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 5. The Middle in Motion

The Midlife Crisis Conspiracy

Our current version of middle age is new. 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.”

Oddly, in recent years as we got this thicker slice of midlife, it was saddled with a sour taste. Although the initial explanations did not necessarily use the language or tools of brain biology, they nevertheless attempted to characterize the state of the middle-aged mind. And that state, according to early conclusions, was not a happy one. For reasons that still baffle me a bit, news that should have been greeted with hope—longer life spans with more time in the middle—instead seems to have sent us into a tailspin. It was not just John Updike and Gail Sheehy. They got their signals from such scientists as psychologist Erik Erikson, who decided that to move from one stage of life to another, we had to undergo a bad and unsettling psychological crisis.

The Midlife Crisis

Then, to give that idea wings, came Elliott Jaques, considered the Father of the Midlife Crisis. And it’s not that he was having one. In fact, Jaques had a long and distinguished career as an industrial psychologist, known for his detailed studies of human efficiency. But, almost as a sideline, he noticed that artists—at least an arbitrary sample of artists he studied—seemed to change their styles as they reached the midpoint in their lives, with some painters shifting to a more somber tone. To him, midlife, with its growing awareness of mortality, brought mostly a deep sense of loss and depression.

“What is simple from the point of view of chronology, however, is not simple psychologically,” Jaques wrote after concluding his artist study. “The individual has stopped growing up and has begun to grow old,” adding his belief that it is the “inevitability of one’s own eventual personal death that is the central and crucial feature of the midlife phase.”

Hard as it is to believe, Jaques’s small study of a few randomly selected artists in 1965 seems to have spawned a near cult following of the idea of the midlife crisis, a notion that entered the popular culture thanks not only to Gail Sheehy in Passages but also to former Yale psychology professor Daniel Levinson, who, in his book The Seasons of a Man’s Life, talks of his own self-styled study of middle-aged men.

“A man at mid-life is suffering some loss of his youthful vitality and, often, some insult to his youthful narcissistic pride,” Levinson wrote. “Although he is not literally close to death or undergoing severe bodily decline, he typically experiences these changes as a fundamental threat. . . . Dealing with his mortality means that a man must engage in mourning for the dying self of youth . . . he must experience some degree of crisis and despair. . . . For large numbers of men, life in the middle years is a process of gradual or rapid stagnation, of alienation from the world and from the self.”

Levinson’s book, published in 1978, however, was based on only forty men, specifically selected by Levinson himself. From that tiny sample, Levinson located what he called this “Mid-life Transition” somewhere from age forty to age forty-seven, concluding that “for the . . . majority of men . . . this period evokes tumultuous struggles within the self and with the external world. Their Mid-Life Transition is a time of moderate or severe crisis. Every aspect of their lives comes into question, and they are horrified by much that is revealed. They are full of recriminations against themselves and others.”

But, while Levinson is still read today and movies and magazine articles about midlife crises are still being written, in academic circles the idea has long been discounted.

Indeed, as results from long-term studies have begun to roll in, the picture of middle age has been flipped upside down, and the idea of a predictable or common midlife crisis—however much it is a part of popular thought—has turned out to be a myth. More rigorous research has painted a portrait of aging in general, and middle age in particular, that is very different from our widely held beliefs.

Even more important, with new tools, we can now look inside our own brains to see what’s actually going on as we think, feel, and age. We can watch our amygdalae, our cortices, our hippocampi, in real time.

And as Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen puts it: “There is no, absolutely no, empirical evidence for a midlife crisis.”

In 1999, for instance, one of the biggest, and at the time only, studies of middle age, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, which is still ongoing, found no evidence that crises occurred more frequently in midlife than at any other age. In fact, the ten-year study of nearly eight thousand Americans found that only 5 percent reported any kind of midlife trauma, and they were, by and large, people who’d had traumas throughout their lives.

Instead, between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five, and, in particular, between the ages of forty and sixty, people across the board reported increased feelings of well-being. Women said they found menopause not the sea of sweat and sadness that it had been portrayed as but a “relief.” Most felt they were productive, engaged in meaningful activities, and had a greater sense of control over their lives, including their marriages, which were also relatively happy.

It’s true that most at midlife acknowledge a fair amount of stress. But in a finding that goes against what we thought we knew about middle age, most people in these more sophisticated larger studies say they are not only coping with the stress but that the coping itself makes them feel good about themselves. As one researcher put it, by midlife, we are “equipped for overload.”

