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

Part III. Healthier Brains

Chapter 11. The Brain Gym

Toning Up Your Circuits

At first, the task seems as simple as a preschool lesson.

You’re sitting in front of a computer and the word apple flashes on the screen, then disappears. A minute later, the word apple appears again.

The question: Did you see that word before?

The next test is just as easy. This time, the computer says “apple.” Then you hear a string of random words: “lamp,” “pen,” “dog.” Then you hear “apple” again.

The question: Have you heard that word before?

No problem.

Now it gets dicier. The word apple either flashes on the screen or is read out loud. Then you read or hear a longer list of unrelated words. Then you hear “apple” again.

The question: Did you hear “apple” before, as you’re hearing it now? Or did you see the word? Your instructions are to push a button only if the word apple appears in the same form it had earlier.

Oh, dear. You know you’ve encountered apple before. But how? Did you hear it? Did you see it?

You have no idea.

And therein lies one of the most intriguing aspects of our brains. As we get older, most of us, even those in the early stages of dementia, still recognize the familiar. If we look at a word and then see that same word again, we say, “Aha!” Show us apple, then show us apple again, and, sure enough, we know our apples.

But take it a step further and, starting sometime in middle age, a subset of our memory can grow murkier. We’re certain we’ve come across something—or someone—before, but our recollection of how or when is lost.

This is that feeling you get at a party—the deep and usually accurate conviction—that you know someone, but you don’t know where you know him from. Is that guy your daughter’s soccer coach? The guy from church? The guy you met with the dog in the park? Did you hear “apple” or see apple? This is a task of memory but, again, memory in context that relies on a whole host of brain functions. We have to fire up the proper parts of our brain, recruit more brainpower if we need it, resist the urge to let our minds wander this way and that—and recall what—and how—we have seen or heard something.

Over the past few years—as it has become clear that memory itself is not one thing but many and that some parts age better than others—the question is, can we fix the parts that need a little help? Exercise and food may help. But can we also zero in on our brain’s weakest areas and, through training, buck them up?

It is, when you think of it, quite odd. If we have normal healthy brains in middle age, we don’t forget that we have a brother in Phoenix or that we once lived in California—basic autobiographical details stay with us. We build richer vocabularies well into old age, proving that even newly acquired knowledge can stick.

We also excel at basic recognition—“Yes, I’ve seen this word before”—and familiarity, a kind of recognition memory that’s so deep-seated we often mistake it for an emotion—“I feel like I know that guy.”

But other types of memory don’t weather as well. Memories for events—how or when something happened—grow hazier. Did I go to cousin Harry’s for Thanksgiving last year? Did I buy bread? Did I turn off the stove? Did I see or hear apple?

Often called episodic memory, this kind of recall is not as automatic as other types of memory. It takes more effort. We have to connect dots, put something in context, like remembering the sequence of a story. It takes a more sophisticated, wide-ranging neural machinery, and, for a variety of reasons, brains, as they age, start to balk.

At middle age, our brains are negotiating the world with finesse, but a few neurons here and there are feeling their years. So can we push those wayward brain cells back in line?

Using More of the Brain

Tricks work. There are a number of strategies aimed at improving overall basic memory functions. Lists are good and may be all some of us need. Studies show that adding contextual detail can help. If you’re trying to remember a word, for instance, you can ask yourself if the word is abstract or concrete. If you’re trying to register a face, you can focus on a visual detail—a large forehead or a crooked nose. Added information prompts more brain activity in more areas, more connections, and better recall later on.

Indeed, even our imaginations can be helpful. In one fascinating study, neuroscientist Denise Park and a colleague, Linda Liu, found that older people trying to remember to check their blood glucose levels at a certain time did considerably better by first visualizing themselves doing that chore. Those who spent three minutes every morning imagining themselves testing their blood sugar were 50 percent more likely to actually do the test later on in the day than those who used other strategies, such as actually practicing the action. They had, through visualization, created what Park calls a stronger “neural footprint” of what they wanted to remember.

Park suspects that using our imaginations may be effective as we age because, again, it relies on a part of our brain’s machinery—automatic memory, a more primitive part of memory—that does not decline quickly.

