Sunday, April 25, 2010
Review by Maureen Callahan - New York Post
Given the subject matter, the title of science writer Barbara Strauch’s new book feels limited: In it, she examines and explores new scientific research that shows the human brain, at mid-life, is at its most nimble, agile, and best. It’s not so much that the middle-aged mind has surprising “talents” — it’s that new scientific study is demanding an entire re-assessment of what it means to get older, and almost all the data is positive.
Strauch doesn’t so much define what middle age is as by what it isn’t; given our lengthy life spans, she considers someone like Nora Ephron, 68, still in the middle.
Some of the science isn’t new. For several years now, we’ve known that the brain doesn’t lose cells as it ages, as previously believed, but can and does generate new ones, along with new connections and pathways. We also know that older people tend to have more perspective, experience and wisdom than younger people, but neuroscience has just begun to quantify this common-sensical idea. (Strauch cites the actions of hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger as a quintessential example of the older brain’s ability to call on vast reams of synthesized information in order to make a series of swift, correct decisions under pressure.)
Strauch makes a strong argument for the notion that minor, intermittent forgetfulness — misplacing your keys, the inability to remember an acquaintance’s name — are not signs of a diminishing brain. We forget things like this in our 20s, too, but because we are in our 20s, we don’t read them as signs of impending dementia. She also points to studies that show that picayune details may elude the aging brain because it is soaked with more information and has a denser neural infrastructure than a younger one.
“The middle-aged brain is a contradiction,” she writes. “Some parts run better than others . . . [but] despite a misstep now and then, our cognitive abilities continue to grow.”
Among the many exciting recent discoveries: Your brain is at its peak in middle age, so much so that scientists are re-evaluating whether there is such a thing as a midlife crisis (the thinking now is that isolated individuals already prone to depression tend to be depressed in middle age.) But the middle-aged brain seems designed to filter experience and information positively, that it regulates emotions with great control, and that both hemispheres suddenly begin to act in concert, allowing greater facility with ideas and logic.
Also: There are people who live with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and never show any symptoms. These individuals are rare, and they tend to be highly intelligent and social, but they exist. (Monkeys, by the way, do not get Alzheimer’s.) These same kinds of people are also far more likely to suffer less damage in sustaining a traumatic brain injury. Their creativity actually increases, because we make more interesting and disparate connections and are more prone to daydreaming and wandering thoughts (like, where are the keys?). In short, neuroscientists believe that through our own efforts — reading, exercising, proper nutrition, staying engaged with the world — and future scientific innovation, we can and should expect our brains to function highly long into our dotage.
Strauch’s greater, larger point — one that she could have made a bit more forcefully, but that exists nonetheless — is that the culture needs to shift its preconceived attitudes about the inexorable decline and diminishment of neurological function as we age. “Our current vision of middle age is new,” she writes. “In fact, the study of middle age is so new, as one scientist told me, ‘It’s like researching nuclear physics, something that simply did not exist before.’ “
The one ironic flaw in Strauch’s thesis: She often repeats the same information over and over, as though she’d not mentioned it several times before, in slightly different ways, as if she’s presenting it for the first time. But as she so comfortingly puts it, we all must cut the middle-aged brain some slack. Or, in the words of William James, who she quotes here, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain
The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
by Barbara Strauch