The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind - Barbara Strauch (2010)

Part I. The Powers That Be

Chapter 3. A Brighter Place

I’m So Glad I’m Not Young Anymore

The Santa Cruz campus of the University of California sits at the crest of a hill, a small cluster of buildings tucked into a forest of red-woods. To get there, you turn off Highway 1, south of San Francisco, leave the Pacific Ocean behind, and head up a mile-long road that winds its way up to the campus.

In the early 1970s, even those of us at nearby Berkeley considered Santa Cruz the most laid-back place of all. Of course, much of that has changed. As Silicon Valley money flowed over the mountains, roads became clogged with cars that these days are more likely to be BMWs than VW vans.

Still, on the bright warm February day that I visited, I was relieved to find that Santa Cruz had not lost all of its flower-child flavor. As we drove up the hill, we passed long-haired students pedaling clunky-tired bikes, still in tie-dyed shirts. There was a sign that said, simply, PEACE CORPS, and on campus, professors sat on the ground, speaking with circles of smiling students.

Santa Cruz had aged, but in a calm and happy sort of way.

So perhaps it is fitting that it was at Santa Cruz—amid the serene and ancient trees—that a quiet effort had been under way to figure out why humans, as we age, also get happier. Indeed, scientists are finding that, starting around middle age, we begin to adopt a rosier worldview.

This was, of course, not supposed to be. Many of us grew up dreading middle age. We read John Updike’s chronicle of poor Rabbit’s descent into disappointment as he reached middle age, “his prime is soft, somehow pale and sour. . . . [his] thick waist and cautious stoop . . . clues to weakness, a weakness verging on anonymity” We shuddered at Gail Sheehy’s message in Passages warning us to beware the impending doom, the “Forlorn Forties.”

What happened to all that?

Well, it turns out that what actually happens is that our moods get not worse but better. In fact, our brains may be set up to make us more optimistic as we age.

It is, even now, a revolutionary view. And it was to hear about this view that I went to Santa Cruz on that day to see Mara Mather1. A cognitive psychologist, Mather is slender, short, athletic, and glowing. She has blond curly hair, light blue eyes, pale and pretty. When I caught up with her, she was sitting in her plant-filled office, sunlight streaming in through a large window. She wore gray pants, a black turtleneck, and dangling silver earrings, and if I hadn’t known that she already had tucked securely under her belt hefty degrees from both Princeton and Stanford as well as a file drawer full of solid science, I would have guessed she was about fifteen years old.

Rather, when we first met, she was thirty-four, and, perhaps because she was only thirty-four, she appeared never to have been exposed to any gloomy assessment of midlife. “I don’t know, maybe I was lucky,” she said. “I ended up with a good view of getting older. I knew my grandmother and she was fun, vital, sociable, extroverted. When I was growing up in Princeton my great-grandfather came to visit us. He was one hundred and he was fine. I thought that’s what getting old was.

“It is a bit surprising. I mean, in middle age, there’s a lot of loss, I know,” she said. Friends die. Parents get sick. So it’s hard to think about our moods improving, but they do.”

I must say, this idea seemed more than odd to me at first. In the thick of middle age myself, cheeriness is not the first word that comes to my mind. Stressed-out might be a better description. Most others I spoke with also greeted the idea with hefty skepticism as well. But—slowly and consistently—an alternate thought emerged.

Not long ago, for instance, I was walking to get coffee with my colleague Erica, then fifty-two. We were talking about being in our twenties, as her niece and my daughters were at that point. We talked about how incredibly hard that age is, with its ups and downs, with boyfriends in and out, the “who-am-I’s” and “what-am-I-doing’s.”

“I would never, ever want to be twenty again; it was awful being twenty, awful,” Erica said as we crossed a street in Manhattan. “Now, I know, I’m older and there’s loss.”

We walked a bit farther in silence. “But you know,” she added after a bit, “when I think about it, it’s strange, but even with all that, I’ve never been happier. Isn’t that weird?”

Another woman, who is in her late fifties and a writer at a large magazine, told me she has never had so much to do, with a testy teenager and a mother exhibiting the early signs of dementia. But she said that she, too, noticed something new recently. For whatever reason, she now finds herself focusing less on the downside of life. “I see them, the bad things around or in my day or with my mom, but I am not quite as beaten down by them,” she said.

De-Accentuate the Negative

So how can we explain this newfound serenity? Are we just so fed up with bad things that we simply shut them out? Certainly, such contentment does not at all match the picture we’ve been presented about how this would all play out. Where are the midlife crises? The empty nests? What is going on here?

