Engage brain ... and gossip

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Yawning dumbly over breakfast after a bewildering week, I spent some time on a report from University College London about which activities preserve mental agility in a person's middle years. It did a study of 10,308 civil servants, over a period of 17 years, which should interest anybody who, like me, has started putting the cheese away in the washing machine and holding the dog's rubber bone to one ear when the phone rings.

I always assumed that education is the best way to keep your brain turning over into the extremest old age. This is based largely on the ancient, wrinkled sharpness of university academics in my youth. I was taught Anglo-Saxon by the late Professor CL Wrenn, who died in his nineties of pure old age, but who the week before his death, half-blind and barely mobile, was terrifying me and my tutorial partner with his pouncingly critical mind. When we heard the news, the unworthy thought flashed past that now we wouldn't have to finish his unspeakably difficult translation; I am happy to say that we both did it after all, out of a mixture of respect and fear that he might haunt us.

But education isn't everything. The UCL bar charts prove that. Some results are not too amazing - DIY and gardening do not seem to do much for the short-term memory and verbal and number skills they tested, which is no surprise to anybody who lives with a spouse wandering around holding a trug or screwdriver and muttering "Now, where did I leave the thingummy for those whatsits?". Cards, scrabble, etc, score high, as do reading and music. Which is a comfort to anybody inclined to stay indoors, ignoring the compost-heap and loose guttering in favour of a good book and some Bach.

"Sorry dear", you can say, yawning comfortably as the windows rattle in a storm, "I'm working on my mental agility".

The results are split by gender, and while women get less mentally agile while using a home computer, men get more so (we shall come to that in a moment). Moreover, when women go out to pubs and clubs, it markedly improves our brainpower (presumably because we gossip), whereas men undergo an equally marked decline (presumably because they drink and grunt about football). So far, so predictable.

But the shock comes with "educational activities". Men who do courses shoot ahead in the mental agility retention stakes - it is better for them than computers, and nearly as good as reading and music. But women register less than a fifth of the benefit. It comes rather below going to the pub or church, and streets behind "visiting friends and relatives" (which, interestingly, doesn't improve men's minds one bit).

What's going on here? How can it be that men flex their middle-aged minds in adult education five times more than women? Sitting side by side in classical civilisation or astro-navigation at the local FE college, can it be true that Mr Jones is making fabulous new neural connections and re-plasticising his brain cells, while Mrs Jones is getting less cerebral benefit than she would if she popped round to her sister-in-law's?

Well, it could be. Refer back to the weird finding that when men use a home computer it gees their brains up, whereas with women it has the opposite effect. I fear that the answer may lie in something only too familiar to schoolteachers: male challenge.

Perhaps all these men in the educational courses are arguing a lot. They are challenging the teacher, asking "Why?" and "How do you know?" and generally being macho and combative. In the same way, my husband spends hours updating his computer software and exploring the technical possibilities of his machine, while I just use mine as a typewriter and Google-powered encyclopaedia, and howl pathetically for help when the screen goes blank.

It is possible that females get less benefit out of adult educational courses because we don't argue with the lecturer enough. We are good girls, we take notes, tick boxes, finish the coursework, accept that teacher knows best. Whereas, of course - glancing up the bar chart again - when "visiting friends and relatives' we argue incessantly over the way that our acquaintances should lead their lives, raise their children and colour their hair.

How very worrying. Of course, I may get a flurry of letters from adult education lecturers saying "Wrong, sexist, rubbish Libby, the men are ever so docile and the women drive you nuts with their smartass questions". Oh, I hope so.

I want to be Professor Wrenn when I'm old, not Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha.

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