Reading keeps mind sharp, wits nimble

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2009 - 10:11 PM

Words are the key to thoughts, which makes them one of life's greatest treasures.

Imagine you're an internationally renowned Harvard professor of psychology with a specialty in linguistics. You're giving a talk at a conference, and you can't think of a word that is basic to your profession: lexicon.

In the months that follow, you have trouble remembering other words, and one day, just blocks from where you live, you can't remember the route home. Within one year, you go from brilliant scholar to someone who can't manage the basic tasks of day-to-day living. That's what happens to Alice Howland, the fictional character in Lisa Genova's compelling novel, "Still Alice."

Or imagine you're Iris Murdoch, the real-life British author and philosopher whose many books and novels, including "Under the Net," have won critical acclaim, and you begin losing one of the things most dear to you in life: your words.

Your words are inextricably linked to your thoughts. They are central to your intelligence, your memories, and your identity. To lose your words is to lose a fundamental part of who you are. With diminished or incompletely developed language skills, you're ... who? Less than the person you once were or are capable of being?

Now, imagine you're ... you. You're getting old -- or older -- and names, words, and facts don't come to mind as quickly as they once did, and you wonder: Is this a normal part of aging? Am I experiencing mild cognitive impairment? Or is this the first stage of full-blown Alzheimer's disease, and am I destined to lose my mind entirely?

What do you do?

Do you put the thought out of your mind and go on with your life? Do you get tested for the APP, PS1, and PS2 genetic mutations linked to Alzheimer's? Or do you maintain a healthy lifestyle involving good nutrition, adequate sleep, rigorous physical exercise, limited multitasking, and mentally stimulating activities such as bridge, ballroom dancing, Scrabble, and problem-solving puzzles?

Or maybe you engage in one of the least expensive and most enjoyable activities available to keep your mind nimble: You read. That is, you read more than brief stories online, more than the sports section of the newspaper, and more than what you must read for work. You read ... what do you call those things? What's the word? You know, those thingies with covers and words printed on paper. Oh, yes: books. You read books.

Not that books must be printed on paper. The new electronic reading devices provide a pleasant reading experience that approximates the look and feel of traditional books, and they offer access to four elements critical to mental acuity and language facility: sustained engagement with carefully developed thought employing a broad vocabulary rendered in a variety of sentence structures.

It's unlikely you can text-message or tweet your way to more precise thought or a keener grasp of the human condition. Put another way, spending time in the presence of accomplished writers will entertain you and make you smart. It may even help you keep your wits.

Stephen Wilbers teaches seminars on effective business writing. His column appears on the first and third Monday of each month. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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