To understand what might be happening, the best place to start is—again—inside the brain. In particular, we have to look at a tiny sliver deep in the brain called the amygdala. Even if you know nothing about the brain—or think you know nothing—you are nevertheless quite aware of your amygdala. This is your body’s Homeland Security Department. If you see a scary-looking fellow plane passenger, have to talk with your boss about your performance, even speak with your teenager about sex, it’s your amygdala that goes into action, revving up the rest of the body to make that crucial call: fight or flight?

The amygdala is a primitive part of the brain. It is small. (Well, technically that should read, “They are small.” You have two, one on either side of your brain, and in proper plural they are called amygdalae, or “almonds” in Latin, named for their shape and size.)

So what could this ancient alert system, set up to keep early humans away from rampaging lions, be up to in our modern middle age? Not long ago, Mara Mather set out to find out. Working with Laura Carstensen, the Stanford psychologist, and neuroscientist John Gabrieli, now head of a brain-imaging lab at MIT, Mather and her colleagues found—after scanning the amygdalae of young and old—that as we get older, in a remarkably linear fashion, we, and our amygdalae, actually react less to negative things.

Over and over, Mather and the other researchers tried to get older people to take the negative view. While they lay in brain scanners, those in the study were shown pictures of standard scenes that are known to elicit positive reactions—puppies, children on the beach—and scenes that trigger negative responses—cockroaches crawling on pizza, people standing over a grave.

And over and over, the positive won out. As we get older, our amygdalae respond less and less to negative stimuli. And since the amygdala is pretty much set up to respond the most to the negative, this finding is extraordinary. Even Gabrieli says he was taken aback by the strength of the results, which were compelling. And it’s important to remember that the brain scans were detecting changes in the amygdalae long before the people ever became conscious of what they were seeing. Indeed, those in the study had no idea what their brains were doing.

“We are seeing the moment of perception,” Gabrieli says. The study found that our brains—in some automatic, preconscious way—begin to, as they say, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

To see how impressive this is, it helps to know a little context. For years it was simply assumed that as we aged—and our bodies started to slow—our emotions would generally follow suit, all becoming fainter as the years went by. On one level that view held sway with scientists because it seemed to make perfect sense.

But, like a lot of what we thought we knew about the brain, that, too, was wrong. Indeed, when the study of aging began in earnest (the serious study of aging is only a few decades old), quite the opposite turned out to be the case. As we age, our emotions not only remain largely intact but are also considerably more robust than our abilities in some other areas, such as how well we recall certain facts. As we get older, for instance, it’s easier to pinpoint how we felt on a given day—“I felt sad”—than what was actually happening—“it was raining.”

But even that research still got one large part of the picture upside down. It assumed that if our moods stayed strong, the strongest moods would be the negative ones. Early aging researchers, as we’ve said, based nearly all their work in nursing homes and, not surprisingly, found considerable grouchiness.

Luckily, as she started her own investigations, Mather didn’t even think of looking in such places. She had a more open mind. And when she arrived at Stanford to do postdoctoral work, she found that Laura Carstensen not only had a mind as open as hers but was already deeply engaged in upending long-held views of how our brains act as we age.

“I got to Stanford and Laura was doing all these incredible studies about aging and I was interested in memory and it just seemed natural,” Mather said.

At first meeting, Carstensen, too, hardly seems a scientific revolutionary. When we first met for lunch at the elegant faculty dining room at Stanford University, she looked—with a swath of white hair at her forehead—every bit the serious university professor that she is. But this was not the full picture. As I got to know Carstensen and began to appreciate her instincts for looking at issues in new and different ways, I began to think of her as a kind of Che Guevara of science, determined to, as she says, “change the nature of aging.”

Growing up in upstate New York, Carstensen was already a rebel. Even though her father was a college professor, she initially thumbed her nose at college and at age seventeen got married (“And I wasn’t even pregnant,” she says, still a bit amazed at her younger self). At one point, Carstensen got into a car accident, broke her leg, and ended up stuck for months in a rehabilitation center “with all the old women with broken hips.”

And it was there that the seeds of insurrection were sown. Seeing that she was young and bored, the staff put Carstensen, then twenty-one, in charge of watching out for the older women, and as the months went by, she saw that some did well and some did not.

“So many of them had run out of money and were alone and had to sell their houses to pay for their care,” Carstensen told me. “But others had a lot of family that came to visit and were the matriarchs of their families and were doing fine, and I began to question whether aging was just a biological process. It is biological, but it has to do with circumstances, with social context, even with emotions.”

