Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Learning to Read Again

By Mark W. Danielson

While age may take its toll on comprehension and retention, advances in technology have minimized our thinking to the point that our brain is rarely challenged. Calculators are used in math classes, computers tell us when our tires and engine fluids are low, sensors turn on our lights -- we don’t even need to dial phone numbers anymore. Just talk and it dials for you. I can’t speak for everyone, but when my brain lacks exercise, it forgets things. A recent flight with my buddy Dan reminded me of that.

For decades, I regularly flew light airplanes, but I sold my bi-plane in 1985 and then stopped renting planes after 9-11 temporarily grounded the fleet. As much as I miss low and slow flying, other obligations have made it more difficult to stay current. So when Dan wanted to take me flying in his aerobatic airplane for my birthday, I was elated. However, when he handed me a local area chart shown above that depicts all of the airspace restrictions, I realized the airliner’s moving map display (also shown above) had reduced my ability to perform basic skills that I spent years training others to do. Then again, how much exercise can my brain get from an electronic display that tells me where I am, where I’m going, where other traffic is, and what the terrain and weather is like? Not that I’m complaining because I’ve grown quite fond of this technology – but when Dan handed me this chart, my brain reacted as though it had never seen one before. This revelation was rather disconcerting considering I am still a licensed flight instructor and just renewed my certificate last spring.

Dan’s single engine plane requires that we fly by visual references, and since we took off from an uncontrolled airport, we never once spoke to an air traffic controller. The rejuvenating feeling from this type of flying is magnificent and it didn’t take long to feel comfortable. Navigating by mountain peaks, highways, and lakes is much more stimulating than following an electronic magenta line. I look forward to the day when I can acquire another light airplane so I can navigate off the charts I will have downloaded onto my iPad. Hey – once you’ve experienced technology, it’s hard to go back.

While our flight was absolutely exhilarating, recurring thoughts about how I struggled with this chart reminded me of how important it is to challenge my brain. I don’t like the feeling that I’m learning to read all over again, and I was fortunate that things came back so quickly. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for those less fortunate as they try to recall things they once knew but can’t seem to find. My experience gave me a better appreciation for those who struggle in their later years. While I once believed that crafting stories was enough to keep my brain active, it’s clear that I must expand its stimulus. Reading fiction and non-fiction helps, as do crossword puzzles and Sudoku. Thinking while walking the dog exercises the brain as well as the body, and the dog is always willing to assist.

Of course, there is no way to predict what my mental or physical health will be in the future. Alzheimer’s seems to strike people as randomly as lightning. But doctors are certain that those who mentally and physically exercise will retain their capacities longer than those who sit in rocking chairs watching the world go by. Dan, I thank you not only for the flight, but also this lesson in life. I have learned to read again, and I’ll be brushing up on “old school” flying before age takes another bite out of my brain. I’ll also keep writing for as long as I’m able to do so.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Sounds exciting, Mark, but what happens when the onboard compter malfunctions or stops working entirely? How do young pilots deal with a blank screen if they haven't learned basic navigation skills?

Jaden Terrell said...

Mark, I felt that way when I last picked up my guitar. It had been so long since I'd played that songs I used to know by heart I couldn't even play anymore. Guess it's time to get back in practice.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, we have backups to backups and I've written articles on dealing with such emergencies. All pilots learn basic navigation, but modern devices have dimmed the light on these brain cells. The only real solution is to force oourselves to stay current and prepare for contingencies.

Beth, I have a banjo and several guitars that are safe in their cases -- perhaps awaiting for American Pickers to come along. Lord knows I haven't been picking them much lately. But like anything, the knowledge is still there -- we just need to dust off the cobwebs:)