“The reason why midlife people have these stressors is that they actually have more control over their lives than earlier and later in life,” psychologist David M. Almeida, now at Penn State University, said when the MacArthur results were first reported. “When people describe these stressors, they often talk in terms of meeting the challenge.” Summing up, Harvard’s Ronald Kessler, a director of the middle-aged survey, said simply, “The data show that middle age is the very best time of life.”

And the good news doesn’t stop there. More recently, another smaller study, which tracked the lives of a group of women who were seniors at Mills College in California in 1958, came to similar conclusions. In 2005, researchers Ravenna Helson and Christopher J. Soto at the University of California at Berkeley reported that after gathering more than forty years of data, it was clear that as the women moved into middle age, their moods got better, not worse. At the same time, according to Soto, they also “became more confident, assertive, and responsible.”

The women had higher self-esteem and their moods—as well as their ability to regulate emotions overall—seemed to peak at around age fifty-two and hold steady for quite a while after that. What’s more, as their children left home and the women had more time on their hands, far from rattling around dejected from empty room to empty room, they “took advantage of this time to do new and interesting things,” Soto says.

Still a relatively young researcher at age twenty-nine, Soto told me he found all this quite heartening. “In my generation we have grown up in this culture that highly values youth and there are these markers that show you that you are over the hill,” he said. “So it is good to see that when you actually look at real lives they continue to get better and better into middle age.”

Soto also admits that if he weren’t so dedicated to finding out such things in such a highly scientific manner, he could have gotten a hint about all this from his own mother, who, at age fifty-seven, is having a grand old time. After raising three boys, she went back to school in Spain, got her master’s degree in Spanish, started teaching at the high school and the local college, and, along with Soto’s father, is more active socially than she ever was before. Both have been lucky enough to retain their general health and their minds. “Maybe because people are not only living longer but are in so much better shape physically and mentally, lives just get better,” Soto said.

And it’s not just women. In a twenty-two-year study of nearly two thousand men that ended in 2005, Daniel K. Mroczek, a psychologist at Purdue University, found, after controlling for health, marital status, and income, that life satisfaction actually peaked at age sixty-five.

For his part, Mroczek also buys the theory that as we age we get happier largely because our brains learn how to regulate our emotions better. “Frankly, I think we just rewire our brains as we get older,” he says. “You learn to handle things. It’s related to time but it’s unconscious. Your brain decides, on some level, to look at the world differently.”

There’s no question that what we do—how we live—alters our brains. Although for years it was taken as gospel that the brain was largely fixed by adulthood, that gospel has been dispelled. Ever since a Canadian researcher took his adult lab rats home to run around in his house and later found that those rats were considerably smarter than the rats left behind in their boring cages, neuroscience has systematically upended the idea that the adult brain cannot change its structure or improve how it works. It can and does. What we do changes the architecture of our brains. It’s called neuroplasticity and it’s the underpinning of everything we now know about the brain.

Both animal and human brains are plastic, mutable. Experiments with rats, dogs, and monkeys have found that those in “enriched and stimulating environments” (for a rat that means toys and rat pals in their cages) wind up with bigger brains, more connections, and are, on every test imaginable, much smarter than those living lonely, mundane lives.

In humans, too, there’s now ample evidence that the adult brain reorganizes and continues to develop. Our brains have evolved to be as nimble as possible. Since brains do not necessarily know what type of environment they’ll find themselves in as they go along, they have to be able to adapt to survive. Now-famous studies of London taxi drivers and expert violin players found that areas in their brains devoted to spatial reasoning (taxi drivers) or fingering strings (violin players) grew larger as the drivers drove through London streets or the musicians played. We’ll come back to this idea, and the larger topic of neuroplasticity, in part 2.

Whose Empty Nest?

In some ways, it’s easy to see how we got the picture of middle age wrong for so long. As I’ve mentioned, we had never encountered this particular beast before. In fact, that other great myth of middle age—the empty nest syndrome—is also now considered to be largely fiction.

Every year, Karen L. Fingerman, forty-one, a psychologist also at Purdue University, starts her lectures by asking incoming fresh-men how they think their parents are doing now that their children are in college. Every year, the students say they must be “devastated” by their absence.

But nothing could be further from the truth. When science actually looked at how parents were doing when their kids left, researchers found that they were doing just fine.

Again, I admit that I fell for this one, too. Not long ago, I went to a meeting of a book club I’ve been a member of for years. Most of the women in the group had kids who were a few years older than mine and had recently left for college. I expected to find the group in a deep funk. But instead, the women were complaining about how often the kids were calling them. “I had to tell my daughter to stop calling me at work, that I have work to do,” one woman said. They missed their kids and loved seeing them when they were home, but because the kids were, as one mother said, “doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” the parents felt good, not bad. They were proud—and busy themselves. “Empty nest syndrome? Ha,” said one. “I miss them, sure. But I have a lot to do.”

