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The Vine: October 22, 2014

Submitted by on October 22, 2014 – 2:18 PM36 Comments


To be blunt, I feel pretty stupid now, especially compared to college about a decade ago.

In the past few years, I have been struggling with a minor neurological problem that causes difficulties with word-finding. (I mix up words all the time now, so I apologize if there are any mixed up words in this email.) I also am no longer challenging my brain with my writing or verbal communication skills. I feel like I am a step slower now and that my brain has started to atrophy. I'm sick with feeling like I can't express myself anymore and I think it's the reason why I am struggling to find a new job. I feel like I can't find words in the interviews no matter how much I prepare myself.

1. I decided I want to start reading poetry and short stories again to create a spark in my brain. Do you have any recommendations for where to find good current short stories and poetry?

2. Do you have any other recommendations for challenging and clearing your mind to feel more engaged and intelligent? I feel like I'm lost, which depresses me further, because I think it's only going to get worse, the older I get.



Dear J,

I've felt the same way the last few years at times. Why can I hum all the parts of that stupid Cellino & Barnes commercial but it takes me five minutes to come up with the word "exegesis," never mind perform one on a book?

Part of it is a lack of practice. The mental and verbal skills we used to use on a lizard-brain basis because of school or college get rusty when your job is no longer to think about, make notes on, and wear t-shirts sporting dumb jokes about poetry. ("Anapest? YOU'RE a pest.") (Laughing at that, and having no idea what the eff I'm talking about: both okay!)

Part of it, for me, is not getting enough sleep. I don't know if this has always been true and I just didn't notice it until now, but I am much smarter and faster off the blocks mentally with a hard seven and a half than with less. I can make do with less (and snorish husband + mattress-hog companion animals = write me in care of "less"), but if you don't get good sleep, you feel less smart. And apparently kind of drunk, according to science?

So maybe you want to make some new habits, or revisit old ones, like a fairly rigid bedtime and getting your reading done. Join a book club; join a couple. Look into classes, online or local adult ed, that will make you prioritize studying so that that part of your brain gets a workout.

As far as reading materials: 1) I always like to recommend One Story; 2) the New Yorker's digital edition will have new fiction and poems for you to try each week; 3) maybe start a Tumblr and record your adventures reading through the Norton Anthology in order. (Or some other anthology that isn't quite so horribly boring, hee.) And 4) working on a coloring book or sewing/jewelry project while listening to an audiobook or podcast is one of my favorite things to do. Pick a podcast with a quiz, or a science-y brain-games-y one.

And if you like those online puzzles that claim to re-smarten you up, go for it. I think studies have proven that daily brainteasers don't have an appreciable effect — but people enjoy them and it's not going to hurt you, certainly.

Readers? Any thoughts, and/or suggestions for materials?

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  • AR says:

    Inveterate class taker here. I agree that helps to find a hobby — whether it's a book club, or language class (that's me) that continues to challenge ye olde brain cells. Not only do you feel better about your own mental state, but studies show it can help to prevent mental decline later on. If I didn't have some projects that I was working on outside of my job as a lawyer (one benefit of that: lots of critical thinking needed, even if other aspects are less fun), I'd do nothing but watch Japanese cat videos on YouTube.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Pick fun things you like to read. Don't torture yourself with the idea that it's got to be "serious" for it to be "good for you." Read authors who put things in a way that makes your brain cells sing and you're far more likely to retain information. I can remember any science facts I've managed to pick up if I read them in a book by Bill Bryson, for example.

    Also, look into your diet. As I've gotten older, I've found that things like junk food not only mess me up physically, but mentally. I'm definitely sluggish in the brain races after eating [favorite horrible non-actual-organic-item.]

  • attica says:

    The Library of America site has a weekly free short story:(

    Also: crossword puzzles have been shown to keep the synapses snappy, plus they're word-intensive by definition. The New York Times's puzzles are patterned to be easier on Mondays and get increasingly harder as the week progresses, which I find to be good mental flexing. I buy 'em in books, because when I'm in a cruciverbally mood, I won't be limited to a) just one; b) finding a paper copy of the paper.

  • ferretrick says:

    As I edge closer and closer to 40 I feel the same way. Part of it (probably a very large part) is that, as Sars says, I don't get enough sleep. Try to schedule an earlier bedtime. Also, "catching up" on sleep on the weekends does not work. It is proven that adults need 6-8 hours every night to be healthy, doing 10+ on weekends does not make up for it.