Given that, if we really want to keep our brains in better condition for the long haul, we may need to fundamentally change the way they operate. A small percentage of people may have no problems well into their seventies and eighties (and if that runs in families it could be genetic), but for most of the rest of us who do, we may need to coax our brains—shove them, even—back into younger or more efficient patterns.

At a lab at the University of Toronto, neuroscientist Nicole Anderson is trying to do just that. Using the latest knowledge about how brains work best as they age, she is teaching people to boost their performance by, again, using two sides of their brains instead of one—training them to be bilateral.

The idea here is that those who adapt and learn to use both sides of their brains, or call on their powerful frontal lobes more efficiently when necessary, will be able to stay in better cognitive shape. The questions are: Can those techniques be taught? And can they be taught to those in middle age and beyond in a way that will last?

Anderson is betting that the answer to both questions is yes, and so she is giving it a try. Day after day, men and women file into her Toronto lab and, sitting in front of computers, try to recall whether they’ve heard or seen various words, such as apple, bucket, lamp. As Anderson explained when I spoke with her before one recent lab session, this exercise specifically targets episodic memory, the ability to remember something in context. How did I encounter that word apple? Did I see it? Did I hear it?

To be successful at this, we need to recruit our most elite brain region, our frontal cortex. When we’re younger, we use only one side of our brain’s frontal areas to deal with such complex contextual information, such as how we encountered the word apple or how we know that guy at the party. But as we age, the best and brightest among us start to call on both sides to do this. These brains power up. They become bilateral, using more power to get the job done. Smart brains unconsciously adapt when necessary. They call in the reinforcements.

When I spoke with Anderson, she was in the middle of trying to train a group of adults to make such adjustments. As part of her study, which is ongoing, participants’ brains are scanned before the training and afterward. Anderson wants to see if those who initially do not use both sides of their brains learn, as they improve in the task, to do so. Can a brain be taught to use more of itself when necessary?

Obviously, this goes way beyond crossword puzzles. Rather, as Anderson explains, such wholesale brain rehab aims at the underlying processes and trains them.

“We think as people improve they’ll start to use more of their brains, that we’ll be able to induce a pattern of bilateralization,” Anderson said. “We are tapping into something different here. We’re trying to train the older brains to do this when they need to, to use their most appropriate and powerful mechanisms.”

Video Game Training

If the participants in Anderson’s study are explorers on the outer edge of brain enhancement, increasingly they have company. At a lab at Columbia University one recent morning, another brain explorer, Martin Goldblum, settled into a chair to play a video game called Space Fortress, which Columbia neuroscientist Yaakov Stern hopes will train older brains to retain, or return to, more efficient youthful patterns.

An artist, the sixty-six-year-old Goldblum usually doesn’t spend his days playing video games. But nevertheless, he was the lab’s superstar. As I watched the game, I was surprised that anyone could learn it well, let alone those in middle age or older. But Goldblum had mastered it.

“It’s challenging,” said Goldblum, a trim, youthful man dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt who was happy to chat as he mouse-clicked along in the game. “You have to multitask; you have to do a lot of different things at the same time—and there is an insistence to it all.”

To play, Goldblum grabbed a black joystick with his right hand and a computer mouse with his left. A large green hexagon flashed on the screen and there was a gun that would try to shoot down Goldblum’s spaceship, which he had to keep inside the hexagon as he shot down small asteroids that flew by. The game had dozens of rules pertaining to when you were allowed to shoot, how often, and where.

To an onlooker, it seemed impossible. In fact, Yaakov Stern, the cognitive reserve researcher at Columbia University who was running the experiment, was initially unsure if older people could learn the game at all. But learn they have.

And the study had a hidden agenda. One-third of the participants would function as the control group and would not play the game, another third would learn and play the game, and the last group would be told while they were playing the game to “shift focus” and concentrate solely on the activity of the spaceship or, alternately, the asteroids.

What’s interesting about this game—and why Stern selected it for his study—is that it has already been shown to work, through a combination of concentration and switching that concentration to train the brain to focus. And, even more important, that increased focus has carried over to the real world. Young military aviators who trained on the same game in Israel did better when they were flying actual airplanes.

