Good News for Old Brains


[We go off the beaten track this morning with some reassuring scientific news about the aging brain. Merely staying mentally active, as those who post regularly in the Rick’s Picks forum are wont to do, is enough to keep the circuits firing and the brain supple enough, even, to learn new tricks.  This guest commentary was written by my Chocorua, New Hampshire host Mary Peaco Todd.  She is a cartoonist whose work can be found here. RA]

I remember when my fifty-some-year-old husband wandered into the kitchen after an evening of cramming.  He was the oldest student in his law school program and, although he had graduated cum laude, the dreaded Massachusetts Bar Exam loomed. “I have a problem,” he said.  “My brain is full.” “Full?” “Full. And I still have Contracts and Constitutional Law to review.” “Well,” I replied, “what are you going to do?” He shrugged.  “I have no choice.  Something’s gotta go.  I’m going to have to delete childhood.”

Judith McDaniel, a colleague in the Union Institute and University program where I teach, recently posted a blog about her own experience entering law school at an age when some folks are not thinking much beyond the next early bird special.  She accurately accessed her strengths – fast reader, good at retaining information, able to identify and communicate the main points in a text – and her weaknesses – memorizing and short term memory – but beneath all of her deliberations nagged one fundamental question: Was her sixty-year-old brain simply too old for school?

Happily, for Judith and for the rest of us, the answer is no.  The latest research indicates that aging brains not only continue to develop but even have some advantages over brains that are younger. In a recent article in the New York Times, Barbara Strauch surveys what we now know about the older brain.  Yes, aging brains are more easily distracted, more likely to forget things like where the keys are, the details of a recently read book, the name of that person who looks maddeningly familiar.  The good news is that, unlike what was previously assumed, all of that information is not so much lost as essentially misplaced – as the brain piles on years, neural pathways can become weak, making it more difficult for specific information to be retrieved.


In her article, Strauch discusses the research of the University of Pomona’s Deborah M. Burke, who investigated what she calls ‘tots’ – those tip-of-the-tongue moments when the information we seek is just out of reach.   Burke discovered that often, a reminder or phrase that sounds close to what we’re desperately trying to retrieve can trigger the memory.  For example, let’s say you can’t quite recall the full name of a recent Supreme Court Justice.  Then you hear someone say, “I went jogging at daybreak.”  Ah ha, Sandra Day O’Connor!

Even better: older brains might not be as agile or energetic as those of youth but they seem to have an enhanced ability to perceive patterns and connections, to understand what Strauch calls “the big picture.” She quotes Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College in California and an expert in adult learning: “The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding. As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step.”  The trick is keeping the aging brain active and challenged.

Taylor and others propose that the best way for older adults to learn is to encourage them to consciously challenge their assumptions: deliberately expose themselves to ideas and viewpoints that are different from their own, consciously venture beyond their comfort zones.  The process of confronting new, strange, even provocative notions apparently is just what the brain needs to keep frisky well into the golden years.

Young Flock Together

If intellectual adventurism is, for adult learners, the key to success, perhaps there is yet another benefit.  Recently much has been written about how the Internet might in fact be aiding conformity among groups rather than the diversity it would seem to offer.  The reason?  People tend to visit sites and communicate with people who think like they do.  Since the young are far more adept with social media than older folks, this research suggests that young brains might be in danger of having their ideas and values calcified by virtue of the reinforcement they get from those who share their views. Maybe, then, we old dogs might just be able to teach those young dogs a few new tricks.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

Yehti June 13, 2012, 12:48 pm

Regarding ageing (non-US spelling, sorry) brains (remember that topic?) I am fondly reminded of a wonderful song by Gino Vannelli (c. 1977) called Where Am I Going. It’s quite long, with a non-pop style. For me it is evocative of a beach house on the Indian Ocean, far from the the writer’s metier; of hot summers, turquoise breakers and over time, several wonderful women. It still sings to my mind (or is it to my brain, who knows) of young days in my twenties and thirties.
Gino sang:
“Will I be strong, or barely keep alive,
“When I’m thirty five.
Oh hahahahahaha !!!!
To think that as a young bloke, I wondered along with him! Would the fun soon end, I wondered; after all, I will be forty one day…. (btw it wasn’t all fun in those times)
Message to young people under sixty five: it keeps going! In ages to come, it will be just like it is for you now, but even better, much better. Older than 65, I am guessing – but judging by a hot babe I know, it doesn’t stop in the late seventies either he he! It’s relative; somehow things are nearly the same. Less intense, yes, with less of the longing you had as a young person for that gorgeous girl/guy who would have been so wonderful with you, but more free and more fun.
My guess about keeping young: find fun ways to do good things like having carrot juice, exercising your own way and having casual sex, in order to offset the Bad Things that you like so much such as bad food and lying about watching tv.

