Filling in the Blanks

by Bella Rum

A few days ago, I heard a comedian say, “Most Americans can’t even identify Ukraine on a map.” He said some people placed it in the U.S. and some even put it in the middle of the ocean. He didn’t say which ocean. Politicians love to flatter us with how smart we are, and comedians love to remind us how stupid we are.

Yes, I could point out Ukraine’s general location on a blank map, but I still could only fill in the major countries in Europe, those Scandinavian ones and all those big, fat stepping-stones that go right down the middle and ‘the boot’ and the United Kingdom and Ireland, of course. That’s more than I thought I could, but those itty biddy and lesser known ones stumped me. And there sat Croatia, looking for all the world like jodhpurs straddling Bosnia-Herzegovina. But that was a couple of days ago. I found this little interactive learning tool on, and I can now fill in a blank map of Europe. Yes, even the itty bitty ones. To what end, you say?

800px-World_Map_FINAI’m on a mission to eventually be able to fill in all (almost all) the blanks on a world map, including the major bodies of water, however, geographic bragging rights is not the purpose behind this effort. The real prize is the side effect of this type of brain exercise. Not being called stupid by Bill Maher is a plus, too, but I wouldn’t go on a mission to memorize the entire world for him. After all, he never calls.

So why then?

You’ve heard about ‘that’ study haven’t you? It’s  practically a requirement for anyone over fifty to know about that study.  It suggests that the process of learning something new creates new neural pathways in the brain. We don’t even have to be successful at our attempts. It’s just like our mamas told us, doing our best is what counts. It appears that just attempting to learn new things promotes the creation of new neural pathways. Cool, huh?

You might decide to learn that new language that you’ve been meaning to for the last 10 years. As you study the language neurons housed in the area of your brain that’s storing your native language would send electrical messengers down the axons to the cell’s center (soma) where it is then routed to a particular group of connected dendrites which would then release a chemical messenger to the new targeted group of neurons that are located next to it. New neural pathways begin to be formed to acquire and store the new language. These new pathways become stronger the more they are used, causing the likelihood of new long-term connections and memories.

Source: What is Neuroplasticity? 

It works the same way for new experiences, trying different things, even taking a different route home everyday.

Most of us have acquired deep knowledge about a few things in our lifetime: our job, sports, hobbies. Sometimes we forget that, albeit shallow, a little knowledge about a variety of things is worthwhile. That’s what informs perspective.

But I’m really just doing it to maintain my memory. Got to stay sharp or I won’t be able to find the chocolate when he hides it.

Now I have to figure out what I’d like to master after I conquer the world. Whaddaya think?