The major problem with much of what is sold as brain training is that it has never been shown to work in the real world. People get better at the training game, but that improvement does not necessarily help them remember, say, why they went to the store when running an errand. As Stern says, researchers are now looking to “find an intervention that generalizes, that helps people cope with aging.”

At fifty-four, Stern is in the thick of middle age. The hallway outside his office is lined with black file cabinets, data from the dozens of studies he is overseeing. His job involves frequent travel, lectures, students, and, in his spare time, teaching his daughter how to drive. He is, as many of us are in midlife, fully engaged in just about every possible direction. But even as he navigates all that with outward ease, Stern conceded that his own brain now needs more help.

“I have to rely on my Palm Pilot all the time now,” he told me. “You know how you used to remember everything really easily? Well, clearly that gets harder. And embarrassing. The other day, I was telling this wise story to the students, and they had to tell me that I had told them that same story the week before.”

Stern laughed at this, but he’s committed. His family has a long history of Alzheimer’s, and he’s determined to find a way to combat the disease. In particular, he wants to develop surefire techniques to buffer the brain against the assaults of normal aging and dementia. Stern and many others believe that such a buffer, or brain reserve, can arise innately from a lucky set of genes, but it can also be developed throughout life, from anything that helps the brain stay flexible and strong, such as education or even complex leisure activities, jobs, or perhaps even certain video games.

One hope is that if we could build stronger brains, we could at least push serious mental decline down the road a few years. Statistics show, for instance, that if the onset of Alzheimer’s could be delayed for only five years, many of those who have the disease will die of something else, at least saving them from devastating years of dementia.

With his video game study, Stern wants to find a way to boost our brain reserve and make it stick. That means not just perfecting one skill or another, but instead improving how the brain operates overall and coordinates thoughts. Such coordination, often called executive function, goes beyond simple memory and is the specialty—again—of our elite frontal cortex.

It’s these coordinating skills that the Space Fortress game sharpens because it forces players to multitask and shift their focus within the context of the game. A number of studies show that if you want to improve certain athletic prowess—say, your tennis game—it’s best to focus on one particular skill, but only within the context of a whole game, a test of both focus and coordination.

As Stern explained it, a tennis coach might say, “Okay, today we’re going to play but we’re going to concentrate on your forehand. We know that kind of training works, and in this game, Space Fortress, when players shift emphasis while they are playing, they are getting that training in attention, focus, and coordinating abilities. And they are perfecting those skills in a real situation, not in isolation.

“A real-world analog to this game would be when you are driving and talking on the phone,” said Stern. “As we get older we often don’t handle those situations so well, those dual tasks that take attention and focus. We can lose that.”

Stern wants to teach older brains to keep that focus, or, if necessary, get it back. And the way to do that, he believes, is to teach them to be more efficient, to more easily tap into their most powerful focus-enhancing frontal cortex. Studies by Stern and others have shown that many of those with high levels of reserve—who appear to be protected from aging or disease a bit better than others—seem to use their brains in just this way.

“It’s like a Mercedes and a VW,” explained Stern. “You have to push down on the accelerator more to get that VW going, and when you get out on the autobahn, an old VW will peter out at seventy miles per hour. But the Mercedes will start up with less of a push and keep whizzing along easily. Those people with cognitive reserve are like Mercedeses. Their brains are more efficient. And it’s not just IQ. It’s not just something you are born with. It can come from lots of things.”

The question is, can we find specific ways to build this ability. Can we take a VW brain at middle age, when Stern and others think we may have to start all this, and morph it into a Mercedes brain—with a video game? Or can we take a Mercedes that’s a bit past its prime and return it to its autobahn days?

“We don’t know yet but I hope so,” Stern told me, adding that the only way to find out is to do long-term, serious studies to figure out what stimulates a brain in a way that makes it stronger, to “find out what really works and how.”

Plastic, Mutable Brains

When we’re thinking about how to keep a brain on track as we age, however, there’s a bit of a rub: We’re all pretty stimulated already. We live and work in complex, multitask worlds, with CNN blasting, and economic crises to worry about. We’re already quite enriched.

