Neuroscience: How to Train the Aging Brain By BARBARA STRAUCH Published: December 29, 2009 . . . Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted. Start boiling water for pasta, go answer the doorbell and whoosh all thoughts of boiling water disappear. Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into whats called the default mode, during which the mind wanders off and begin daydreaming. . . how brains age and confirmed that they continue to develop through and beyond middle age. Many longheld views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, have been overturned. What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons. . . . Dr. Burke has done research on tots, those tip-of-the-tongue times when you know something but cant quite call it to mind. Dr. Burkes research shows that such incidents increase in part because neural connections, which receive, process and transmit information, can weaken with disuse or age. But she also finds that if you are primed with sounds that are close to those youre trying to remember say someone talks about cherry pits as you try to recall Brad Pitts name suddenly the lost name will pop into mind. The similarity in sounds can jump-start a limp brain connection. (It also sometimes works to silently run through the alphabet until landing on the first letter of the wayward word.) This association often happens automatically, and goes unnoticed. Not long ago I started reading The Prize, a history of the oil business. When I got to the part about Rockefellers early days as an oil refinery owner, I realized, hey, I already know this from having read Titan. The material was still in my head; it just needed a little prodding to emerge. Recently, researchers have found even more positive news. The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can. The trick is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them. The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding, says Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Marys College of California, who has studied ways to teach adults effectively. As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step. Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should jiggle their synapses a bit by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66. . . . a richer form of learning may require that you bump up against people and ideas that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world. . . .If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, youre not going to wrestle with your established brain connections. Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work. As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses, Dr. Taylor says. We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again youll have an overlay of complexity you didnt have before and help your brain keep developing as well. Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a disorienting dilemma, or something that helps you critically reflect on the assumptions youve acquired. . . . As adults we have all those brain pathways built up, and we need to look at our insights critically, he says. This is the best way for adults to learn. And if we do it, we can remain sharp.