In fact, in her own research, this is exactly what Fingerman, along with others looking into this area, has discovered. Studying mothers and daughters, Fingerman found that both seem to do better once they are under different roofs, even if one is a dormitory roof. They’re happy in what they’re doing and, with all that “teenage tension gone out of the relationship,” much happier with each other, too. “Some girls in their early twenties actually wax poetic about the good relationship they have with their parents,” Fingerman says.

Certainly, there can be a sense of wistfulness as we find our houses without the high energy and verve of growing teenagers, but the empty nest syndrome was simply made up because popular culture somehow needed, as Fingerman says, a “female counterpart” to the midlife crisis, which was geared mostly toward men.

But no one has ever been able to find a true empty nest syndrome in a scientific way. Instead, even among women who devote all their time to raising their kids, studies find mostly a “great deal of satisfaction” when the kids become independent. “They feel they have done a good job and they suddenly have the freedom to do new things. They feel great,” Fingerman says.

There is a tendency in psychology to pigeonhole all manner of life events. But why some events are singled out and not others is a mystery. When I spoke with Fingerman, she had just dropped off her child at kindergarten for the first time and wondered why there wasn’t a syndrome name for that: The “First Kid in Kindergarten Syndrome.” Or, having overheard her colleagues fret about their newly licensed sixteen-year-olds driving in the winter, she wondered, “Why don’t we have a label for that, the ‘Parents of Kids Driving in the Snow Syndrome’?”

In fact, at midlife volatility diminishes because more is settled. When she looks at her own students in their twenties, Fingerman says, she sees considerably more depression and upheaval than she sees among her own age group.

“They are more emotional and things are just bigger in their lives,” she says. “It’s natural. Things can go badly for me, maybe I don’t get a grant funded, but, look, I have tenure, I still have a job. For these kids there are so many unknowns and bad things can seem so big. As we get older, I really do believe we get better at emotional regulation. I can learn to avoid high-stress situations. We just get better at that.”

There are other benefits of the empty nest that I had not even thought about myself, but, on reflection, are true, too. Victoria Bedford, a psychologist at the University of Indianapolis, has found that as children leave home, parents often find a bright spot none ever expected: They reconnect with their siblings. It’s as if, after living hectic lives, people look up and say, “Hey, I know I have a brother out there somewhere.”

As Bedford says: “This is true with men and women. Sibling relationships are always important but when the kids are gone you are more settled and have time to connect with your sibling. And we’ve found that people actually do.”

As I thought of this, I realized that that, too, had happened in my own life. I had lived for many years in New York, far away from where I grew up in California, and my older brother was in Phoenix. We’d see each other once a year, but he was busy as a teacher and a coach and I was busy with newspapering. Then, as often happens, when our father was dying in California, my brother and I spent days and nights at the hospital, then cleaning out and selling a house. I was reminded that my brother is one of the nicest and funniest people I know and realized how much I missed him. Since then, we e-mail all the time, he calls my daughters, and we try to visit each other more often. Since I last knew my brother best when we fought in the backseat of the car on family trips, this grown-up sibling relationship has been one of the nicest things that has happened in my middle-aged life.

Bedford, at sixty-one, reports that she has no empty nest doldrums and doesn’t know anyone else her age who has them, either. One of her daughters, she says, was a “terrible teenager” and now they have a “wonderful relationship. Your children become more like peers and it is great,” she says. “There is no question that I am happier now in midlife. And I have not seen anyone upset about an empty nest. Not in the least.”

So why did earlier depressive ideas persist for so long? Were theories of midlife crises, with their red Porsches and pretty young things, nothing more than, as one researcher insisted, a “collective fantasy by white men for white men”?

Carol Ryff, who leads the MacArthur Foundation’s middle-age survey, says that the midlife crisis probably applied to only a narrow group of men, during a narrow span of time—those who had returned from World War II, rushed into family, house, and kids, and then, having caught the 7:05 train for twenty years, woke up and wondered what they were doing.

“Maybe all this was true for a very small group,” Ryff told me. “These are men whose lives were disrupted. They went off to fight the war that interrupted their careers and their pursuits, and then they came back and jumped quickly into things. They felt they had to catch up with marriages and jobs. And then, when they reached fifty, they looked up and said, ‘Hey, is this the life I really wanted?’ ”

In fact, it’s surprising how flimsy the evidence—scientific, biological, or empirical—is for these strong beliefs that have crept into our life narratives. The first reference I could find to the empty nest syndrome was from a small pilot study published in June 1966 in The American Journal of Psychiatry. The study, called “The Empty Nest: Psychological Aspects of Conflict Between Depressed Women and Their Grown Children,” was based on sixteen women whose children had left home and who were depressed. And the study’s authors decided there was at least a “temporal relationship” between the two.

