My Brain’s Not What it Once Was

I use gmail, firefox, and lots of other web 2.0 type goodies. Gmail, conveniently enough, lists keyboard shortcuts you can use to navigate. So I started trying to use them. But for some reason, they didn’t sink into my brain.

A little background is necessary here: when I was in college and just after, I used Macs and then Windows 3.1, or Windows 95. And I knew ALL the keyboard shortcuts. The mouse was okay for those tasks you had to do once a day, or once every few days, but that’s it. All navigation, all routine tasks, I relied on the keyboard for. It was faster, easier and simpler.

Over the years, I’ve kept the keyboard shortcuts I used to use, but more and more tasks seem to require the mouse. Or at least, I was using the mouse more and more. I thought it was the nature of technology, until I started hanging out with some programmers, and watched them flying around windows, never touching their mouses. They would hit the start button, followed by three other buttons pushed so quickly in succession that I couldn’t tell what they were, and they’d opened a new application. They’d use the little menu button…to reach all the “right click” controls. They fly!

So it’s not the technology, which means. . .it’s me. I’ve started thinking about how it used to annoy me that older users would use the mouse so much, eschewing keyboard shortcuts. Didn’t they know they were faster? Now, as I’ve reached that age, I realize something is different. It’s harder to learn keyboard shortcuts. They don’t stick in my brain they way they used to.

It used to be that someone would tell me about a keyboard shortcut once, and I had it. Now, I read about it, use it and I still won’t remember what it is (or even that it exists). My brain just isn’t storing new information as efficiently as it used to.

There is an upside: my brain may not be as efficient as it used to be, but it has more experience to draw on. Some call this wisdom, though I prefer to avoid that turn. I’m afraid it might set people’s expectations too high. I prefer to refer to it as “reality testing.” With more experience of reality, I am better able to evaluate ideas against the real world, with less need to compare it to some platonic ideal which exists only in my head.

Nonetheless, I do mourn the loss of efficiency my brain has suffered. I miss the ability to learn things quickly and surely. To hear something once, and remember it. To be able to remember whether I’m not remembering something because I’ve forgotten it, or because I never knew about it in the first place.

I know this isn’t a new complaint. People have been complaining about their declining mental agility for a very long time. Nonetheless, I discover I never really expected it to happen to me. And as it does, I learn a new form of humility, wondering what else I think of as integral to myself, which will one day disappear.

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