to learn another language, take another vacation to a foreign country, and/or add a new sport to the mix (XT50 is actually helping already I think). This stuff can’t wait until retirement, for sure.

Well, that puts a lot on my plate. That’s gotta be good for my brain.