The Human Brain- an Interesting Area of Research
The older brain is smarter and more efficient
One thing that always baffles me is how opinions shift drastically around what happens to our brains, as we grow older. New findings in research sometimes go as far as negating the previous findings. The article "The aging brain is less quick, but more shrewd" by Michelle Trudeau (found on npr.org) is an interesting case in point.
Her writing on the older, wiser brain is an interesting read (or listen if you prefer the podcast). This may come as no surprise to anyone who hangs around his or her grand parents. The scientific explanation which brain researcher Gary Small from UCLA gives is, "He points to a continued improvement in complex reasoning skills as we enter middle age. Small suggests that this increase may be due to a process in the brain called "myelination." Myelin is the insulation wrapped around brain cells that increases their conductivity — the speed with which information travels from brain cell to brain cell. And the myelination doesn't reach its peak until middle age. By this point, says Small, "the neuro-circuits fire more rapidly, as if you're going from dial-up to DSL ." The NPR.org website goes on to quote Small as saying, that there's another area of improvement as we age: empathy — the ability to understand the emotional point of view of another. Empathy increases as we age.
It is interesting to see that we are wired to become more empathetic in our later years, where we are less capable to handle whatever task may be at hand. So our role becomes that of empathizing, counselling and consoling. This is a necessary ingredient in today's society where lack of empathy leads to many sad endings. Ironically, the answer to what we need is "so so like, old school."
Brain cells continue to grow
Contrary to earlier beliefs in neuroscience, the brain does continue to grow. The old theory states that once brain cells die off, they are not replaced. Gary Small, in the same article mentioned above explained that brain cell growth continues through out life. More over our learning abilities could be slowed by age but they are still functional. The interesting trajectory this argument provides is that learning is accessible through out our lives. It is actually exercise for the brain. By that rationale, if a muscle is not exercised, it wastes away. The brain is also like a muscle that needs constant exercise. An interesting point to ponder for those who feel they are too old to learn.
We are "born-movers." The purpose of movement in our early development was for survival. Either in "fight or flight" situations or simply looking for food. Unlike the brainless sea sponge which waits for its food to come to it. Our brains have developed a complex system that enables us to coordinate complex manoeuvres. By exercising and keeping an active life, we keep the neural system active and thus have healthier brains well into old age.
It is interesting to note that we can continue learning and growing despite our age. Our brains benefit a lot from our lifestyles. An active lifestyle incorporating physical and mental exercise is highly beneficial to a healthier brain. Learn something new everyday!
You can find the NPR article here