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 1. Am I Losing My Mind?
Sometimes, but the Gains Beat the Losses
I’m standing in my basement.
I’ve come downstairs to get something. The question is, what?
I look around, trying to jog my memory. I stare at the shelves where I store big pots and pans. Was it the pasta plate? My mind is suddenly, inexplicably, blank.
I stare at my hands. Maybe if I look at my hands long enough, I’ll get a picture in my mind, a clue as to what I came down to the basement to put into those hands.
This is maddening.
I consider going upstairs and starting over, back to the kitchen to survey the scene to figure out what’s missing, like one of those children’s puzzles where, after looking at a picture, you then look at a second picture and try to find what has been removed from the first one—a tree missing a branch or a man who is no longer wearing his hat.
I don’t want to go back upstairs. That’s ridiculous. I stare at the shelves again. Lightbulbs?
Nothing. Nada. Zippo.
I give up and walk back upstairs. I scan the kitchen.
And then I see it—the empty paper towel holder.
I turn and go down the basement stairs again, this time repeating to myself over and over:
“Paper towels paper towels paper towels paper towels.”
Ahh . . . the middle-aged brain. It can be bad out there.
My own most recent worst case was when I tried—really tried—to get a book for a book club I’m in. I went online and carefully ordered The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Then, a week later, I had a free moment at work and I thought, Oh, I should order that book club book. I went online and carefully typed in an order for The Alchemist—again.
Then a few days later, jogging in the park, a faint bell went off in my head and I thought, I think I ordered the wrong book. At home, I checked my e-mail and, sure enough, we were supposed to read The Archivist by Martha Cooley.
I’d ordered the wrong book—twice.
And that wasn’t the end of it. Later that week, I was talking with a fellow book club member, a neurologist, who, after hearing my embarrassing story, started to laugh. It turned out that she’d gone to the library to get the book club book and had just as carefully come home with a copy of The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.
So there you go. Two middle-aged brains, three wrong books.
And that’s just the beginning.
One woman I know, who is fifty-three, says she now wakes up uncertain what day it is. Another friend, also in his early fifties, finds himself dishing out guidance to his children only to be told that he had dished out the exact same advice just hours before. “They tell me, ‘Dad, you told us that this morning, don’t you remember?’ ” Well, he doesn’t. And he wonders, what does it mean? Maybe he’s just too busy, with the job, the kids. Maybe his children are just being annoying, playing childlike annoying tricks. Maybe—and this is not a good thought at all—he is losing his mind.
We all worry about getting old. We all worry about getting sick. But we really worry about losing our minds. Will we forget to tie our shoes or zip our flies? Will we fumble our words and fall into our soup? Are our brains on an inevitable downward slide?
It seemed, as I reached middle age—landing unprepared on the foggy planet of lost keys and misplaced thoughts—that this, sadly, was the case. But then I noticed something else. At work, at home, with friends, I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing. These were people, also in the thick of middle age, who, despite not remembering the name of the restaurant they just ate in or the book they just read, were also structuring complex deals between oil companies on different continents and coming home to cook Coquilles St. Jacques. These were people who could simultaneously write an e-mail to a daughter who was unhappy at college, sort expenses, and participate in a conference call with colleagues in Washington.
Take Lynn, for instance. An accomplished woman in her early fifties, she has raised two children and managed a competitive and creative career for the past thirty years. There are times when she feels hopelessly muddled, forgetting where she took the dry cleaning or if she called the dentist. At other times, she told me, she feels that she “can do anything.”
“I guess I’m getting older and, sure, I can tell,” she told me. “But also, if I think about it, I also feel unbelievably capable.” A book editor in his early fifties reported a similar mixed sense. “You know,” he said to me at lunch recently, “when my daughter started taking piano lessons, I decided to take lessons with her. Boy, it’s hard to see her learn it so much faster than I can. I sit there and watch and I think, What happened to my brain?
“But it’s weird,” he went on. “I have to say that I also feel much smarter these days. I know what I’m doing at work. Nothing seems to faze me. I feel truly competent.”
