I was talking just now with a colleague about our experiences with Biology 101 when we were 18. This was 17 years ago now for me, literally half a lifetime away. At the huge state school I attended, Bio 101 was one of those 400-student lectures given in an auditorium. There were three tests. The first midterm was entirely about the Krebs Cycle. The test consisted of a blank circular diagram (the Cycle, natch), punctuated regularly by a number that corresponded to a question on a separate sheet of paper. To pass the test — one-third of your grade — you had to recall, from memory, each step of the Krebs Cycle. I studied really hard for that test, I went to evening study sessions hosted by the teaching assistants, I made my own fill-in-the-blank diagrams of the Krebs Cycle. But, looking at that blank circle with its attendant ScanTron bubble sheet, I realized: it didn’t matter how much I studied for this. I was going to bomb.
These days I’m devoting some of my mental energy to learning Chinese. Including the ten- to forty-thousand character alphabet. I have mastered about 400 characters and can puzzle out another three or four hundred. I have no doubt that I can put away the additional two to three thousand characters necessary to be literate in Chinese. My 18-year old mind couldn’t recall the thirty or so steps of the Krebs cycle, but my 35-year old mind can store three thousand characters of a language with no cognates to English, based on an entirely alien grammar. So: I am smarter now than I was when I was 18. Not only am I smarter, but I can learn things faster and remember them better. If I took Bio 101 now, I have no doubt that I would get an A.
This led me to realize that, in almost every respect, I am a younger person now than I was when I was 18. I can do lots of things better at age 35 that conventional wisdom would dictate I should have been better at when I was 18:
- Run for 30 minutes
- Learn a foreign language
- Ride my bike 100 miles
- Swim a mile
- Hold my liquor
Last night our Mandarin teacher, Mr. Yu, brought his 19-year-old daughter to meet us before our lesson. She’s studying Econometrics at a university in Shanghai, and he wanted her to practice her English. She is a wonderful girl and he should be proud of her. For example: for her English name she chose to call herself “Urania,” for the muse of astronomy. Because she likes astronomy. She also spoke excellent English. She’s applying to study abroad in Sweden, a decision which Jenny and I heartily endorsed.
I said, “I think living abroad and learning a new language stretches your mind. I think I’m younger now than I was 10 years ago.” And I meant it. Living in China is hard, in some ways it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That’s one reason why my brain is aging backwards.