Can we find any add-on training program that has a prayer of busting past the bustle of our daily lives and pushing our brains even further to maintain or return to better habits?

At a recent meeting of cognitive scientists, Michael Merzenich, who has developed a new brain-training system of his own and is one of the leading proponents of this brain-training idea, fairly bellowed at his colleagues. “I can improve anyone,” he said, his face growing red as he spoke at the cognitive scientists’ meeting in Washington, D.C. “Anyone!”

Now a professor emeritus at the University of California at San Francisco, Merzenich is not one to be taken lightly. One of the pioneers of neuroplasticity, he has often been ahead of the curve. Nearly thirty years ago, he showed how a monkey brain reassembles itself after injury. A member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, he invented a system that uses sounds to help some dyslexics. He holds fifty patents.

And he has now moved on to the older brain, which he insists can be trained to act like a more efficient brain if only we would try hard enough. Several years ago, Merzenich started a company, Posit Science, and developed a system that he says can push the brain, not just to adapt, but, in areas where we experience loss, to get it back to where it was years earlier. He believes he can turn back the clock in our brains.

At middle age, our brains have learned to handle our world with ease—and the hope is that we can keep them at that level as we age. Merzenich, for one, thinks it’s possible.

“Strategies and compensation are good but I don’t think you have to just correct,” he said when I spoke with him recently. “You are not stuck with the deficits you have or the negative changes that occur. You can fix them.”

One might be skeptical about such definitive pronouncements, even from someone as persuasive as Michael Merzenich, but he does have some evidence to back him up. In 2007, Elizabeth Zelinski of the University of Southern California announced results of the first official study of Merzenich’s computer-based training system called Brain Fitness. The study, officially published in 2009, was a kind of randomized, double-blind trial that is the gold standard for evidence. And it found that Merzenich’s form of intense brain training appeared to work.

Performed at centers all over the country, including the Mayo Clinic and Veterans Administration hospitals, the study was based on five hundred adults who were divided into two groups. One group trained an hour a day for eight weeks on Brain Fitness, which meant that the participants sat with headphones on in front of a computer and did a series of exercises set up to fine-tune their brains. The training was largely auditory in that they had to either distinguish between similar-sounding words, like mat, pat, and cat, or decide if a sound was whooshing up or down. The other group of adults, the control group, spent the same amount of time watching educational DVDs. The study was funded by Posit Science Corporation, but none of the investigators received money from the company.

At the end, those who had the computer training performed better; in fact, they performed like people ten years younger on standard cognitive tests. Those who only watched the movies did not improve.

Over the past few years, we have been inundated with computer-based brain-training games of all sorts, from Nintendo’s Brain Age to Happy Neuron. The industry has ballooned from $2 million in 2002 to $80 million in 2007. But there’s scant evidence that these commercially available games have any concrete effect on our brains at all.

With the Brain Fitness training, at least we have a commercially available program that has been tested. “I started out as a skeptic. I really didn’t believe it would work,” Zelinski told me when I spoke with her. “I think in the end it came out much better than I ever expected.”

Clearer Signals, Better Focus

Brain Fitness targets several key brain functions. The first is fidelity, or the clarity of the signal that initially enters the brain. The theory is that by learning to better discriminate between similar sounds, the older brain is forced back into the sharper patterns of focusing that it had when it was younger.

“The idea behind this is that there is a dark side to the brain’s plasticity, and that as we age we can stop paying attention, we can stop focusing,” Zelinksi, who was a lead author on the study, said. According to Merzenich’s idea, information coming into the brain as it ages can get fuzzier, not at the level of the actual ear, which can have its own problems, of course, but along pathways leading from the ear to inner-brain regions. If the incoming signals are “noisy,” then the information that’s stored and copied in the brain will also be noisier, more chaotic, less useful. On the other hand, if you can retrain the brain to focus and get the information and the signals sharper to begin with, you will get a more durable memory.

