Good news for the aging brain

If I could remember everything I’ve read over the last few years, I’d be quite the pundit. Unfortunately, that’s becoming less likely as I age… or is it? This article in the New York Times gives me a glimmer of hope. Health editor Barbara Strauch says that even though the middle age brain gets distracted a lot, it’s capable of learning and growing right through to old age:  

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. Mary’s 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.”

One way to do this is to get out of your comfort zone and be challenged with new views and perspectives. Traveling, learning new languages, taking a new route to work, befriending people who challenge your opinions — all of these force the brain to traverse new pathways:

“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 you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t 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 you’ve acquired.”

Sounds like it’s time for a “disorienting dilemma”!


Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Zo

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