    I think also you have to look at what you do spend your free time on, and whether it stimulates or dulls your brain cells and then cut down on those activities that have a mind numbing effect like TV and computer activities. Not that there's anything wrong with enjoying good TV, or even just TV that doesn't require any kind of mental acuity. But thanks to DVR, I could literally turn TV viewing into a full time, 40 hour a week job (in addition to my real full time job) if I let myself watch every show I'm tempted to. I really have to discipline myself to keep it to more like 20-25 hours/week (which is still way too much, I know)-and not torture or stress myself out if there's a backlog on the DVR. I know it's ridiculous to feel stress over that; I do anyway. Facebook can also be a huge time suck and brain drain if you let it. Sometimes it's fine to turn your brain off and just engage in mindless activity, but I think too much of it begins to dull your brain cells. If you wanted to get in better shape, you'd exercise and cut out junk food right? Same principle for the brain.

    And when you cut out the wasted time, you can fill it with things that do stimulate brain activity, whatever hobbies float your boat. Crafts, reading, jigsaw puzzles, etc. Sudoku puzzles and/or crosswords are great for giving your brain a workout. Do games appeal to you? Card games like Bridge, Euchre, Rummy, or strategy games like Chess, Go, Risk, Magic, etc. can also be good brain stimulation. Role playing games can be too, if you get into the right one. You can play them online if you don't know anyone in real life who would play. Regular walking and exercise can also give you a mental boost as well a physical one.

    For short stories, do you have a Kindle or use the Kindle app? Search "Kindle Singles" on Amazon-these are short stories, novellas, and essays authors write exclusively for Amazon to sell on Kindle. There are popular authors like Stephen King and Margaret Atwood, people you've never heard of, fiction, non-fiction, and just about any topic you care to name. All are less than 50 pages, and cost usually between $1-$4. A short story I particularly recommend is this one:
    It's hard to tell you about it without spoilers, but it's really cool.

    Good luck!

  • Jenn says:

    I second the suggestion for crossword puzzles. You'll build your vocabulary, and you'll practice focusing on one thing at a time (since distractions could also be a part of the problem).

  • Yoshi says:

    1) Crosswords. I would recommend getting a range of levels of difficulty, so you have options for however on-it you're feeling on the day; also know that you may have to look for/avoid certain authors because the way they write puzzles doesn't work for your brain. (E.g., my dad, super crossword maven and all-around verbal genius, straight refuses to touch any Will Shortz puzzle, regardless of the level of difficulty.)

    2) Try learning a new language! This builds all kinds of useful new neural pathways, and can help you remember things about your primary language that you thought you'd forgotten. You don't have to aim for fluency; a few minutes a day with a free app like Duolingo can get you going. But if you have a language you like, you can try to find a conversation group for it. Becoming more comfortable with flailing about for words and having to think around missing vocabulary in your new language might help relieve some of the stress of losing words in your day-to-day interactions.

    3) Similarly, if you're really concerned about your use/level of English, you could look into upper-level English learning materials (TESOL/TEFL). I was a TESOL teacher for several years, and the upper-intermediate and advanced level materials were truly challenging. There are also materials specific to many career areas, which might be useful for you as you search for a new job.

    4) Re: the job hunt, it might be worth consulting with disability/access advocates in your area about how best to prepare for interviews, and if there are ways that you can safely indicate that your neurological issue might cause you to mix up words in the interview, but that you are fully capable of the work for XYZ reasons. I don't want to overstep; I know you didn't ask for help with this issue, and you may well not be interested in bringing it up at all. But if you think that you might be, disability/access advocates could be a good resource for you. Even if you never use their suggestions, it could relieve some of the stress if you knew what your options were.

    Good luck! And let us know if you find good crosswords; I'm running out of non-Shortzian gift ideas for my dad.

  • M. Nightingale says:

    I quilt. It helps me stay sharp. Anything creative like that helps me, even on the days when finding the correct word is a challenge. And it helps me to be able to look back and point at something concrete I've made.

    I'd try making something, in addition to reading.

  • Karen says: if you're interested in "auditing" a class — you watch videos and do the readings, but don't have to do assignments be anywhere at a specific time.