D. Barber June 4, 2012, 3:20 pm

With a hangover a good rest thinking about almost nothing works well too, come Monday. This Monday.

fallingman May 29, 2012, 5:43 pm

Young agile brains require lots of good fats.

Getting plenty of Omega 3’s from both land and marine sources as well as a daily supply of coconut oil is a good start.

You’ll also need Choline and Phosphatidyl Serine to name just a couple other key nutrients. And steer clear of mercury, aluminum, and other toxic metals.

Bottom line: Don’t forget to feed and protect your brain.

Mark Uzick May 27, 2012, 6:04 am

Mario, the CCCCP or Gary: why quibble?

Chris T. May 25, 2012, 8:08 pm

“People tend to visit sites and communicate with people who think like they do.”

Oh boy!
Guess I have to stop visiting here, or on LRC, or on Antal Feketes website….

Mark Uzick May 26, 2012, 12:26 pm

I always knew the internet was the most distructive media for free thought.

In the name of “diversity”, they want to censor or shut down the “subversives” who dare to differ from mainstream opinion as exemplified by statist indoctrination in the public schools.

For them, “freedom of thought” means adherence to to the programing which is administered to them by state institutions and the MSM; anything else is considered deviant and subversive; terrorism; a threat to the social order to be stamped out

Mario cavolo May 27, 2012, 2:19 am

And you were talking about China when you wrote that right? 🙂 enjoy the weekend, Mario

gary leibowitz May 28, 2012, 6:30 pm

Who is shuting down anything? We have reality TV, extreme violence and distorted notions of right and wrong in the media, and a socially acceptable gladiator mentality.

If anything the “allowable” exposure to every faction has never been more prevalent.

BigTom May 25, 2012, 7:19 pm

Interesting subject. Thanks Rick – I recall back in college how I had to change study habits. Most students, a day or two before a test, ‘cramned’ the knowledge for that exam and then partied afterward. If I went that route it was too much to soon I guess for my small grey matter volumn and left me rather lost in a uncordinated maze of facts. I really could not seperate out all the bits of info I had just ‘cramned’ into my skull in such a short period of time and coherently use them for a test. So I eventually learned to switch study methods. Methodically I would pour over the contents of test material up to 3 days prior to that exam then after that would no longer even open a book on the subject prior to the test. Completely ignore the subject. In fact often would actually party two nights before a test and be fine. Am assuming it gave my brain a rest before it was needed to perform, much like physically working out in the gym every other day or so, giving time for the muscle to relax and recoup from exertion before reusing.
The next am quite sure about. We quit using TV around our house a good year and half ago and do not miss it at all. In fact feel so much better without it. Count how many times one has gone to bed having cramned a night of television onto the brain and then try to recall what you had just spent the night watching. Especially news. That seems to be the present flavor now a days as programing is very lacking elsewhere on the option remote. After a night of news, try recalling what you had just spent important hours watching. It was important stuff alright, so important that very little of television programming is recallable, for my brain anyhow. For hours put in, very little came out regarding grey matter upgrades using television. It’s kaput, gone now and it has been back to books, music and our great collection of movies we did harvest for our entertainment. And believe it or not, without television the fog, confusion and mirrors MSM practices daily upon the American population no longer reaches us.
And as for internet adding conformity to the general population of todays ‘thinkers’? Perhaps. The younger electronic generation does spend a lot of time spaming each other useless info over hand held electronic devices, but television like newsprint does seem to be turning into single dimensions themselves. Where is alternative thinking available there? At least on the internet most anything is available to be searched out if one finds something of interest to persue. There are alternatives available there and the only place to get alternative info as traditions sources have become so one dimensional.
Anyhow, just variants in the use of grey matter and my 2 cents worth today. And Rick, thanks for doing the topic……

Seawolf May 25, 2012, 6:41 pm

Internet conformity is not one bit different than book, magazine, newspaper and social group conformity before the internet.

gary leibowitz May 25, 2012, 7:10 pm

Sure it is. Look at the number of views on say Facebook on any given day. Easy, fast, and requires no research.

Seawolf May 25, 2012, 7:32 pm

The conformity is the same. The same mindsets read the same print media. Only lack of an editor is different. Pre-internet there was an editor sorting the responses that were published. The audience for any printed thought subject pre-selected themselves just as on the net. Now you just go to your favorite site to get your daily reality conformation, before the net you had to wait for your print media to arrive in the mail.
I can’t comment on Facebook. I don’t do Facebook. If I want to talk to my friends I use Skype. I do not wish to plaster myself all over the internet.
My point is that conformity groups have always coalesced around a shared interest.

Benjamin May 25, 2012, 5:38 pm

Thought this might be sort-of relevent to the topic…

Part one of three. Pretty cool, huh? I’m just not sure who is the more clever… Kubrick, for making his films the way he did, or Rob Ager, for noticing all that stuff?

