Old brains, better brains?

I haven’t read this book yet, but I plan to. Even the book review for it reposted below is fascinating. Older brains are better brains? Keeping with the theme of reality contradicting stereotypes about age also see this earlier post:

Hope I die before I get old


This book review is from:


The Mature Mind
The Positive Power of the Aging Brain

by Gene D. Cohen
Basic Books, 2005
Review by David M. Wolf, M.A. on Feb 20th 2007
Volume: 11, Number: 8

In this readable, concise report of his own and relevant research into the aging brain, Dr. Cohen delivers a real basis for hope. We’re not just getting older; we’re getting better. Maybe. And here’s the point: we can mature and get better if we do the right things and participate in the right things. This book fully describes what activities, changes, or interventions are useful and beneficial. Cohen uses scientific studies and case examples to make the facts plain. Everyone over forty should read this book, because its findings will directly influence career moves and lifestyle choices.

Cognition, creativity, intelligence, and, especially, memory (or its impairment) are of vital concern to most people as they age. The Mature Mind inquires into the brain’s changes as we age and relates these to how the human mind manages in the face of the brain’s changes. Our job as educated people is to learn what is happening and make the adjustments and commitments that lead toward a vigorous maturity.

The brain, Cohen reports, is not just losing neurons and getting old; the brain is also developing, growing new neural networks and cells, and becoming more balanced between its two hemispheres. The worst “rubbish” from the past, according to Cohen, is in the false phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The essence of successful maturity is to continue learning, growing, challenging the brain and the whole human being as it ages. Doing this with wisdom, creativity, social support and attention to everyone’s need for a sense of control and mastery is the right approach to successful aging.

Cohen’s axiom for what drives and sustains us throughout life he names “Inner Push.” As he uses this insight, it appears synonymous with the philosopher Spinoza’s idea of the “fiery Conatus”, and also, quite like Henri Bergson’s more poetic idea of the elan vital. Inner Push is there while we breathe, and it’s up to us to shape its energies.

We do this in the second half of life according to Four Phases, says Cohen: Midlife Reevaluation (ages 40-65), Liberation phase (50s through 70s), Summing Up (late 60s through 70s-80s), and Encore phase, until the end of life. The Mature Mind is largely a characterization and description of these phases, plus some helpful essays on creativity in old age and lists of resources. Cohen also spends some ink debunking “midlife crisis”, which he says is a myth.

The “power” and “potential” of older minds is rooted in a human brain that not only ages, but also, develops over time. We may individually be surprised by age, but the biological brain is not: the program includes adaptive responses in which the brain can adjust and rewire itself. This physiological change can be far greater than people ordinarily suppose if the aging adult remains active mentally, accepts challenges individually and socially, and gets some regular exercise.

In other words, the hopeful result depends in large part on how much the brain is stimulated with learning and activity of the kind that promotes vitality. Depend on TV, let your friends die off, become isolated and alone, retire, become or remain inactive physically: these are the old habits that lead to degeneration and death. However, exercise, social engagement, creative (even artistic) expression, phased retirement or part-time work, volunteering, learning new things over which one develops a feeling of growing mastery–these kinds of changes lead to surprisingly vital older people who live better and longer than their unlucky peers.

Cohen has some startling findings in his data that supports his views. One in particular is that aging brains contain expansive bundles of neurons not available to the young, bundles that reflect a lifetime of experience. At the same time these brain assets become more balanced between both hemispheres, doing with the whole brain what the young cannot yet do or can do only with Left or Right hemispheres singly.

Older people have a “developmental intelligence” which better balances physical and emotional maturity. Development is wrongly seen as just for kids. The maturing brain is more capable of what Cohen calls “relativistic thinking” (not black and white), “dualistic thinking” (resolving opposites), and “systematic thinking” (big picture). These capabilities give the mature mind truly “advanced” status. It can take a lifetime to develop the basis for these advances, and they have enormous individual and social implications.

So, this book is more than a useful guide to saving one’s own aging brain. It is also a review laying a basis for social, even political changes, reflecting the untapped potential of our aging American population.

2007 David M. Wolf,

Change The Adjectives

I recently got finished reading the book “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood.

Atwood is a feminist novelist who makes occasional and GOOD forays into science fiction. Though her stories are not innovative for the science fiction genre she writes well, and infuses new life into old stories.

In Atwood’s book the main character studies literature while he is in school. He develops an interest in reading very old self help books. When he graduates he ends up getting a job as a promotions person for a company that makes self improvement products. I found this quote from the job interview scene to be provocative:

(approximately page 245, the chapter titled “Vulturing”)

What had impressed them, said the interviewers — there were two of them, a woman and a man — was his senior dissertation on self-help books of the twentieth century. One of their core products, they told him, was the improvement items — not books any more, of course, but the DVDs, the CD-ROMs, the Web sites, and so forth.

(page 246 )

“You showed great insight into the process”, the woman said. “In your dissertation. We found it very mature.”

“If you know one century, you know them all,” said the man.

“But the adjectives change”, said Jimmy. “Nothing’s worse than last year’s adjectives”

“Exactly!” said the man, as if Jimmy had just solved the riddle of the universe in one blinding flashbulb of light.

I have some time management and self improvement books on my book shelf that have really been valuable in my life. I’ve noticed that new books on these subjects come out in regular cycles, but they rarely ever say anything new and sometimes they say the same old thing not as well as earlier books.

Like Atwood’s quote it seems that all these authors do is make new buzz terms and rearrange the content without adding any value. Yes, some of them do add insights or make old content more accessible to contemporary audiences. Beyond this there are two reason I think that drive the perpetual recycling of the self help books:

1. It is hard to make money republishing or using existing works.

2. The consumer wants to believe there is something new and publishers are willing to exploit this.

In regards to #2 one of the things I liked about Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits Of Highly Effective People” is his observation that successful people do things of value, even when they do not feel like it. Covey went on to say that no matter the system, if you want to be successful at your goals sooner or later it will always come back to having to do that.

Having read book reviews of various self help books on Amazon I think people who go self-help book hopping are looking for a way around having to do things when they do not feel like doing them. They are looking for some magical system that will make them always feel enthused about doing what they think they should be doing. When a new book, with the same content, but “new adjectives” comes out it gives them the illusion of a new system that might have away around having to do things without feeling like doing them.

Animal Instinct – “The Devil Wears Prada” for vegans

I would sum this book up as “The Devil Wears Prada for vegans”.

“Animal Instinct” is about a journalist who quits her job to go work for an animal rights organization. The journalist soon discovers that her boss is emotionally unstable and toxic.

The novel is based on the author’s experience of quitting her own job to go work in an AR organization. Names are changed and many of the characters are amalgamations( but only slightly). The fictitious names she uses forvarious groups are a bit tongue-in-cheek and are funny.

The bulk of the story is about how the members of the “fictitious”
organization take abuse from their boss and work around her out of
their intense devotion to helping animals.

This is one aspect of the book I liked. While it painted the boss and
other heads of various “fictitious” AR organizations as being “eccentric”, it painted the people who work for these organizations as heroic in enduring what they endured, because of their intense love for animals. It paints them as intensely decent super hard working people.

The main character who works closely with the fictitious boss gets most of the abuse. Her soul searching about why she stays involves detailed descriptions of various kinds of animal abuse that stop just short of being educational.

I like the idea of someone picking up some beach reading and getting a bit of an education into the current state of animal welfare.

There are lots of references in the book to real life AR victories,
books and campaigns.

High literature it is not. It is the kind of thing to read at the end
of the day when you are too tired for other things.