    I have tried two and failed to make time for them, but really enjoyed them while I had the time. Modern Poetry was a suprisingly lovely class to follow along with, and I go back every now and again and just watch the videos I missed.

  • Cara says:

    I co-sign crossword puzzles, sudoku, and the like for a quick mental challenge and can be done on your phone. Also, if you're interested in language, I highly recommend the Duolingo app, which is both free and kind of fun.

    For books of short stories, I have an odd suggestion–annotated fairy tales. They're fun and easy to read, but satisfy that intellectual research component.

  • Paula says:

    Late to the party, but I highly HIGHLY recommend, as have others, the crossword puzzle. I am partial to the NYT, which gets more difficult as the week goes on. When I did them every day, and I was in shape, so to speak, Saturday was a fun challenge. Now that I've fallen out of that habit, Thursday pisses me off, I'm not speaking to Friday and Saturday is nearly crippling.

    Which reminds me to get back on that horse and do the daily puzzle again.

  • Missicat says:

    Agree with doing crossword puzzles. Having just hit the big 5-0 I am worried about losing memory, brain cells, etc. I make time for myself every Sunday morning doing with the Sunday puzzle – tend to start off slowly but feel my brain waking up the more I work on the darn thing. My 80 year mother still works puzzles every day.

  • Allie says:

    Any lit-major friend of yours will have anthologies lying around. Norton is fine; I also like Heath. (Heath? I'm too lazy to move the doorstop to move the door to check.) I find myself continually disappointed in Super Literary modern Short Story collections, but I like to occasionally check out collections by authors I already like. There's a new Atwood and a new Butler that have just come out. <3

    Try a board game group, Scrabble or strategy or otherwise, local to your area through

    If you're not already a fan, try manga. Reading "backwards" (ugh) wakes your brain up when you first start doing it. I've heard the same thing from adults who started reading graphic novels at a later age.

    Strategy-based video games are good too. Have you ever played Portal?

  • Jill says:

    I too have a neurological disorder, not so minor… I agree wholeheartedly with the suggestion for doing crosswords for sharpness, and getting exercise.

    As far as having difficulty with interviews and verbal communication, make sure you are getting lots of opportunities to have engaging real-life conversations. My condition kept me kind of socially isolated for a while and even though I could still engage in higher-level conversations via the Internet (writing), I couldn't seem to express myself verbally, simply from lack of practice. The more I re-engaged with people, the faster my rusty verbal skills came back. Book clubs, classes, etc. will help on both fronts. Maybe practice your interviews with a friend, so that the words come more easily during crunch time. Best of luck!

  • Robin in Philly says:

    Jumping on what Allie suggested, the new wave of board games ("European" or "German" style) are awesome for strategy & working the brain in new & different ways. (The Geek & Sundry YouTube channel has a show, TableTop, showcasing some of them. Worth checking out to see if it's something you might be interested in.) Especially if you live in/near an urban area (or just a good gaming store), gaming groups are becoming more popular and accessible.

    My husband is a rabid board gamer, and it has definitely engaged my brain. I have to work to keep sharp if I want a chance at beating him at his own games…

  • Lindsay says:

    I'm another poster with a neurological condition – we should form a club!

    I found to be very helpful with sharpening up. I hate to sound just like the commercials, but it really is exercise for your brain that feels like playing games. The nice part is, the games are tailored to the skill you need help with – attention, language, memory, etc. They used to have a 2-week free trial and I subscribed for a year after that.

  • Nicole says:

    In addition to crosswords, if you enjoy puzzle games, try (they have an app too, but I prefer the website). Tons of games in different formats and a variety of subjects. Not your typical style of questions and it will get your brain going and I have learned things since playing. Best of luck to you.

  • Cat says:

    Seconding the hobby idea. Coming back to my piano roots has made me feel way sharper than the work I do in consulting!

    The other thing I am crazy about at the moment is I am terrible at committing to in-person courses, so the set-up is great – I download the videos and skip through parts I don't like. I'd suggest having a look at the extensive catalog and trying out a few, as it's easy to drop without penalty. (My course load at the moment ranges from Corporate Finance to Managing Fashion to Soren Kierkegaard…I live abroad and in a desert, so it's great intellectual retreat!)

  • HR nerd says:

    Here is some advice on the interview front: practice as many mock interviews as you can stand. There may be networking groups in your area that offer the opportunity to do so, or you might have a friend who has done hiring.