Additionally, the more distinct signals will stimulate the brain to produce the right kind of brain chemicals, the neuromodulators such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, that help us to learn and consolidate memories—the same ones that tend to decrease with age.

“I tried this training myself and it was very, very difficult,” Zelinski told me. “It forces you to be engaged, to pay attention. But it’s not so hard that you give up and lose focus. This approach really bludgeons the brain to work hard.”

Just when such bludgeoning should begin remains unclear, however. Certainly, what happens to our brain at every age matters, even in the womb. But if we start this neural training at age fifty, say, will it really help us to both find and tie our shoes when we’re eighty-five? Most believe that middle age is a prime time for all this, but that has yet to be proven.

“There may be a timing issue with all this. We just don’t know yet,” said Zelinski.

Merzenich, for one, insists that maintaining or pushing a brain to adopt better habits is a “realistic goal,” and he is convinced we should start down that path before we are too old.

“At middle age we are pretty good at manipulating the information that is coming in. Your brain might not be as fast as when you were twenty, but you have twenty or thirty more years of experience at manipulating information so that the brain can do it pretty efficiently. At middle age, that experience trumps the declines and your brain is operating pretty well for you,” Merzenich said. “But if we are in a job where having a good brain matters, we want to keep it operating at that level. At some age, there is a tipping point, where experience no longer trumps the losses in the brain. That tipping point for most now is probably sometime in our seventh decade. But we want to improve that and, if we can, change the slope of the trajectory.”

To change that slope, though, may take elaborate training and hard work. As we age, we tend to fall into predictable patterns with life and brain activity, as Merzenich says, on “autopilot.”

“It’s not going to work if we keep doing the same thing over and over again,” Merzenich told me. “As we age, we fall into behaviors that are more and more stereotypical and more limited. We are not working as intensely at refining or maintaining the high level of operations of our brains. It’s not just acquiring new information. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not enough.”

To keep a brain from becoming lazy, we might even need training tailored to each brain function, much as we go to a gym and work on our thigh muscles one day and our triceps the next, because, as Merzenich said, “there is no one magic bullet” for the brain and “one Sudoku puzzle” will not be sufficient.

Instead, we have to deal with the aging brain from a number of angles. We have to force ourselves to pay attention—to concentrate at a level of intensity that is, as Merzenich put it, “the stuff of childhood.” And we have to get out of our ruts.

“People have to understand that there is a direct relationship between the physical growth of the brain and how you use it,” Merzenich said, “and as the idea sinks in that we can drive positive changes in the brain, it is empowering.”

Beyond Crossword Puzzles

At the moment, though, it’s still extremely hard to prove that any of the brain-training programs work outside the lab and carry over into real life. In the study of Merzenich’s system, in fact, there was only a hint that this was true. Those who completed the training said they “perceived” that they were better at remembering phone numbers and names in their actual lives. Those who had simply watched educational DVDs reported no such improvement. Those who completed the training also had higher levels of those helpful growth factors in their blood.

“But we just don’t know,” conceded Zelinski. “We just don’t have good data on how this translates into the real world. You can’t really follow people around and see if they’re forgetting stuff.”

Still, we know enough now to at least get started or think about getting started. Zelinski fervently believes we should get going now—and take the tougher road.

“Crossword puzzles are not enough. You are mostly trying to find words you already know,” she said. “We need to challenge our brains. It should be something hard for you—not so hard that you lose focus—but hard. We need to get out of our comfort zones.”

Concerned herself, Zelinski is doing whatever she can to maintain the power of her fifty-five-year-old brain. She is taking piano lessons.

“My son is eighteen and he’s been playing since he was in third grade and he can read music and beautiful things come out of his fingers. I wanted to be able to do that. I had this longing,” she said. “So when I had a sabbatical, I started taking lessons. It’s very slow and hard and to do it you have to find a teacher who will work with you. But, hey, they work with five-year-olds.”

One small study showed that a group of sixty-year-olds who trained themselves on piano were, after six months, better on cognitive tests. Zelinksi readily admits that such a tiny and “cute” study does not equate with firm evidence. We still have no idea how many sonatas or sound whooshes it takes before our lazy neurons wake up, or if we have to do it in some particular order, or if it will really make a difference in the end.

