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SciTech Neuroscience: How To Train The Aging Brain


Jun 1, 2004
Neuroscience: How to Train the Aging Brain

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
. . 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
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.



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