    Most interviews start off with some variation on "Please tell us about yourself and why you think you would be a good fit for this position." If you can rehearse and memorize an answer ahead of time, you can practice repeating it in a more natural conversational tone. Other common questions might ask you for examples of a time you solved a problem, tackled a project you had not done before, had a conflict of opinion with a supervisor or co-worker, encountered a difficult customer, etc. Memorize answers so that you're prepared for common questions, and practice saying your answers so that they don't sound stiff.

    It's also a good interview habit to have a notepad with you, and to prep notes on the job description and the organization. Feel free to have a few notes with key words that you can use if your brain refuses to pop the right word up. Don't write out whole-paragraph answers and read them, but feel free to ask the interviewer to repeat the question and jot down some key words from the question. Pause to frame your answer before you speak. Nervous applicants are so common that if you miss a word or pause in the middle of a two-part answer to glance at your notes or to search for a 'mot juste' any sane interviewer will forgive you. They will not immediately leap to "incompetent."

    And if it makes you feel any better, I am an HR professional and I spent the first ten minutes of my latest interview searching for words and phrasing, sweating from nerves, talking too fast, and had to force myself to breathe and speak more conversationally. And that's with ten years of HR experience and more than three dozen interviews under my belt *as the interviewer*! You'll do fine!

  • Eliza says:

    EXERCISE. It helps you be smarter, and over time, it might also diminish the anxiety you feel about forgetting words, as well.

  • OneoftheJanes says:

    I did the Posit Science Brain Fitness series a couple of years ago. It's now changed to an online subscription model, so I don't know if it has exactly the same materials, but it seemed to have more scientific chops than Lumosity. The games were not always inherently fun in the way that a crossword is, but they were pretty interesting. A lot of them were based on sharpening up one's processing of sounds, because apparently it's the decline of that processing that can make hearing comprehension hard for aging adults, so you'd have to identify the difference between, say, "cat" and "gat" as the consonants got closer and closer together, or identify whether a pitch was going up or down. (There were also logic and memory problems, so it wasn't just those, and it looks like you can design your own now.) It's now

    There's a lot of information about brain plasticity on the site as well. Some of it seems to be in aid of making their product look like the best option, but it's also got a lot of information generally–here's a page that lists some brain plasticity topics:

  • Krissa says:

    Similar to @Eliza's suggestion – go for walks. Walk in nature, if you are able. Do not walk with headphones in, just walk. Many great writers, composers, and thinkers were habitual, fanatical walkers. The overarching belief among these great minds was that they needed the physical movement to allow their minds to work. This is a recent article I read listing some of these famous walkers and why they were so diligent about it.

  • Clover says:

    +1 for crosswords, and for the puzzle page in general. (I do the crossword as well as the sudoku, the jumble, and the word search when my stepdaughter doesn't get to it first.)

    If you have any young people you're close to, ask them what they're reading, read it yourself, and have conversations with them about it. I've gotten really into reading the same YA lit as my stepdaughter, and a lot of it is fun, thought-provoking stuff. Talking about it with her (which characters did you identify with? what scenes did you like? which inconsistencies bothered you? could something like this happen in real life?) leads to really interesting conversations. I really believe spending time engaging with someone young helps keep MY mind young and limber.

  • Georgia says:

    Practice a musical instrument! It's super fun, you can do it in a group if you like, and it definitely works your brain. (It can also be really relaxing/meditative.)

  • misspiggy says:

    Quality sleep: 5HTP (Griffonia Seed extract) is very helpful for sleep improvement, and doesn't make me groggy. Also, when you're in a high-stress situation like an interview, finding words and avoiding brain-freeze become much more difficult. There is science somewhere to prove that when people think they're being asked a difficult question, they freeze up on the answer more often. Don't take what happens in interviews as evidence that your brain is going soft.

    I've found one useful thing with interviews is to trick one's brain into thinking this is a perfectly normal discussion. So that means 1) having plenty of regular discussions with people in your life if you can, and 2) telling yourself you do not care about this particular job la la la. 2) is not very easy, but with practice it can be done!

  • Buttermilk says:

    1) Subscribe to GRANTA. Or buy some back issue(s) at a used book store or on ebay to see if it's to your liking. I love it.