Carstensen became more intrigued by what she was seeing around her at the rehab center, and when her father brought her tapes of a psychology lecture class at a nearby university, Carstensen was hooked. “I didn’t want to study medicine and just find out about the biology of aging. I wanted to know how biology and social influence interacted.”

Once at Stanford, Carstensen set out to do just that, conducting study after study that looked at the intersection of aging and emotion to figure out exactly what was going on.

First, she tackled memory. In one of her most influential studies, published in 2003, Carstensen, along with Mather and psychologist Susan Turk Charles, at the University of California at Irvine, found that, starting in early middle age, around age forty-one, people recalled more positive images (smiling babies) than negative ones (ducks caught in an oil spill). They found that the shift continued for a number of years—they tested people up to age eighty—and applied equally to men and women, office workers and plumbers, and showed up consistently across ethnic groups.

“Older people clearly showed preference in memory and attention for positive over negative,” Carstensen says.

Hints of this had been seen earlier. Some smaller studies, for instance, had shown that as we age, we remember and report more positive aspects of daily life. Asked about an apartment they’d seen, older people are more likely to first say something such as, “Oh, it had a really good kitchen,” rather than, “The closets were way too small.” As we get older, we report fewer bad moments from our days. And we’re much less likely to label a whole day as bad just because of one untoward incident.

“It’s not that people who are younger don’t see the positive,” says Susan Turk Charles, “but with younger people, the negative response is more at the ready. If you ask an older person what kind of day they had, they are more likely to say, ‘Oh I had a good day,’ and if you ask them if anything bad happened, they are much more likely to say no. But with younger people, it is the opposite; they are much more likely to say, ‘Oh I had a very, very bad day. I had a big fight with my parents.’ ”

Aging Is the Answer

So, why this emphasis on the good side in life as we get older? Carstensen asked herself that very question. And after much consideration, a deep look at the literature, and more groundbreaking research, she settled on the answer: The shift occurs as we age because it comes from aging itself.

In the 2003 study “Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults,” Carstensen wrote:

“Our research team has informally asked scores of older people how they regulate their emotions, particularly during difficult periods in their lives. Regularly, they responded with the answer: ‘I just don’t think about it [problem or worries].’ At first this statement seemed to offer little insight into how older adults were regulating their feelings; however, the consistency of their responses made us turn to the possibility that processing positive and negative information may vary as a function of age.”

The conclusion was not reached lightly. Rather it was based on a whole raft of studies that looked at the question from every conceivable angle. In science you don’t always find a line of studies that progresses step by step, asking the next most logical question. But in the series of elegant studies, Carstensen and her colleagues did just that.

In one, for example, Carstensen wondered whether people didn’t remember negative material as well simply because they ignored it altogether. But that was not it. Instead, the researchers found that if older people were presented with one image at a time, they looked at negative pictures even longer than positive ones, the same as younger people.

Then Carstensen and her team discovered another intriguing clue, zeroing in on choice. She found that even though we don’t ignore negative information in middle age, if we are given the choice—positive or negative—we choose to focus more on the good than on the bad. Middle-aged people, for instance, were much faster at picking out small details on a happy-looking face than on an unhappy one.

Could it be, then, that negative images are simply much harder to process as we age, so, if we have the choice, we head toward the happier pictures because of a lack of energy, perhaps? Not at all. As Charles says, negative information is “much, much more potent” and remains much easier for brains to recognize and process. We actually have to work harder to focus on the positive.

“The literature is very, very clear on how much more potent the negative is,” Charles says. “Even with rats, it only takes one bad thing, one shock or a bad taste in their food, and they will avoid that place or that food. It only takes one bad experience for them to learn. And it’s the same with humans. If I see four friends and they all say, ‘Boy, that is a great dress.’ And then I see one other friend and she says, ‘Boy, you really have put on weight,’ guess which comment I will remember? And even in marriages, studies have shown that it takes five positives combined with one negative before someone will consider their marriage a happy one. If you have only two positives and one negative, that negative will wipe out the positive and people will consider the marriage a bad one. Believe me, the negative is much more powerful than the positive.”

That means that even in middle age, our brains still register the bad things around us.

Okay, the researchers said, but maybe the part of the brain that responds to negative and threatening information—the amygdala—simply begins to wear out, so that no matter how potent the negative message, it doesn’t register as strongly. But in further studies, Mather found that as we age our brains respond just as robustly to threats, a clear sign that our amygdalae are holding their own, even as we get older.