Still, how can it hurt? Most of us with memory issues are not headed for dementia, but since dementia begins in the brain long before it’s evident, how can we be sure? As Zelinski pointed out, “It will be thirty years until we know,” so we might as well “prepare for the worst and start moving.”

Emotions and Cognition

Along the way, we might as well try to enjoy ourselves, too, because our moods are also surprisingly important to our brains. Boxes of studies have found that people who are less grumpy, less lonely, happily married, or otherwise entwined with their fellow human beings or even their pet beagle have a lower risk of developing heart disease or Alzheimer’s, a better chance at staying mentally alert, and a greater likelihood of a long life. One recent study in England found that people in middle age who simply popped down the street to their neighborhood pub on a regular basis had better cognitive skills than their sit-at-home neighbors.

It’s true that many of these mood-brain-health connections have, through the years, also had the classic chicken-and-egg problem. It’s entirely possible that happy, optimistic, pub-hopping sorts are a special breed to begin with, perhaps much more likely to take other steps that improve their health, such as taking their blood pressure pill on time or eating their carrots. It’s also possible that those who are more social are simply healthier overall, with no secret disease cooking away to make them cranky.

Lately, though, more controlled studies have gotten a much better handle on the question. These are true comparison studies that have one group doing something specific, say, joining a choir, and another sitting at home. Then the two groups are compared in a serious, head-to-head way. And those studies, which try to eliminate other possible influences, such as gender, obesity, smoking, and levels of education, now routinely report exactly the same thing that the earlier softer studies found: Being sociable and cheery is good for both body and mind.

One recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for instance, found that men and women who volunteered to tutor students through a group called the Experience Corps at Baltimore schools had a slower rate of decline in their memories than those who were put in the nonvolunteer control group.

And that was the case even though both groups started out with similar levels of cognitive function. The volunteers also significantly decreased TV watching at home and reported that they felt much stronger physically (the students did better in school, as well).

My own personal favorite of this current rash of “be-social” studies was a recent one by researchers at the medical school at the University of Miami that looked at how architecture might improve the brains of sixteen thousand older residents living on one block in the Little Havana section of Miami. The study found that those who simply lived in houses or apartments with balconies that faced the street and encouraged neighborly chattiness had better cognitive function than those who did not have such architectural benefits.

Even self-image may matter. A study by Becca Levy, a psychologist at Yale University, found that the memories of older people improved after simply seeing positive words about aging. In Levy’s study, the words were flashed too quickly for people to be aware that they had read them, but nevertheless, on some level they had an effect. People did poorly if they first saw negative words, such as decline, senile, decrepit, dementia, and confused. But memories significantly improved if they were first exposed to positive words about aging, such as wise, alert, sage, and learned.

Similarly, Thomas Hess, the psychologist at North Carolina State University, found that attitudes are self-fulfilling. In his studies, older people did worse on memory tests if they were first told something negative about growing old, such as that the upcoming study was on how aging affects learning and memory. But if they were first told something positive, such as that there was not much of a decline in memory with age, their memories on the tests improved. Another recent study, which keyed in on our competitive natures, found that people in middle age and older did better on cognitive tests if they were told they were being tested with younger rather than older people.

It’s not known precisely how self-image, rich social connections, or peppier moods affect the brain. But there are some good—and fascinating—hints.

One candidate is stress. If social interactions can ease stress—and that means you have to pick your friends carefully, of course—the brain benefits. Unrelenting stress, in particular sustained levels of stress-induced cortisol, kills neurons in the memory-rich hippocampus. Depression, too, has been linked with a smaller hippocampus.

And there’s emerging evidence that our brains are set up from the get-go to cooperate, so they may work better if we do. One brain-scanning study by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that when participants made a choice to share some money they were given rather than keep it for themselves, the brain’s reward center became active, the same dopamine-releasing area that comes alive with sex, chocolate cake, and cocaine.