“In our depressed patients, it appeared that cessation of child rearing influenced the content of symptoms presented and that in cases of women who had ended child-rearing functions, there was almost always some degree of conflict between them and their adult children.

“Based on these observations, we undertook to study the empty nest syndrome, defined as the temporal association of clinical depression with the cessation of child rearing,” the authors wrote.

These patients, however, were not only a tiny group but were also hardly representative. For one thing, they were all sufficiently depressed to be hospitalized in the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. Those with the most severe symptoms, as the researchers conceded, were all “foreign born or first generation Americans who clung to the traditions of their countries of origins and had achieved a median of only nine years in school. They had married while still teenagers and had started their families almost immediately and were socially very withdrawn having few or no friends or interests outside the home.”

From that skewed sample, which the authors themselves said provided proof of nothing, was hatched this empty nest idea that has refused to die—for decades. The first mention of it that I could find in popular literature appeared in a 1972 article in Ladies’ Home Journal in an interview with Pat Nixon in the White House, who was shown modeling spring fashions. The profile said that Pat “likes to take a positive approach,” and that “Even the empty nest syndrome hasn’t seemed to hit her. She seems genuinely delighted by both of her daughters’ marriages.” Pat Nixon, in her own way, was simply voicing what science is now confirming. In middle age, if we’re lucky to be healthy and alert, we start to take a decidedly positive approach—just like Pat.

Youth Culture’s Taint

But old myths die hard and our current culture is not helping, either. Richard A. Shweder of the University of Chicago, in trying to explain why we got such a dour view of our path through life, puts considerable blame on our Western society, which continues to stress “physical and mental decline.”

In a wonderful book of essays called Welcome to Middle Age! (And Other Cultural Fictions) he points out that in other cultures middle adulthood is not defined by “back pains,” but is instead marked by increased status as people gain “family position and social responsibilities.” In many Hindu households, Shweder says, referring in part to his own work and to that of Usha Menon of Drexel University, there is not even a concept of midlife and no word for it. Instead, they have the word prauda, which means “mature adulthood, which begins whenever a married woman takes over the management of the extended household and ends whenever she relinquishes control and social responsibility to others.”

One of the most interesting of Shweder’s essayists, Margaret Gullette, a resident scholar at Brandeis University, believes that in our culture we remain victims of the “ideology of decline” that is “raining over us.”

We have allowed ourselves to be “aged by culture,” taught to think of our lives in simply an “age graded” way, based on the misguided sense that “the body fails at midlife and this bodily failure matters more than anything else,” while the positive aspects of aging, “maturity, competence, compassion, etc.,” are not “coded as age associated.”

As she sees it, such views persist primarily because they serve well those who want to keep us buying “wrinkle creams.”

“Midlife decline ideology,” she writes, works to “enclose us in self doubt, embarrassment, shame, humiliation, despair. It fosters narcissism. By learning to concentrate on an ‘aging’ body, the twentieth century midlife subject learns how isolated and helpless he or she is.”

And while this might sound a bit harsh, it makes perfect sense to many of the people I spoke with who are going through middle age in the twenty-first century.

Susan Nowlin of Bloomington, Indiana, for instance, says that as she reached middle age it seemed as if the world had a preset agenda for her: When she turned sixty, she thought she should retire as a teacher because that was what the “culture was pushing.” But then rules were changed in her district and she could not retire—and it was the best thing that could have happened to her.

At sixty-one, she is still teaching English to 150 middle school students in Bloomington. She walks thirty-five minutes a day, recently bought a DVD so she could learn weight lifting, plays bridge, and is planning on writing a novel. And when she is not doing any of those activities, she goes out to dinner and a movie with her husband, sixty-three, an industrial psychologist, and they, she says, “laugh a lot and have a ball.”

To Nowlin, the concepts of midlife crises and empty nests have proven to be overblown and may just “have applied to a few people.” When her two sons left home, Nowlin says she did have a bad moment. She recalls standing in the dining room one evening and “feeling a bit lonely.” But that was it for her empty nest syndrome. Now she finds she is not only busier than ever but also more optimistic and calmer. And she finds that taking a broad view often helps.

“I see some younger teachers and they harp on the smallest things and destroy their relationships with the kids,” she says. “Now every day I think, Have I done something to help a kid? And if I have, I really feel like I accomplished something. Maybe that is why I am so happy.”