Anyway, if one is looking for brain engagement via film, I highly recommend Kubrick’s masterpeices.

Benjamin May 25, 2012, 5:41 pm

…and Ager’s analyses, found at his website.

Terry S May 25, 2012, 5:03 pm

Hi Rick – I enjoyed the read. – Bogie would have liked the cartoon. – To add to her thesis regarding the calcification of young brains, those most active on social media are rapidly losing any sense of spelling, proper grammer, and the semblance of a complete sentence. – Have a great Holiday weekend, Y’all.

Seawolf May 25, 2012, 4:09 pm

The majority do not want a resilient, smoothly functioning brain. They much prefer staying in a rut, preferably one defined by an ideology. “Brain dead at 18, buried at 80” is their preference.
Maintaining mental acuity into advanced years is not that difficult, but it does require constant work and practice.

gary leibowitz May 25, 2012, 3:13 pm

“Recently much has been written about how the Internet might in fact be aiding conformity among groups rather than the diversity it would seem to offer. The reason? People tend to visit sites and communicate with people who think like they do. Since the young are far more adept with social media than older folks, this research suggests that young brains might be in danger of having their ideas and values calcified by virtue of the reinforcement they get from those who share their views.”

Internet aiding conformity instead of diversity. How true. Anyone else acknowledge this fact. I guess most on this cheerleading website skipped over this point. I always knew the internet was the most distructive media for free thought. While anyone can build a blog geared towards their point of view, the people that visit their blog are already converts.

You would think that in today’s super library of instant knowledge, people would become more educated instead of less. Case in point the silly notion that Obama never produced a valid birth certificate, or that the Republican’s disgraceful acceptance of this rumor was never challenged. Imagine senetors and congressman allowing this disgraceful behavior to continue, knowing how prevalent racism plays a part. If the Republicans can find semen stains on Monica Lewinsky’s cloths they certainly could have discovered that Obama was an invalid candidate for president.

We use the internet to reinforce our own prejudice instead of treating it like a library of free thought and ideas. The biggest propaganda medium in the history of the human race.

I guess I digressed from the original theme of this article. Now back to your pre-programmed schedule.

Benjamin May 25, 2012, 5:34 pm

“Internet aiding conformity instead of diversity. How true. Anyone else acknowledge this fact? I guess most on this cheerleading website skipped over this point.”

Excluding this one there’s only like eight posts so far, Gary. And since there’s a few other worthy points made, well… Why get all upset about something that the majority didn’t touch upon? You did. I did. Can’t you find happiness in that?

“While anyone can build a blog geared towards their point of view, the people that visit their blog are already converts.”

Well, if people don’t create one to post their views, how the heck is the internet going to stay diverse? Think about it, but not for too long… ’cause there isn’t a reason you should need to.

gary leibowitz May 25, 2012, 6:24 pm


Not upset. Just trying to stir the pot, and make people think.

“Well, if people don’t create one to post their views, how the heck is the internet going to stay diverse?” My point wasn’t the fact that people build their own blog, my point is that diversity is absolutely lost on these websites. It is just a sounding board for like minds. You don’t exactly learn anything by that.

If my syntax, and spelling upsets you than I apologize. While I can, and should use the spell check more often I can’t do anything about my syntax.
Right brain, left brain dichotomy. Now had you asked me to build a financial or sales model on a computer, I would shine.

Benjamin May 26, 2012, 12:07 am

“Not upset. Just trying to stir the pot, and make people think.”

Well, in that case, Gary, allow me to share mine with ya…

I can find myself in need of a breather, which can only be found among strong supporters of what I’ve already come to accept as true. That some people — perhaps many, perhaps too many (I’ve no ESP to tell) — treat the sanctuaries as a north magnet to a south (nice way of saying butt-kisser!) is not the fault of the internet, nor of the sanctuaries and their creators (even if they’re butt-kissers).

Of course, I’ve not mastered my own “zen”. And the rate I’m going…! But truth is truth nonetheless.

Jacques Redou May 25, 2012, 2:02 pm

“No one is satisfied with his position, but every one is satisfied with his wit”
― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Buster May 25, 2012, 10:10 am

In the spirit of challenging our assumptions in order to exercise our brains….a few thoughts regarding the bullish & the bearish case……..

