Throughout middle school and especially high school, I tended to be an underachiever. Both of my parents were teachers, so I couldn’t claim that I didn’t have the resources in the home to enable me to do well. With the exception of my senior year, when I failed to make the cut for the basketball team, I was engaged in a sport in every season. And, not coincidentally, when I failed to make the cut for the varsity basketball team, I became more focused on my classes. The book that triggered my transformation was 1984, George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel in which love and intimacy are regarded as crimes against the state.
Urged on by my high school football coach, I tried out for the Western Washington University team as a defensive back, but from day one I sensed that I was out of my league. The Western Washington football team was no powerhouse in those years, but many of those young men were huge. And when a flamboyant wide receiver burned me on a long pass completion during a scrimmage, the receiver shouted, Hey, Coach! Hey, Coach! I just burned your DB! I just burned your DB!” Yes, I got burned on that pass route, and that was certainly a blessing. If my history of injuries in high school was any guide, it seems likely that I would have gotten hurt frequently on the college team. And even after a summer of weight training, I weighed only 150 pounds.
I quickly redirected my energies. Unlike in high school, when I was often indifferent to my grades, now I took my grades seriously—maybe too seriously. Every academic quarter I looked forward to going to the university bookstore to buy my textbooks. Astronomy, to gaze into a dark winter night and contemplate the vastness of the stars? Rocks for jocks? Boring? How so? The fossil record intrigued me. How cool! Or, should I say, how molten? To have a sense of how old the earth is? And the eons before history, the small-brained reptiles, devoid of mother’s milk. And at the end of this is us, homo sapiens, humanity.
The significance of the wheel. The mute, inscrutable pyramids. Socrates imbibing the hemlock. The misnamed “dark ages.” And then, Columbus, not just reaching a new land, a new continent, but carrying with him an old-world collection of microbes, from which the native populations had no defense. Lust for Mexico’s gold. Martin Luther, fracturing western Christendom, leading to thirty years of religious war. Plimoth Plantation, suffering deeply, almost to extinction. The Declaration of Independence. Gettysburg. Chlorine and mustard gas. The Great Influenza of 1918. Stalingrad. Hiroshima. Stalemate in Korea. Quagmire in Vietnam. The American century.
My vocabulary, meanwhile, was rapidly growing. In my reading, I made a point to write down unfamiliar words. In the summer after my freshmen year, I chose to read Moby-Dick. Melville’s themes went over my head, but I liked the action scenes. One of my favorite words I learned from Melville was ostentatious. He applied this to the whale itself, and its terrible flukes. Elsewhere in that capacious book, I learned about cetology, the science of whales. Sometimes, I would use words egregiously. I accused my dad, during an argument, of being fastidious—which, decidedly, he wasn’t. And also in Moby-Dick, I first encountered the word audacity—a more elegant version of “boldness.” While reading a newspaper account of a Vietnam veteran, I learned the word premonition, a hunch that something bad was about to occur. Then the bomb went off.
Within this framework, I began to think for myself. And, in doing this—to acquaint myself with history and literature and philosophy in my college years—I apparently developed a partial prophylactic effect that has helped me forestall Alzheimer’s progress. The term for this is “cognitive reserve,” and it remains somewhat of a mystery. There are two facets to this. Idea density reflects the ability to pack a lot of information within a small space, a useful skill for journalists, in particular. A related phenomenon is syntactical sophistication. If you’re familiar with the prose styles of Earnest Hemingway and William Faulkner, you can infer that Hemingway’s prose reflected “idea density,” and Faulkner embodies “syntactical sophistication.”
Why this information is worth repeating is that it appears to protect the brain to a significant extent, particularly among people with high levels of formal education. Why this is true is still something of a mystery. Perhaps age twenty is a key period for brain development. It is now known that brain development continues into one’s mid-twenties or later. Unfortunately, cognitive reserve won’t protect people up to a ripe age. The phenomenon is finite.