Not long ago, when I told one of the editors at my newspaper that I planned to write about the middle-aged brain, he laughed, thinking of his own fifty-eight-year-old talents. “Oh, my,” he said. “The middle-aged brain. That’s really interesting because sometimes it really seems like there’s not much left up there. You know, the synapses are not synapping like they used to.”
Then, when I looked down at his desk, there was this complicated chart, full of boxes and arrows and circles. His middle-aged brain, with its unsynappy synapses, had taken on what was then the most complex issue the company had faced—how to integrate the new Web operations with the old print infrastructure. He took on this task amid his other duties, such as finding money for the paper’s continued coverage in Baghdad. Undaunted, he was handling this thorny job with, as they say in Spain, his left hand. What’s more, he mentioned by way of passing conversation that he’d just helped plan the weddings of two of his daughters, one in the Midwest, hardly a task for a brain on the brink of extinction, I thought.
A short time later, I was having dinner with another friend of mine, Connie, now in her early sixties and working as an editor. She, too, has a full-tilt life—a daughter in college, a mother who recently died after a long illness, a book under way, and recent bouts in her family with two life-threatening diseases. As we drank our red wine, we spoke about how our own middle-aged brains were doing. She had her concerns. She pulled her hands in front of her face like a curtain closing to illustrate what sometimes happens to her now when “whole episodes” of her day seem to vanish from her brain cells. At times, too, she has to stop herself as she starts to put the bananas in the laundry chute. Still, when I asked her if she also feels more with it in other areas, her face lit up.
“I guess I take it for granted,” she answered. “Sometimes now I just seem to see solutions. They pop into my head. It’s crazy. Sometimes, like magic, I am brilliant.”
Consider, too, Frank. At fifty-five, Frank has come up with a little game to help his brain. When he can’t recall the names of those he just met or has known for years, a situation that happens with greater frequency, he rapidly runs through the alphabet, trying to match a letter to a name to jog his memory. “You know, A, is it Adam? No, B, Bob. Yes, that’s him, Bob Smith. That’s what I do,” he said. While he is priming his brain with tricks, Frank also finds that in other, far more important ways his brain is functioning better than ever. As the chief financial officer for a nonprofit organization in New York, he spends his days wrestling with one knotty management tangle after another. And over the years, he finds these challenges getting easier, not harder. Often he sits with another manager and they’ll toss ideas back and forth about how to size up and solve a problem.
Both have been managers for years and, with all those years of experience etched in their brains, they speak a kind of shorthand, saying, “Hey, you know he is the type that . . . and you know we really ought to move that over there. . . .” They can often finish each other’s sentences, in a language that Frank says younger people with less experience in their brains simply would not get.
“We understand each other, but more important, when we talk we get somewhere. We actually solve problems. When situations come up now, I have a whole library of experience to draw on to figure out what to do. . . . I guess you would call it, what, expertise?”
Science Changes Its Mind
Indeed, while the buoyancy of the middle-aged brain may be a surprise to many of us, it’s no longer a surprise to science. After years of believing that the brain simply begins to fade as it ages, a more nuanced picture has begun to emerge. While many of us would simply chalk up Frank’s experience to experience and leave it at that, neuroscientists—perhaps the most skeptical crowd around—have found that the brain at middle age has its own identity and surprising talents. Experience—and expertise—has literally changed our brains.
By middle age, the brain has developed powerful systems that cut through the intricacies of complex problems to find, as Frank does, concrete answers. It more calmly manages emotions and information. It is more nimble, more flexible, even cheerier. Equipped with brain scanners that can peer into brains as they age, neuroscientists find executive talent and, even more encouraging, what they call cognitive expertise.
Analyzing long-term studies of actual people as they have aged, psychologists are now realizing that our long-held picture of middle age has been incomplete and misleading. One new series of fascinating studies suggests that it may be the very nature of how our brains age that gives us a broader perspective on the world, a capacity to see patterns, connect the dots, even be more creative.
Certainly, there are times when the patterns we see are missing a few pieces.
One recent morning, I found myself yelling (politely) at my husband, Richard.
“I thought you were going to buy milk,” I said, as I looked in the refrigerator while he was in the bedroom getting dressed.
“I did,” he said.
