Baking Bread and Bettering the Brain

My daughter Daniella who manufactures chef uniforms, did a deal with Jade who teaches Bread Baking.   Daniella would make Jade and her mother each a beautiful apron to wear at their bread making demonstrations.   In exchange, my daughter and I were offered a workshop on making Sour Dough Bread.

So this morning my starter was ripe, and it was time for me to put my new skills into practice.   The starter had been out of the fridge for four days, had been dutifully fed at 24 hour intervals and was considered ripe for the job.   Kneading bread in preparation for the rising before the baking, is a 20 minute repetitive operation.   I needed something to keep my mind busy whilst performing the kneading process.  The speakers from my computer were placed in the kitchen, and it was time to get to work.

Brain Science Podcast

It was some time since I had last listened to Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science Podcast. “Brain Science features the latest books about neuroscience as well as interviews with leading scientists from around the world.”

I chose to listen to the presentation by John Medina who discussed his book:   Brain Rules for Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp,  The podcast was switched on, and the bread mixing was started.

Brain Health: Genetics and the Environment

It was 15 years ago that I first learned about neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to change according to environmental stimuli.   This podcast would offer me the chance to learn about some of the recent research on keeping the brain healthy and retaining cognitive reserve.   “Recent research,” quoted  Medina, “has demonstrated that the role of the environment is responsible for 66% of the ability to maintain the maximum performance of our brain.”

Social Interaction

Confirmation of the positive role of social interactions for preserving brain health was reassured by the speaker.  Spending time in congenial company helps to preserve both our cognitive and our emotional health.  Of course, we all know it is good to have friends.   However, there is a bit of a new spin on the friendship criterion.  “Welcome those friends that do not always agree with you,” say the experts.  “It is a good exercise to have an intellectual sparring match with your friends as long as one simple condition is observed.   You need to retain respect for each other.   Seek out people with different perspectives and challenge your latent beliefs.”  That was great news for me as I have been spending many hours of late in the zoom room conducting controversial debates on the role of the Covid pandemic, and its contribution to forcing us to re-evaluate our lifestyle and our value systems.

With the emergence of the pandemic, these meetings have offered wonderful food for thoughtful examination.   It is amazing that a topic as mundane as the role of a cloth mask in preventing Covid-19 can arose so much controversy.   Of course, it is not recommended for this discussion to result in the acrimony experienced between Republicans and Democrats!

Inter-generational interaction

“It is healthy to discuss our life perspective with those of a different generation. Contrasting values and ideas offer the brain a ‘work-out’, during which the synaptic connections can be retrained.   With computers playing such a dominant role in the life-style of young people, they are in touch with many ideas and opportunities that are unavailable to those who opt-out of interacting with social media,”  says our expert.   There is no doubt that learning from one’s grandchildren is a very worthwhile activity.   Let us offer them our wisdom gleaned from our long life of challenges, and further enrich ourselves by remaining current with the new ideas and original thinking of the younger generations.

The Mediterranean Diet.

The expert podcaster reassured me regarding my faith in the Mediterranean Diet, something which I have been practising for the past few decades.    The advantage of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is healthy for humans and also puts less stress on the natural resources of the planet.

My recent studies with Climate Reality has increased my awareness of the urgency of cutting down the carbon content of the atmosphere by at least 1.5%.    I have been made even more firmly aware of the fact that a plant-based diet is more environmentally friendly than one dominated by beef, chicken and lamb.

Exercise

I always knew that taking my dogs for a walk for approximately 45 minutes a day for the past 70 years was an investment in my health, so it surprised me to learn how little movement we actually need in order to gain the benefits of aerobic activity.   “All you need to do is a brisk half hour work for five days a week to show the benefit of exercise,” claimed the podcaster.

I now take most of my phone calls on my cellphone.   I have made it a rule to always walk around my lounge, or outside in the garden when I have longish phone conversations.   That must surely give me a further hour or so of walking per day!

Combining the Old and the New

It was satisfying to find that I was kept entertained by a contemporary podcast whilst simultaneously performing the bread baking which has been similarly practised for many centuries.   How rewarding it is to combine the ancient art of baking homemade bread with the contemporary capacity to enhance my learning.

The bread was indeed yummy!   Let us trust that my synapses will continue making new and stronger connections!

