I've noticed something startling these past few months: my brain has been experiencing a sprint of new ideas in almost every area of interest, that I have. For a long time, I simply noticed this, and enjoyed it. I mean, my brain has always been active, but now it's superactive. And creative. I'm coming up with new ideas, a mile a minute. If thoughts once came like an occasional firecracker in the brain, now it feels like continuous fireworks.
Yesterday, it occurred to me to wonder why this was happening. I am, after all, 87 years old; isn't the brain supposed to go into a slow decline by this point, with brain cells flicking off into space at an increasingly alarming rate? Well, evidently not. So, pondering why, I found myself talking to myself: "what is different about your life, now, from, say, ten years ago?" Instantly I knew the answer.
My beloved wife Marci and I have been watching movies. No, that's not exactly something new. I've been a movie buff all my life. What's new is the frequency. Courtesy of Netflix and Amazon, we've been watching movies every night. Think what that means: graphic images flooding the brain for two hours every night. Without fail. And graphic images stimulate, as is common knowledge now, the right side of the brain. This right side, in most people, is the creative, exploring, designing side of the brain. It's the side that looks at old things in new ways, familiar things with newly-found wonder, unexplored mental territory with new curiosity, sees patterns where no patterns were noticed before. The late Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness(1979) was one of the first to notice that images could make a big difference in a person's life. Suffering from what doctors said was a terminal illness, he healed himself by playing Marx Brothers movies day by day. It was images (and belly laughs) that did it.
So, watching the movies every night lights up the mind. I then wondered, is that enough to explain this burst of fireworks in my mind? It occurred to me, after pondering, that there was something more. And that was, the choice of movies. I chose movies I remembered from different eras of my life, and most particularly the young years. We chose to watch a movie I remember seeing when I was in tenth grade: Action in the North Atlantic, with Raymond Massey and Humphrey Bogart. And the movie I remember seeing on my eighteenth birthday: Objective Burma, with Errol Flynn. And so it has gone: I've delved as deeply into my past as I can remember. For the sake of the curious, I have listed some of the movies at the end of this post.
But what is the point, and what does this have to do with stimulating the mind? Well, it goes back to a belief of mine about dreams. In my chequered career I used to do a lot of personal counseling with people in trouble. Some 6000 hours I would guess. And I particularly delighted in helping them with understanding their dreams. I noticed that when not much was stressing people out, in their present lives, their dream-maker seemed to go back during their sleep to Unresolved Issues from their past -- not yet completely digested experiences if you will –– and try to bring them to some kind of closure and peace. In other words, looking back at the past freed these people up, to do more in the present. And what was I doing, but going back to the past every night with Netflix?
When Frank Sinatra died, someone over forty wrote, "We have lost the soundtrack of our lives: the music to which we fell in love, to which we proposed, to which we tied the markers of key events in our lives." That's how I think of old movies, in my life at least: they were the soundtrack of my life. Going back and viewing this past, via movies, has freed me up to do more in the present.
Of course, I could be all wet. Maybe this new burst of thought and creative energy has more to do with age, the stars in their courses, God's grace descending, wisdom arising - - who knows? It still feels like fireworks in the brain. And I do believe it is a continuous diet of graphics and visiting the past that has something to do with it. But, either way, it is a wonderful time to be alive.
For the curious: The soundtrack and sighttrack of my past:
During the past six months, we have watched Gunga Din, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Sam Jaffe; Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston; Beau Geste, with Gary Cooper; Cabin in the Sky, with Ethel Waters; The Barkleys of Broadway, with Fred Astaire; It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert; The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn; Drums Along the Mohawk, with Henry Fonda; Alexander's Ragtime Band, with Don Ameche; Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman; Suspicion, with Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with James Stewart; Yankee Doodle Dandy, with Jimmy Cagney; Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn; Dr. No, with Sean Connery; Citizen Kane, with Orson Welles; The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart, Pete Lorre; The Third Man, with Orson Welles; The Captain's Paradise, with Alec Guinness; The Big Heat, with Glenn Ford; Stormy Weather, with Lena Horne; To Catch a Thief, with Cary Grant, Grace Kelly; On The Waterfront, with Marlon Brando ("I coulda been a contender"), Eva Marie Saint; Run Silent, Run Deep, with Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster; My Favorite Wife, with Cary Grant, Irene Dunne; The Bridge on the River Kwai, with William Holden; Bad Day at Block Rock, with Spencer Tracy; The Sea Chase, with John Wayne, Lana Turner; River of No Return, with Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe; From Here to Eternity, with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr; Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy, Frederic March; Let's Make Love, with Marilyn Monroe, Yves Montand; Cool Hand Luke, with Paul Newman, Strother Martin ("What we've got here is failure to communicate."); High Society, with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra; The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft; The Enemy Below, with Robert Mitchum, Curt Jurgens; The Man Who Would Be King, with Michael Caine, Sean Connery; and every Fred Astaire or Cary Grant movie ever made.