Posted in Reflections At Mid-Life

Is My Brain Fit to Be Studied?

As of Friday, I am wearing a borrowed fitbit, temporarily. I am aware that many of my friends and colleagues wear these everyday, counting their steps, or whatever else they do with them. I, however, am wearing this for a few weeks as part of a research study at Duke University. Last month, I saw an announcement about the the study seeking participants, so I contacted them and was told that I qualified to be in the study. It’s a brain study! I have always been fascinated with brains and how they work. I frequently tell students that I consider myself a brain detective. That’s been a big part of my success as a teacher, because I intentionally spend time trying to figure out how every brain works in order to teach each student about their own brain, and also to help me to teach them better. 

This particular study is about the Aging Brain, Memory and Decision Making. I told them that they could study my brain, or what’s left of it after this past pandemic year of teaching virtually, but I definitely want to know what they learn overall when the study is completed. The first session was this week. I answered questions, repeated lists, and completed tasks on an ipad for over an hour. As I answered questions, I felt all of my old performance anxiety feelings bubbling up. Sure enough, I froze for some of the auditory questions, especially those involving numbers. I actually enjoyed the visual tasks, and found myself using various strategies that I have taught students to use to try to remember things. It was just myself and a very kind, enthusiastic young grad student in the room. She did not react to my blunders and my nervous responses, but I was pretty sure she was thinking, “Wow! She was not kidding about her brain being a good one to study!”  As in “What on earth is happening in this woman’s brain?” That is also a question my family and friends have wondered about for years, but that is an entirely different blog post. 

I have administered a fair share of tests and tasks to students ranging from 5 -18 years of age, for much of my 35 year career in education. As a special education teacher and an instructional coach, assessing students was a critical piece for teaching. I am not referring to the meaningless, biased tests required by school systems. When I assess students it is to gather critical information about how they think and learn, and to help identify the best strategies to help them learn. I know what it’s like to listen to and watch students trying to figure out test questions, letter sounds, number calculations, and the meaning of what they just read. I pay close attention to the physical signals and body language shown during testing that are major clues to me about what their brain and emotions are doing. I wondered if the grad student was noticing my body language? I tried not to show signs of anxiety, but I am sure it was obvious to her.

I am more than sure that my lack of working memory is why I rarely passed tests, my entire life, and it is why I chose not to pursue a Master’s Degree. Tests have never been the way for me to show what I am capable of doing in the real world. I am a strong advocate for not judging anyone’s abilities based on test scores or the letters after their name. I have been around long enough to know that PHD, MA and DR are not a guarantee that someone is better at their job than someone who does not have those letters after their name. I say this with some hesitancy, because I know how hard people work to get those letters behind their names. I know how proud they are of them. I also firmly believe that the bias against those of us without the letters, is unfair. I obviously value education, or I would not have dedicated over half of my life to it as a profession. However, I would put money on the fact that there are many of us out here who simply have a Bachelor’s Degree, or maybe only a High School degree, who should be considered for other jobs, but are passed up due to a lack of letters behind our name. I would contend that many of us have test or performance anxiety and avoid being in situations that feel like tests. Being a part of this study is definitely putting me in a vulnerable position. I decided to do it mainly because I want to know more about how brains, not only mine, and working memory are different for everyone. It is a plus for me that the people conducting the study do not know me, are meeting me with a mask on, and I will likely never see them again in my lifetime. Brene Brown would have a hay day with me, right? A perfect candidate for vulnerability and shame, all in one paragraph!

My next two brain research sessions will involve sixty minute MRI’s. I have never had an MRI before, so that, in and of itself will be an experience. When asked, I told them I am not claustrophobic. I hope that’s true. My understanding is that I will be looking at a screen with more questions and tasks on it, and answering questions while they watch how my brain responds while I struggle (or not) to find the answers. 

The fitbit, I am not exactly sure about. They set it so the information goes directly to them. My steps and activity level, my sleep patterns and my heart rate are all of interest. My performance anxiety has kicked in again. That’s not always a bad thing though. I am finding that I am intentionally running up and down the stairs at home and moving around more during the day. The annoying quiet vibration and buzzing that keeps happening throughout the day is a constant reminder. I will not miss that when I return the fitbit to them at my first MRI appointment. I am generally pretty active, but this past year, being a virtual only teacher based out of our home, has found me sitting at a computer more than I ever imagined was possible. I do go for walks and swim laps 5-6 times a week, but my hunch is that I will walk further and swim harder with this fitbit on to try to make sure I am not labeled as an older, low activity woman for the study!

In a few weeks, in the middle of this study, I will celebrate my 62nd birthday. It is no coincidence that I found this study to be intriguing as I turn another year older. My brain is tired and very, very full. I am trying to write a memoir in hopes of emptying out some of the clutter that is taking up space in my brain. I may not be able to perform on tests, but I have hundreds of stories to tell that explain what I have learned as an educator and how students and families have been the reason I became such a strong and effective teacher. Participating in this study is giving me a close up look at myself, the way I problem solve, as well as exposing some insecurities that have nagged at me most of my life. It is also showing me that I am not finished learning about myself, I am willing to take risks, even if they are uncomfortable, and I am not ready to be old, just older. What I am ready for, is to give myself credit for the wisdom I have gained over the years, and to continue to be curious and to learn about myself.

I keep a running list of topics to write about. One of my upcoming topics is ageism. I’ll wait until I complete the brain study to write that about that one. As I learn more about my thinking and memory capabilities, and reflect on how my brain currently processes and retains information, compared to when I was younger, I expect that I will have a few revelations. I am wondering if the difference will be minimal, and I am curious to learn a bit more about how societal attitudes toward aging may be influencing my personal mindshift about how fit my brain really is. For now, I need to stop typing and get up to move around so I can get some steps in before I begin my lesson planning for the day.


I am a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend, a mentor, an educator, a scrapbooker, and now...apparently, I am a blog writer!

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