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but that does not mean that human beings are unable to learn new skills throughout their lifespan

The Science of Building New Nerve Connections

It was about 15 years ago that I started to come across the research which demonstrated the exciting discoveries of the new discipline of Neuroscience; the study of the structure and function of the nervous system.   When I was growing up I could never understand why employers tended to view people in their middle years as unsuitable for learning a new job.   The understanding of the growth of nerves throughout the lifespan started to reach my attention at the beginning of this century.   I was directed into a new lifestyle when I realised the growth of new nerve pathways are enhanced by both physical activity and cognitive challenges.

Some of my Challenges

Yes, I do sometimes at the age of 81 become frustrated when a new version of my favourite software comes out.   It is indeed a challenge for me to keep up to date with the necessary changes I need to negotiate in order to manage my own financial affairs.   And yes, it is hard work to remain fit enough to play tennis with people less than half my age.    However, I will share with you some of my routines which assist me in these endeavours.

Physical Fitness

It is only with hindsight that I realise that an accident on the tennis court thirty years ago has indirectly resulted in an enhanced level of physical fitness which is unusual for octogenarians!   In running for a ball which had some lethal backspin applied by my opponent, I lunged and fell on my right knee breaking my anterior cruciate ligament.    Being in my early 50’ at the time, the doctor was reluctant to offer me surgery.

Strenuous post-surgical exercise was necessary for the operation to be successful, and there was some doubt in the surgeon’s mind about my ability to pursue this challenging route.    Since that surgery, nearly 30 years ago, I have continued to ride the stationery bicycle at the local gym twice a week.   This ritual not only ensures that I have free membership of the gym, (offered by my medical aid because of my consistent use of the facility) but my ability to run around on the tennis court with women far younger than myself.

Cognitive Fitness

About 13 years ago I met Dana Stenova of the Czech School of Memory Training and Brain Jogging.   Amongst other things she taught me to remember the digits of phi up to 100 places 3.14159265358979323….…. https://www.piday.org/million/   as well as the 42 American Presidents https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_presidents_of_the_United_States.  I followed up this early training with researching various online skills as well as MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Learning) https://www.mooc.org/

In order to ensure exercise my attention span I have been practicing Mindsparke http://www.mindsparke.com/ for the past 10 years.   My intention is to perform a daily practice of 10 minutes.   Whilse this ambitious schedule is not always fulfilled, I do perform this task on a regular basis ensuring my nerve paths for concentration and attention are regularly exercised!   Another lovely exercise is offered on a daily basis by the New York Times: https://www.setgame.com/set/puzzle

Mindfulness and Meditation

Some time ago the merits of Mindfulness and Meditation started to appear regularly in the local presss.   When I heard how the esteemed monk Matthieu Ricard https://www.matthieuricard.org/en/    had meditated on Compassion whilst being scanned by an MRI machine, I was motivated to study Buddhism, and to practice Mindfulness on a daily basis.   Ricard who had thousands of hours of meditation under his belt allowed himself to be studied in one of the earliest scientific endeavours to quantify the effects of meditation on the working of the brain.   His compassion was so profound that the needle recording his activity ran out of space on the paper!

So now, the first thing I do when I wake in the morning is a 20 minutes meditation.   That is followed by a 10 minute walk with my dogs in the village where I live.

Croquet as a Game for Seniors

I was fortunate to discover the game of Croquet https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croquet  about four years ago, and now this pastime has proved to be a wonderful outlet for my energy and passion for the outdoors.    Not only does this sport get you out in the open and onto a beautiful green lawn:  it offers gentle physical exercise.  In addition it ensures you learn some mental strategy to enhance your cognitive skills, and gives the player an opportunity to socialise at the same time

In Conclusion

Maybe you would like to research some of the links I offer you to enhance your physical and cognitive well-being.    I do believe that my disciplined lifestyle has allowed me to maintain a level of fitness which would not have been possible without the effort I make to maintain a health enhancing routine.

 

 

 

Two days ago, I witnessed the death of the man with whom I have had the longest friendship in my life! I have known this man as a husband for 32 years, and as a friend, admirer and supporter for 28 years.

Joe passed away at the age of 94, and it is a source of much pleasure to his survivors that he lived a full and motivated lifestyle until the day he died. A retired General Practitioner, Joe had followed many different dietary regimes over the years. As medical knowledge increased and new theories of nutrition became public knowledge, so his eating patterns would change.

Dietary Regimes

In the early days of our marriage some sixty years ago, it was pilchards and sardines that formed a large part of his diet. Then came the days of a low salt regime. This was followed by a period of low fats and low carbohydrates. More recently, he explored the Banting Diet, and his latest routine was starvation! The past year Joe and his wife Felicity eat but one meal a day and that repast was in the evening. For the rest of the day, only fluids passed their lips.