Being bearish of badly run companies or markets is something that should work in a healthy, free market economy, but in a badly ‘managed’ economy this process is fraught with problems. In a land where the money supply is run as a monopoly, the government is corrupted by the big players as it so clearly is & giant corporations serving the few rule the day, it is better even to buy the crap than to short it. In fact, I would wager that the worse things are the more bullish one should become on any countries stock market, since more & more paper will be required to cover the growing cracks in the system. This is how TPTB work the system to keep themselves in power, Zimbabwean style. Inflation is the inevitable consequence, though this alarm bell is well hidden in the government adjusted figures. (….You may not be able to afford to eat but, hey!, the price of 52” flat screens says that inflation is well under control, so what’s your problem??!!)
I think it’s right to be aware of the terrible consequences of such a system on the lives of so many who are at the loosing end of this power grab which always seems to be a key part of ‘managed’ human societies, but betting against it is not always such a good idea as our instincts would have us believe.
We have to understand & grasp the disconnect between the real world & the paper price gauge (PPG) in effect. Even the massive drain on this PPG, due to the fact that it is a debt based currency, is being offset by what amounts to handing vast amounts of currency to the insiders in various machinations now available.
Added to this situation, there appear to be some very ‘bullish’ changes coming down the line in the form of technological advances that look like being some real game-changers, so being bullish on the PPG is where I’m inclined to lean, whilst still pointing out that a debt based currency system is not one that is fit for purpose, & never will be. No amount of new technologies or bull markets get over this fact. A monetary system that creates a never ending burden of debt for the loosers is not just, fair, moral or biblical, even. It is simply predatory. It is the central problem with the current system, & an indictment on those who have created & milked it, -an indictment that is more dangerous to the perpetrators than their present luxury & comfort would have them believe.
Things will change.

Benjamin May 25, 2012, 7:42 am

“Young Flock Together”

Definitely true, but what I’ve noticed is that older folks tend to be the same. They just feel more confident about themselves and therefore feel no/less need to be immediately with a group. Independent, in the sense of standing alone, but not in the sense of being independent from the group(s) they associate with.

The young, on the other hand (but a hand is a hand is a hand), are just more reliant on the group(s) they associate with. One should also note that growing up as a “rebel” or loner makes no difference. Associations form in the mind nonetheless.

Anyway, having recently had my 36th, I can still say that I’m as sharp as I ever was, but… Youthful mental energy (for lack of a better description) is of course diminished. Or so it would seem. I think the “big picture” mind is a definite bullseye. So the energy is spent on something on internal — more processing of it — rather than on taking things in (and of course, as youth are wont to doing, resisting whatever they choose to block!).

Lastly, on a sort-of light-hearted rant, and as already inspired by Mario… It never fails! Like clockwork, any time the brain and ageing are the subject –anywhere in the universe, throughout time — there’s always a group of people (they will be here) who come by to advertise their use of what I’ve come to call “alzheimer’s spray”. Some call it instant IQ. I call it lying 🙂

In my experience the brain needs rest, however done, outside of sleep time. Overactive brain = insomnia. Insomnia = burn-out. Perhaps repeated and routine burn-out equals the Big A. I’ll tell yall when I’m an old man. Whether it does or not though, the insomnia is bad enough. So is it really such a “big waste of time” to just tell the brain to shut-the-up for a little while? And if so, then maybe it all boils down to one thing: disciplined management? Maybe young/old has nothing to do with it, either?

Those kinds of questions are what keep me up late at night! 🙂

Anyway, good show today, Rick. Nice that it isn’t always investing and economics ’round here!

mario cavolo May 25, 2012, 5:21 am

Retired nuns have the healthiest brains, low incident of decline, because they stay active….. The brain also much like a muscle, actively engage it and its healthier, let it sit passively staring at some mindnumbing waste of time, cute sitcom and it gets weaker and atrophied..

When trying to remember a word, run your brain through the vowels and consonants through all.the.combos… Eg., ba be bi bo bu bac bad baf bag bec bed bef bic bid bif.. in fact it only takes a minute or two…

Mark Uzick May 25, 2012, 10:01 am

The brain also much like a muscle, actively engage it and its healthier,

That’s right Mario; and don’t forget that, like muscle, bones and connective tissues, the brain needs, not only exercise, but to be well fed, protected with antioxidants and just as a body needs to have rest, during which it repairs and rebuilds itself to adapt to higher stress loads, (It grows back stronger during rest after being torn down during exertion.) during sleep the brain assimilates new experiences, information and ideas, forming new connections so that we wake up with stronger intelligence, clearer and better integrated perspective and deeper emotional response in accordance with dream-state evaluations and integration into our unconscious minds our thoughts and experiences from when we were awake.

It’s analogous to the creative destruction of social and economic systems – the constant tearing down and rebuilding is a requirement of healthy minds and bodies as much as it is a requirement of any healthy social order; we – as organisms or as societies – either continuously evolve and grow or we stagnate, atrophy and die.

Rich May 28, 2012, 5:12 pm

Mark and Mario, I’ll hazard to guess, based on background in Clinical Psychology working with Geriatrics, that sleep deprivation may be a leading cause of memory loss because the brain does not have enough time to properly archive memories…

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