    2) Download a free LSAT app. The LSAT requires no knowledge of law. The questions are designed to measure reading comprehension, analytical reasoning and logical reasoning. I find them to be a great mental exercise.

    Good luck!

  • Judy says:

    I came here to say learn piano (or smallish keyboard in my case) or any other musical instrument and I see someone else had the same idea. One great thing about digital keyboards aside from the benefits of challenging your brain as you learn is that you can wear headphones while playing and thus avoid driving anybody within earshot crazy while you practice.

  • attica says:

    +1 for a walk outside without headphones. More and more science is showing the benefits, not just of the exercise, but of the 'being outside with nature'. The whole cliché of a walk to clear your head is actually a real thing.

  • Ben says:

    The kind of drunk according to science line makes me think you also heard that horrifying study on NPR where they studied new parents and found that the sleep deprevation involved reduces them to insipid puddles on par with drunkards and people who need safety warnings that coffee is hot. As a parent of four with another on the way I can't tell you how much sleep I'm losing (figuratively) over the sleep I'm losing (literally).

    That is all.

    And I'm not drunk, I'm a dad. Seriously. I promise. Usually.

  • Nina A says: has a lot of great online fiction for free, and occasionally poetry. Also, writer/poet Jane Yolen offers a poem a day subscription service for a small donation to charity.

  • bluesabriel says:

    I really appreciate this thread. I was just talking to my husband this week about how I feel so much dumber than I did in college, and while he assures me I don't seem that way to him, I just can't shake the feeling. Some of it is my anxiety disorder being out of whack right now (causing me to have difficulty focusing on anything and being socially anxious in about every situation you can think of), but still. It nags at me.

    Reading the suggestions really makes me realize just how narrow my life has become since that time. I never realized all the things I'm just not doing anymore. Aside from coursework, I was in two choirs, took voice lessons, wrote for pleasure, read for pleasure, ran, had daily conversations with friends and roommates, went to classical recitals, discussed tv shows we watched… you get the idea. With a job and a toddler, I haven't done some of those things since leaving college, let alone within the past few years.

    Thank you, Nation, for making me realize what I'm forgetting and resolving to use my limited free time more wisely going forward.

  • Jo says:

    All my suggestions are already here, but:

    1. Crosswords. You don't have to start as hard as the NYT, but it's a good one. The good thing about doing one from the same source all the time, like NYT, is that they repeat a lot of words and clues, so over time, you start recognizing strange facts/words all the time.

    2. I don't have a pay subscription, but the games are actually pretty fun and do seem to help memory.

    3. Play a musical instrument. Piano would be great because it teaches you to work both sides of the brain at once if you're playing both hands, but any instrument training keeps your brain in shape.

  • Glenn says:

    One activity I've used in the past (and that I haven't seen mentioned yet) is going to a (used) bookstore and getting an old college (or even high school) English literature textbook with a bunch of short stories – preferably a bunch you haven't read. What's nice is that although they aren't new, most books include a series of discussion questions at the the end of each story/section for you to think about.

  • Amber says:

    I recommend the book "Good Poems" edited by Garrison Keillor. It's one of my favorites.

  • Margaret in Colorado says:

    Your local librarian is an expert in new writers and would love to help you. is awesome and has a lovely mobile app, and they'll send you a poem a day:
    (scroll to the bottom, on the right)

    I *love* "The Sun" magazine. It's been the doorway to so many amazing writers for me, really fattened up my bookshelves (and they have no advertising, so wonderful.) They also have a "Readers Write" section, submit something!

    I'm also of the conviction that music opens the windows of your soul and lets the fresh air in. If you don't play, sing! Learning new lyrics seems as though it would be ideal for you.

    And I'd like to ask you to just take a minute here J, and remember the dumb shit you did in college! Holy hell, honey, you are SO MUCH SMARTER than that now! Maybe you're less academic, but you're smarter, I guarantee it.

    Gotta go look up "exegesis" now…

  • sadiegirl says:

    Coloring books were mentioned in the answer. Are these coloring books for adults, and if so, where do you find them? I really enjoy coloring books and princesses are fun when I'm doing them with a kid, but I would love some adult-ish coloring books to do.

  • Jennifer says:

    I'm not the OP, but I also have brain fog/aphasia due to a neurological condition and I just wanted to thank all the commenters for these great ideas! So far I've just been using sudoku and embarrassment to deal with it.

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