Working Out

Not many people manifest more discipline than Joe did in his senior years. Until a couple of days before his sudden death, he was maintaining his routine of the past 50 years with a daily two hour workout at the local gym. He was the most senior member of Virgin Active who hosted his 90th birthday at the club as a tribute and gesture of admiration for their loyal client.

I well remember when we were still married and living in Parow in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, and the first Health Gymnasium opened on the Cape Town Foreshore. It involved a 25 minute drive from our home, and Joe together, with his friend Bill used to occupy their lunch hour with a work-out at Discovery Health. This regime was maintained until a couple of days ago.

Our Changed Relationship

I was privileged to share a very special relationship with my ex-husband. While our association as a married couple was characterised by some sense of competition when it came to my endeavours, as a friend, he was my most sincere admirer. He always encouraged me in my strange and varied missions! He was often the first to comment favourably on my blog posts and was always there to guide me in my numerous challenges, whether medical or personally motivated.

Trip to Amsterdam

Earlier this month the family was privileged to accompany Joe to Amsterdam where his thirteen year old grandson celebrated his Barmitzvah. He managed the flight, the social interactions as well as the loud music of the post Barmitzvah celebrations with good humour and aplomb. His family have been left with the fond memories of revelling in the achievements of a young man. We all danced and celebrated to mark this traditional milestone. As a raconteur, Joe did his bit by delivering a magnificent toast to Noam. A flawless tribute recounted without the use of notes.

Change in Sources of Information

During the last year of his life, Joe was challenged by deteriorating eye-sight. However, he did not allow this setback to cut him off from literature or contemporary ideas. By combining the resources of podcasts as well as using audio-books from the local library, he was able to maintain contact with both the news and the literature which were two of his lifetime interest. What might have been a setback became a further point of sharing for Joe and Felicity. Listening to audio-books became a combined activity, instead of the more traditional solo action of reading a paper book.

Regular Visits to the Library

Not only did Joe enjoy keeping up to date with local news, but he loved assisting friends and family members to pursue their interests. The local library allowed him to borrow ten books at a time. He was a regular visitor to the library and loved to take out books which addressed the interests of family members. He would pass on books about cooking to his daughters, advances in the social sciences to me, tomes on mountain climbing or cycling to his son in law.

More recently, when reading books requiring some concentration beyond his capacity, those books would be given to me to read. My job was to glean the essence of what was offered, and report back to him for discussion purposes.

Reajustment

I now have to become accustomed to living my life without the loyal and dedicated support of a man who always had my best interests at heart. I am grateful to have had this wonderful relationship for such a long time and am bracing myself to become more independent as I become accustomed to his absence. He will be missed not only by me but by his many friends and close family.

 

Perusing the daily newspaper yesterday morning, I was intrigued by the background story about a 5K walk due to take place in Cape Town the following morning.  It was being held by an International Charity which counsels people with suicidal tendencies.   This annual event is part of a worldwide movement allowing people to identify with those suffering from such serve trauma that ending their life appears to them to be the only solution.

My Personal Motivation

Some personal motivations for participating in this walk, starting in the dark at 6.30 in the morning entered my mind.   In my lineage, there is a strong genetic predisposition to mood disorder.   A number of my antecedents, including my mother, decided to prematurely end their own life, a factor which was dominated my awareness when confronting my own ongoing personal challenges.

Then there was a rather strange negative reason driving me to make an effort to support this worthy cause.   I had been unfairly denied the opportunity to participate in a sporting competition over the weekend.  Some form of justification could be made in being forced to remain on the sidelines, as I now had the opportunity to support a wonderful cause which had counselled over 20 000 people with suicidal tendencies.

The starting time for this event was 30 minutes before sunrise.   The symbolism of walking from the darkness into the light caught my imagination.   This transformation was a metaphor not only for saving a life but also the positive emotional changes which happen when a potential suicide victim accepts psychological counselling and is assisted in seeing their life journey more positively.

Getting Registered for the Event

Having decided to take part in the walk, I was presented with the challenge of entering the event online.   While the newspaper article explicitly encouraged members of the public to involve themselves in this public-spirited activity, the report did not contain any information about the online registration procedure.   I phoned the newspaper which featured the article, to learn that the staff do not work on a Friday.  The write-up appeared in the Friday morning edition of a publication which does not publish on Saturday, so the team have Fridays off work!  As the walk was the following day, this presented a problem.