So what was behind this? What could be the reason for what Carstensen and her team began to call “the positivity effect,” the increase in focus on the positive as we age? In the end, the researchers were left with only one real answer: We focus more on the positive as we age because we want to. It suits our goals and—though we do it without knowing we’re doing it—we make it our business to sort out life this way.

And it is not that our brain gets lazy and wants to live out its days in some happy haze. On the contrary, Mather found conclusively that it’s the best brains, the brightest brains, that have the most bias toward the positive.

And it might very well have to do with the least positive idea around—death. Carstensen believes that as we age we become much more aware that we have less time left in life—and it therefore becomes much more important for us to maintain emotional stability. One way to keep on an even keel is to steer clear of the bad and focus on the good. And, though we’re not aware of it, we manipulate both our attention and our memory to suit that goal.

When we are young, negative information is paramount. We need to learn what to watch out for—the negative. But as we get older—and certainly by middle age—we already have a lot of cautionary knowledge. At that point, we may choose to gloss over a glitch here and there to focus on what’s more important—regulating our emotions. And we do it because it’s what we need—and want—to do.

“Time perspective is the dominating force that structures human motivations and goals,” Carstensen says. “Humans have a conscious and subconscious awareness of their time left in life, and that perceived boundary on time directs attention to the emotionally meaningful aspects of life. When time is perceived as expansive, as it is in healthy young adults, goal striving and related motivation center around acquiring information. Novelty is valued and investments are made in expanding horizons. In contrast, when time is perceived as limited, emotional experience assumes primacy.

“When we are younger we orient toward the negative. When we are younger that information just has more value,” she adds. “But increasingly with age, we see a shift. And I think it is because this shift serves to regulate our emotions. It’s not that we are sitting around saying ‘I will not focus on the negative.’ It is not conscious. But it is not completely subconscious, either. I would say it is a motivated choice that we make because it is useful.”

None of this means that at middle age we’re in some blissful fog. If you, or someone you care about, has a serious setback, illness, or suffer from clinical depression, it’s unlikely that you’re at your most jolly, no matter what your age.

But the scientific findings have been remarkably consistent: Our middle-aged brains work incredibly hard to be enthusiastic about life, to see the good things—a trait that may be one of the biggest advantages a brain can have.

And the positive spin may have evolved because it works well for the species in general. There is a well-known thesis, sometimes called the “Grandmother Hypothesis,” that postulates that humans and primates that had helpful, living grandmothers in their group lived longer. As Carstensen sees it, grandmothers with a brighter outlook gave the group a greater ability to thrive and survive.

“There is a powerful role in being calm and positive as we age; if older people are like that, it can help to keep the group together,” Carstensen told me. “If you have strong negative reactions you might react too quickly and get too angry and that might not help. But if you have a grandmother who cares and is attached, perhaps the whole group will live longer. If that grandmother has an amygdala that allows her to be calmer . . . that might give everyone an advantage. It is cognition serving survival.”

Emotional Regulation from the Frontal Cortex

There are hints, too, that the shift may involve more parts of the brain than just the amygdala—in particular, the frontal cortex, the region behind our foreheads that has grown huge in humans and helps us focus on what we want to focus on. In yet another clever experiment, Mather found that when she distracted older people, they no longer stressed the positive. That means that the part of the brain they used to deal with distraction, the frontal cortex, was distracted itself and could not help push attention toward the positive, even if that was what these older people, on some other level, wanted to do.

Other brain-scanning studies, too, show this in more detail. Joseph Mikels, at Cornell University, has found that older adults who emphasize the positive side of life the most also use their frontal cortex the most, in particular the section called the orbital frontal cortex, which has been linked to emotional regulation. In some cases, the amygdala may be able to do this on its own; in others, a healthy frontal cortex joins in to make sure it happens, which to Mikels is convincing evidence that “the positivity effect is regulatory in nature.”

As Mikels himself confesses, this thought “goes against the grain—some of my students don’t believe this, they say, ‘my grandmother is the grouchiest person I know,’ but then I ask them and they say, well, it’s true she is lonely—and that’s the reason.”

But if our health and living situation are good, we gradually gain a brighter perspective because the structure and leanings of our brains start to head us in that direction.

“This is not a result of older adults wearing rose-colored glasses, but a function of their brains, which they have activated, and regulated, to focus on the positive and away from the negative,” Mikels added. “We do it on some level on purpose. The ability to regulate emotions increases with age. This is one of the really good things about the middle-aged brain.”