Brain brain what is brain?

I have been a psychological test subject for the past 22 years.

No, really. But not in the way Cold War thrillers or paranoid medical novels would portray. More along the lines of Flowers for Algernon, without the performance-enhancing operation.

Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a participant in the Seattle Longitudinal Study, a long-term investigation of how mental abilities change as we age. I’ve been tested four times — 1984, 1991, 1998, and most recently (in two sessions of two hours each, plus one non-timed session with lifestyle and personality trait questions) over the past two weeks.

But I’m not the longest-running subject by a long shot. The Study began in 1956 — fifty years ago — and there are still 30 original participants in the roughly six thousand individuals who have taken part. As a matter of fact, grandchildren of the participants are now involved, making it the first three-generation cognitive ability study.

The study has led to some interesting findings coming out of its seven-year testing cycles. While some of these findings are summarized in Study newsletters issued between 1993 and 2003 and in more than two hundred research articles, what stands out in my mind are the popular press pieces, notably the ones that indicate when it comes to mental abilities, use them or lose them. But training may help you regain them.

In this latest testing cycle, I found I still had trouble solving math problems quickly on paper (darned calculators). But my word and memorization skills seemed as sharp as ever (try staring at a list of 20 words for three-and-a-half minutes, then remember all of them … and then be told to remember them again a half-hour or so later. I actually recalled 17 the first time and 18 the second; they may have even been the right words). I don’t think I got any worse on identifying what the next letter or number in a series should be. Of course, one part of the Seattle Longitudinal Study also measures participants’ perceptions of whether their abilities are getting better or worse as they age, alongside the objective reality.

I’m told that funding for a successor study has been received and there will be another cycle in another six-to-eight years. I’m looking forward to it.

Instead of giving my brain to science after I die, I’d rather do it now — when I can see the results.

(This essay originally appeared on Frank Catalano’s FrankCatalano.com blog.)