The young lady of Independent News recognising my earnest desire for this vital contact information offered to do some research and then to phone me back.   True to her word, she contacted me twenty minutes later with details of the website www.darknessintolight.ie   I made my donation online and was all set to go.

Getting up in the Dark

It was a strange feeling getting up at 5.30 on a Saturday morning.   Past experiences of making such an early start would have been to catch a flight or to leave before the traffic intensifies.   In this instance, it is to perform a task of compassion before the light of day emerges!

Reaching my destination, a crowd of several hundred people had already gathered in anticipation of the 5K walk.   On the dot of 6.30, the organisers offered an inspiring talk about the work of this initiative, its worldwide influence,  and the benefits of many families who had reacted positively to the psychological support they had received from psychological counselling.    The suggestion was that the first kilometre is walked in silence, allowing each participant to tune into their own feelings and their personal motivation for undertaking this exercise.   This was profoundly meaningful for me as I reviewed my relationship with my mother and had the feeling that she would be proud of me for undertaking this challenge.

Positive Interactions

The bonus of this outing was getting into a conversation with Gerette, a delightful teacher of High School English.  She introduced me to her husband, who was completing the walk in a wheelchair. This had been his means of transport since having been involved in a motorcycle accident while in high school.   Lukas, their son, had accompanied his father for the first 4 K’s of the walk, but decided to join his mother and me for the last stretch, as his father was going too fast in his wheelchair!   I chatted to Dad about his speediness after the walk, and he explained that he has less hard work to do when moving more quickly as the momentum kept him going with less manual effort.

I felt a deep sense of gratitude on the completion of this effort and wore my new bright yellow t-shirt for the rest of the day.   This allowed me further opportunity to spread the word about the significance of “From Darkness into light”

 

Cape Town, South Africa, made history last year when it was the first major city to be threatened by a devestating drought.   Severe water restrictions and some late rains have slightly relieved the situation, but nonetheless strict restrictions on the use of water remain in place.   This is the reason why I find myself taking a swim at our local Gym, rather than having a shower at home.

Today after completing my couple of lengths in the Olympic size pool, I noticed two young men racing each other in the adjacent lane.   They were using a type of snorkel which I had never seen before, so my interest was piqued.  I asked them how this snorkel worked.   In a very engaging manner they explained to me that by grasping the mouth piece of the instrument, it allowed them to draw air without moving their head from side to side as they swam freestyle.   Cutting down on the head movement and maintaining their mouth slightly under the water, they were able to streamline their movements and consequently increase their speed.

Nicolas, a computer programmer and Jonathan, a sports scientist were about to set off on a two length dash to determine who would complete this distance in the shortest time.   I offered to be their ‘starter.’   “On your marks, get set, go,”   I exclaimed.   Off they went with Jonathan reaching the far side ahead, and Nick overtaking him on the return trip to reach the home base first.

One of the themes of my current research, which has already popped up from time to time in my former blogs, is to understand the competitive nature of mankind.   I spied an opportunity to derive some new data for this project, and so posed this question to my two subjects,   “Have you ever considered why the two of you enjoy competing with each other, or asked yourselves why you derive satisfaction from comparing your swimming abilities?”

I thought there might be some resistance to this intrusion into their privacy, but Nicolas was amazingly quick off the mark.   He postulated that this competitive instinct may well be an evolutionary attribute.  “Out there on the savannahs in days of yore it was the person with the quickest reflexes and greatest speed who would derive the main spoils of the hunt,” he explained.

This was a indeed a worthwhile angle to explore.   My immediate response was to see the merit of this explanation, but there was another way of looking at the conundrum.  “In today’s world, we are no longer dependent on hunting for our daily food.   Our social conditioning would have taught us more subtle ways of meeting our needs,” I countered.     Nicolas was once again quick torespond.   “If you want to attract your mate,” he suggested, “then you need to demonstrate your skills in a wide range of activities.   The more you draw positive attention to yourself, the more likely you are to be noted by members of the opposite sex and find yourself a mate, and spread your seed to the next generation.”

There was certainly a great deal of merit in his rationale, and his argument certainly worked for those who are looking for a mate.   However, it still does not help this 80 year old woman to understand herself.   She has spent the last week taking a one hour car trip to Somerset West, playing croquet in the sun for the next six hours, and travelling home in the evening for yet another hour.   I am not looking for a mate.   And I am very well fed.   So, why do I need to put in so much effort to compete in the Western Province Croquet Championships?