Contradicting the Aging Brain

In coming up with our book, each of us discussed our own chapters extensively with one another. While my interest has and always will be solicited by Phineas Gage’s TBI or Ramachandran’s research on Phantom Limbs, I realized I had given little or no thought to the tacit, yet inevitable process of aging. As I thought about it, I realized that this is a topic that is easily spoken about in one sense- a negative one. Consistent with notions of old age being engineered by processes of inferior functioning, is the idea that the old brain is capable of far less than the younger kind. While it may be intuitive to focus on the flaws in older brains, could it be possible that we ignore how capable they actually may be and thus do a greater disservice to them? Think about it. The older brain has lived several years of life and has had the opportunity to be exposed to, to gain, and to learn so much information. Then where does that all go? Can an overload of information really reach a point of being disadvantageous where there remains less space for the containment of previously held knowledge? Doubting that a world of ‘forgotten’ knowledge could just disappear into thin air and ever be remembered, I began looking up articles that reflected on the aged brain from a more positive light and found one I actually really enjoyed in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03adult-t.html

A little excerpt from the article:

“Recently, researchers have found even more positive news. The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.”

In response to this I began thinking of the differential development of the brain. In light of the statement about the brain’s ability to perceive a more holistic picture, the two general conceptions of hemispheric brain function came to my mind. Would this mean that a conventionally assumed loss of left hemispheric cognitive function is what results in a compensatory enhancement of right hemispheric integrative perception? Is the so called ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ knowledge channelized to manifest as something else?

Moreover, the article presents the idea of “juggling your synapses” by making them tread a path less walked. In presenting “disorienting dilemmas” that contradict prior fixed notions, the brain’s “cognitive egg” is cracked and scrambled up. Thus, the focus lies not, in simply teaching adults new facts, but lies in the process of contradiction. This would thus force the brain to engage in deliberative processes rather than accumulative ones. In confronting your brain with ideas and thoughts that have never been encountered by it before, one would be creating a veneer of complexity they never had before, making new connections that are salient and more persistent in the face of novelty. Not to mention this would be forcing the brain to ‘use’ its faculties instead of losing them.

“Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.”

As we ponder ways of teaching our brains to be healthy and young, this is definitely one to consider. People worry about over burdening and not contradicting the elderly. But who knew we would be helping them if we did so after all?

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