Morse Code Keeps My MS Mind in Gear

Columnist Ed Tobias' second language benefits both his brain and body

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by Ed Tobias |

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I speak Morse code.

It’s my second language, and I’m fluent.

I’ve been speaking Morse code since I got my ham radio license nearly 63 years ago. (My call letters are KR3E.) At first, I received what was sent at a very slow speed of five words per minute, hearing  o-n-e  l-e-t-t-e-r  a-t  a  t-i-m-e  and writing each on a pad. Later, I would hear whole words, not just letters. Eventually, I heard full sentences, with no need to write anything down. It’s called “head copying,” and I can cruise along at about 25 words per minute.

Here’s what Chapter 3 of “Moby-Dick” sounds like at that speed.

Morse is great for my multiple sclerosis

Morse code has been good for my brain, my body, and my soul.

When sending dots and dashes, my brain needs to understand what I’m thinking, quickly convert it to Morse code, and then tell my fingers to move a telegraph key in a certain pattern. While my fingers are doing that, my brain needs to be thinking about the words I’m going to send next. When the ham operator on the other end of this conversation is sending, my brain has to reverse the process.

Listening to Morse stimulates my mind and my memory. “Speaking” with my fingers helps to maintain their dexterity and coordination.

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In 2007, I participated in a University of Pittsburgh study involving the memory part. The researchers were studying verbal working memory, the brain’s ability to retain information for a brief time and then access it later. They concluded that Morse functions like “reading for the ears.”

When mastered, Morse code is music to my ears. It’s also a great stress reliever, and we know that stress can trigger multiple sclerosis (MS) flares.

Other hobbies can help with some of this

Your hobby doesn’t need to be ham radio. It might be music. Playing an instrument seems to have benefits similar to those of Morse code.

The MS Trust website has highlighted some people with MS who sew, do needlework, bake, and even ride motorcycles. (I’ve written about some MS bikers, and they amaze me.) Several years ago, I tried therapeutic horseback riding, which was fun and helped me improve my core and leg muscles.

If your physical problems limit what you can do, you might think about volunteering for a charity or taking an adult education class. You might even write an MS column like this one. On second thought, that might not be very good for your stress.

You’re invited to visit my personal blog at www.themswire.com.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Comments

willis duff avatar

willis duff

I don't have MS (TYL), but I share the "second language" relationship with Morse Code. My hamming days started when I was 13, and I was an all-CW kind of ham. W5RYI. Easier to learn a language at that age. Less distraction, too, in 1952.

Reply
Karen Stultz avatar

Karen Stultz

RRR Extra class with MS. Your article is spot on. My speed varies (physically and code) from day to day with MS, I am never too exhausted for code. 73

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Karen,

I'm glad you liked the column. I'm temporarily QRT because I haven't been able to put up an antenna in FL after moving there for the winter months and I'm not allowed to have one in my MD apartment. But I hope to return to the air this winter. What's your call?

73,

Ed, KR3E

Reply
Kit Minden avatar

Kit Minden

I've been brushing up on my Portuguese, learning song lyrics anew, teaching SAT and other tests, and more. It all helps in the fight!

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Kit,

It absolutely all helps. And, if you're also enjoying it all the better.

Ed

Reply
Maggie O'Brien avatar

Maggie O'Brien

Ed - my Dad knew Morse code from being in the Navy in WW2 and would have likely enjoyed the mental challenge as well. He also had MS. But he was an attorney who kept his mental facilities until he died in 2004. A nice story.
Maggie O'Brien

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Maggie,

Thanks for your nice note. No doubt courtrooms and legal briefs kept your dad just as sharp as, or sharper, than Morse code has done for me.

Ed

Reply
Artemy Ninburg avatar

Artemy Ninburg

The keyword is "63 years ago". Now you couldn't learn any languadge at all. But nearly the same trick I use to keep my brain in working condition: the memory improve, ability to make some strukture units from languadge you learn. I use learning Portuguese because it mostly popular in the world after the English. Only one thing I loose aginst your method: the connection between finger motorics and brain commands.

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Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Artemy - Frankly, I was never any good at languages. Even back in high school it took me 5 years to get through 2 years of French classes! But with Morse code it just came naturally. Crazy, right?

Ed

Reply

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