“But it’s not here,” I said, staring at refrigerator shelves that were, indeed, milk-less.
This brought Richard to the kitchen to see for himself.
“But it’s right there,” he said, pointing to the milk carton sitting on a counter behind me. “You just put some in your cereal.”
Sure enough. I had, in fact, gone to the refrigerator, gotten the carton of milk, and poured some on my cereal. Then, after busying myself with another activity—making tea—I’d become distracted and the image of the milk on the counter had disappeared from my brain.
And such difficulties are not imaginary. The brain at middle age is not protected from harm. We develop schemes like Frank’s game for figuring out what a person’s name is because, in fact, we have more difficulty with name retrieval, particularly the names of those we’ve not seen in a while. Connections that tie faces to names weaken with age. Our brains slow down a bit, too. For instance, if chess players compete in a game that depends on speed—say, they’re given a few seconds to move a piece—younger players always beat older players. In brain-scanning studies, scientists can watch the middle-aged brain as it loses focus and begins to wander aimlessly.
For many years, a major line of thinking was that the brain becomes more easily distracted with age simply because age brings so many distractions. Even now, I hear this explanation from some who insist that their brains may miss a beat now and then simply because their circuits are overloaded.
“I hate it when people say they are having a senior moment,” said one woman I know in her early sixties. “People lose their keys when they are my age and they think it’s their aging brain. But plenty of teenagers lose their keys, and when they do, they just, well, they just say they lost their keys.”
Such explanations are enticing, and have some truth to them. By middle age, we ask a lot of our neurons—we relearn geometry to help our teenagers with their homework, we find ourselves as outpatient hospital managers as our parents fall ill, we untangle competing egos and agendas at work, we decipher unintelligible fine print in refinancing applications—all pretty much at the same time that we begin to reallyworry about a whole host of events on an even larger scale: Will polar bears completely disappear with global warming? Will Pakistan use a nuclear bomb? Should we negotiate with Iran?
Until recently even many of the scientists thought information overload was the problem. We have a lot to do, and we simply get overtaxed and overwhelmed. With all we have careening around in our neurons, no wonder we lose our focus.
But such explanations are no longer considered sufficient. Over the past few years, science has taken a more serious look at our middle-aged brains and found that, in some areas, declines are real.
In truth, we know that, too. A friend who is fifty-five said she battles her brain every day now.
“I used to be able to keep a mental note of everything. I was really organized and I just had it all in my head, what I had to do for work, with my boys,” she told me. “Now I have to write everything down and I still get confused. I keep looking for my glasses when they’re on my head—that kind of thing happens all day long. Sometimes I just feel like my brain is fried.”
By middle age, we all have similar stories—and worries. But the latest science is reassuring. It’s true that the first changes from degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s often begin much earlier than we thought. But researchers have now begun to sort out the differences between the stirrings of dementia and the normal aging process. And most of us, while beset with a normal level of middle-aged muddle, are, in fact, quite normal.
What’s more, we’re quite smart. And, on some level—if we think about it—we know that, too. For instance, my friend who complained about battling her brain every day was recently promoted to a new, high-level job that involves intense scrutiny of detail. And despite her middle-aged brain—perhaps because of her middle-aged brain—she’s already handling that job with ease. She knows what to pay attention to and what to ignore. She knows how to get from point A to point B. She knows what she’s doing.
The middle-aged brain is a contradiction. Some parts run better than others. But perhaps more than at any other age, our brains in middle age are more than the sum of their parts.
In fact, as we shall see, long-term studies now provide evidence that, despite a misstep now and then, our cognitive abilities continue to grow. For the first time, researchers are pulling apart such qualities as judgment and wisdom and finding out how and why they develop. Neuroscientists are pinpointing how our neurons—and even the genes that govern them—adapt and even improve with age. “I’d have to say from what we know now,” says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University and a leader of the new research, “that the middle-aged brain is downright formidable.”
A friend who is a poet told me recently that she does not think that she could have written the poetry she does until she had reached her mid-fifties—until her brain had reached its formidable age.
“It feels like all the pieces needed to come together,” she said. “It’s only now that my brain feels ready. It can see how the world fits together—and make poetry out of it.”