Thursday, March 29, 2012

Aging Gracefully in the Era of Technology

Just like most Boomers, I’m game for almost anything that will keep me alert and able to maintain my self-respect. 

But more than that, I won’t be content to sit at the table pushing peas around my plate while younger people take over the dialogue.  I want to participate.   

Some might say, “Hooray for you, Carolyn.  You’re a model of an active aging person.  We’re going to call you ‘spry.’  We want to be just like you when we’re irrelevant!” 

Well, thanks, but realistically, there could be a down side to a spunky attitude.  Here it is:   I will be in the conversation, even when I shouldn’t be.  I’ll misread the body language and facial expressions of those around me, persist in prattling on, and imagine myself witty and erudite until I’ve driven my loved ones to conspire against me. 

They’ll stare pointedly at each other across the custard and begin keeping records of my non-sequiters and odd behavior.  Soon we’ll be taking field trips to lovely settings where all my needs will be met and I can make new friends quickly. 

Oh no, no, no.  No. 

I will not go gently into that residential community catering to a lifestyle which meets my level of care, budget, social, and recreational preferences.  I’m learning to play a musical instrument and working all the crosswords.  I'm eating my broccoli, blue berries, and omega-3.   

And I’m following with interest an up-and-coming invention:  The trans-cranial direct current stimulation device.  That’s tDCS to you.  We’ll refer to it here as its creator does – the GoFlow. 

Not to be confused with that other clever do-it-yourself device, the Flowbie, the GoFlow comprises a headband with a pair of electrodes dangling off its sides.  It’s branded with a lightning bolt and designed to pump 2 milliamps of electric current to your brain.  It won’t cut your hair, but it could curl it. 

Its inventor, Matt Sornson, a Michigan college student (who majors in marketing, by the way), follows a long line of scientists who have experimented with stimulating the brain, even attempting to cure illnesses with electricity.  He’s looking to induce the “state of flow” tapped into by athletes when they trigger a runner’s high. 

Sornson began testing the device on himself in hopes that it would facilitate his learning a complex software program more quickly.  After eight days of electrical stimulation at 1/500th the juice needed to power a 100-watt light bulb, he stated he was unsure if the GoFlow had affected his learning, but “it definitely feels like I have a six- or seven-cup caffeine buzz without feeling jittery at all!”  There you go. 

That’s just the sort of thing an engaging senior citizen needs – enough stimulation to keep her perky without the telltale signs of drug-induced euphoria.  Bring it! 

Sornson’s plan is to develop the first low-cost commercial tDCS kit.  At a retail cost of $99 the kit will come with a 60-pack of disposable electrodes, a placement map of the cranium, and a 5-milliamp safety fuse, in case something should go awry.  Good idea. 

At that price, a quick cost-benefit analysis tips the scales away from Starbucks and into the realm of jitter-free living. 

But I can’t help wondering if Master Sornson patterned his cranial placement map on L.N. Fowler’s “bust of superior form, marked with the divisions of the [brain] in accordance with [his] research and varied experience.”  

When the snake oil business fell off, Fowler practiced phrenology, based on the theory that lumps on the skull reflect a person’s character.  He crafted a ceramic figure of a hairless human head, plotting the regions where one might locate, examine, and evaluate bumps, believing they corresponded to parallel areas of brain function.  

In a chart akin to those in the butcher shop locating select cuts of meat, Fowler detailed provinces of the skull such as Language, Human Nature, and Order, along with Acquisitiveness (to include saving and hoarding), Secretiveness (from reserve to evasion), and Sublimity, which he explains as a “sense of the terrific.”  In Fowler’s world, protuberances in critical areas of the noggin revealed desirable traits or flaws of disposition. 

Before phrenology was dismissed as a pseudo-science, folks aspiring to self-improvement could hire a practitioner to whack them in the appropriate position on the noddle, thereby raising a lump and creating space for the brain to develop the sought-after trait.   

Hmmm. 

Maybe I’ll sit quietly after all.