Mirror, Mirror in the Brain

And then there are mirror neurons. Over the past few years, neuroscientists have discovered an entire new class of brain cells that appear to exist primarily to help us recognize and feel the joy and pain of others. These mirror neurons may be one of the strongest neurobiological underpinnings of our drive to connect—and yet another reason why we have to be fairly careful with whom we are connecting. Mirror neurons make emotions contagious.

Even the story of the discovery of mirror neurons is fascinating. About twenty years ago, a team of Italian neuroscientists went out for lunch and left a research monkey hooked up to electrodes. When they returned and walked into the lab, one of the researchers lifted an ice cream cone to his mouth. As he did this, bells and lights started going off, indicating that the areas of the monkey’s brain that corresponded with lifting a hand to a mouth to eat something also became active. The monkey was not eating an ice cream cone, but in his brain he was.

From that surprise finding, the field of mirror neurons exploded. It’s now thought that mirror neurons, which are scattered in pockets all over our brains, are what help us understand the motives and actions of others. It is our mirror neurons that make us “feel” the pain of the character in the movie who’s being dumped by his girl-friend or the fear of a kidnap victim with a gun to her head.

“When we watch the movie stars kiss on screen some of the cells firing in our brains are the same ones that fire when we kiss our lovers. . . .” writes Marco Iacoboni, a neurologist at UCLA, in Mirroring People.

“When we see someone else suffering or in pain, mirror neurons help us to read his or her facial expression and actually make us feel the suffering or the pain of the other person. These moments . . . are the foundation of empathy and possibly of morality, a morality that is deeply rooted in our biology.”

Sociability as Exercise

And there’s increasing evidence that being with other humans helps tone our brains’ dendrites as well. Being social is hard and complicated and it taxes the brain.

“People forget how difficult and complex a task social interaction is,” says Denise Park, the neuroscientist in Dallas. “There are a lot of demands just in meeting new people. You have a name and face and you have to integrate that name with that face. And that new person will have personal history they’re telling you. And you will be telling them things about yourself. And the next day when you see them again you have to bring all that back to mind. Social engagement, sustained social engagement, is cognitively very demanding.”

When I spoke with her, Park had just finished the pilot phase of a new study to test this further. In the study, socially isolated middle-aged and older adults come to a center to learn digital photography and quilting. While learning these new skills will help, Park expects that a large part of the benefit will arise from the human interaction itself.

After the initial part of the study, Park will scan the brains of participants to see if there is increased brain volume in areas associated with learning complex tasks such as quilting or photography. But she expects to see the impact of being socially engaged as well.

As we’ve said, the brain as it ages has a tendency to wander, to get distracted. Park believes we need to find ways to keep the brain from slipping into its disengaged default mode. She, too, thinks we have to retrain our brains to get back to younger habits. And it’s possible that simply being socially engaged will help keep that default mode at bay. Something as seemingly simple as chatting with a friend may push a brain out of its daydreaming tendencies and instead activate powerful, focus-tuning frontal regions. Park and a number of others now believe that we need to—and can—find ways to jump-start our brains out of that default mode, teaching them to “call in the troops, the frontal lobes, when they need them.”

But we also have to remember that science, try as it might, can’t study everything. No doubt we already do a fair amount of good things for our brains; we just don’t appreciate them enough—or give them their due.

As I mentioned earlier, after a brain science conference in Washington, D.C., I had dinner and then shared a cab with scientists Denise Park and Laura Carstensen. In the cab, Carstensen told a funny story about how she had given her two-year-old grandson a present that she’d bought at a gag store, a duck that laid an egg. She said she had shown him how it worked, squeezing the duck to push out an egg, but he didn’t get it, he was too young. In fact, she said, he was “horrified.” Carstensen’s attempt to amuse her grandson had laid an egg.

It was a silly story, but—well, we’d all had some wine—it made all three of us laugh. And as Carstensen continued to tell the story and we continued to laugh, the cab driver, an elderly man whose gray hair peaked out from under a worn watch cap, turned around and grinned.

“You know,” he said, “you all have the secret of life. Laughing is the secret. You will never get old.”

Wisdom from cab drivers is one of the oldest clichés around, of course. But if we know anything in middle age, it’s that many of the world’s clichés turn out to be true.