Midlife Crisis is Overblown, and Other Good News about Your Middle-Aged Brain

This is the second in a four-part series on your amazing, aging brain.

More good news: midlife crisis and the empty nest syndrome don’t exist. There is no scientific research to support them. Not that people don’t suffer at that time of life. I don’t mean to make light of the changes. But statistically speaking, there is no scientific evidence of either syndrome.

In the 1970s, a Yale psychology professor handpicked forty men to study. He then concluded they were suffering from midlife crisis. That’s about it.

Although people still believe in it (try Googling “midlife” and see what comes up), there is ample evidence to the contrary. In 1999, for instance, one of the biggest studies of middle age, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, concluded:

Between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five, people across the board reported increased feelings of well-being.”

The feminine version of midlife crisis is empty nest syndrome. Here again, there is evidence not only that this “syndrome” doesn’t exist, but that the opposite is true. According to Barbara Strauch and researcher Karen L. Fingerman,

…no one has ever been able to find a true empty nest syndrome in a scientific way. Instead, even among women who devote all their time to raising their kids, studies find mostly a ‘great deal of satisfaction’ when the kids become independent. ‘They feel they have done a good job and they suddenly have the freedom to do new things,’ says Fingerman. ‘They feel great.’

I won’t deny that some people feel unhappy or lost over the reality of the years passing, or the newly-quiet house that used to ring with the sound of a happy family. Of course that could be discouraging; it may even cause depression. My point is, serious psychological impact from those changes is not a given. To learn more, you might want to pick up a copy of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch, whose words I’m using in this post.

Now that you’re all warmed up (flex fingers, crack knuckles here), let’s talk about the power of the midlife brain. Last week I mentioned the brain in midlife powers up instead of gearing down. There’s a particular trick your brain learns in midlife, and it was only accepted as scientifically irrefutable in the late 1990s. It’s called bilateralization.

See, when the younger brain needs to solve a problem, it tends to use the factory settings. If it’s a logic problem, the left brain gets a workout. Creativity? The right side lights up. Young brains are so powerful, this works fine. However, when you’re older, your brain realizes that in order to do the best job possible, it’s going to have to reach across from one hemisphere and borrow circuits from the other. Thus, both sides of the brain are engaged in a task where in the past, only one side would have been. In addition to pure processing help, there may be an almost magical benefit from this strategy.

As we age, and the two sides of our brains work together, we are able to see bigger patterns, have bigger thoughts, reaching – according to one researcher – the level of art. According to Gene Cohen, who studies the connection between art and neurons,

The brain’s left and right hemispheres become better integrated during middle age, making way for greater creativity…The neurons themselves may lose some processing speed with age, but they become ever more richly intertwined…”

Last week we discussed the fact that as the brain ages, it begins to default to its daydreaming mechanism to process new data. Unfortunately, this is why it takes us longer to learn new things. On the plus side, some scientists think that tendency to daydream, combined with the ability to use both sides of the brain in an integrated way, might result in better problem solving, deeper insights, and more creativity. And I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

Next week: how grandmothers could save civilization.

Comments

  1. says

    And here I thought the increased creative ideas popping into my brain were solely a result of long, meditative training runs. I’ll put Strauch’s book on my reading list. Whatever it is that keeps us vital physically, mentally and spiritually it’s important to avoid being put in those prescribed boxes that are thrown at us all our lives (terrible two’s, teenage angst, midlife crisis, etc).

    • says

      Mary Lou, that creativity is just a gift of getting older – savor it! In our society we don’t know or talk about the goodies of being over 50. That’s definitely one of them. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. says

    One size does not fill all. I was a single parent and 55 when my 19-year-old left home in 2001. I grieved and missed him deeply, but I also knew it was time for him to flee the nest. I’m proud of him and his successes. However, I had just gone back to college and was taking care of mom, who didn’t die until 2011 at the age of 101. It was an arduous journey giving me little time for the “unabashed joy” Martin speaks of. Successes, yes, and a new marriage that brought me love and companionship and … joy. But even then, I had to quit my job to take care of mom (thanks to husband), and nearly lost my health in the process. Friends were concerned she would take me with her. Since then I’ve been in “recovery.” There are a lot of people in my shoes that can’t be dismissed by saying there is no “middle-age crisis.” People who take care of aging parents are often in constant crisis, losing health and vitality in the process.

    • says

      Martha, I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for you, and I’m glad you’ve got love and happiness in your life now. I didn’t mean to diminish your challenges or those of other people who face overwhelming commitments. However, what the researchers were saying was that there is no greater frequency of crisis for those in middle age than any other point on the timeline. Best wishes.

      • says

        Lynne, I understand where you are coming from and appreciate the information. I’m definitely not arguing for my limitations, or anyone else’s. I plan to be mentally and physically vital into my 80s (and maybe 90s). But there are so many facing the greatest challenges of their lives in their middle years because of aging parents or their own declining health.

  3. says

    Ah, Lynne, this is a good one — thank you for doing the research. I find it fascinating to read what I see regularly, that middle-aged people are finding new things to do, new activities to pursue, new interests, in the aftermath of the child-rearing years. And that in itself provides a good role model for our kids, too.

  4. says

    Just recently joined your marvellous blog, Lynne. I’m a (same spelling!) Lynne, and live down under in Brisbane, Australia.

    My heart goes out to all the parents and loved ones of the little children murdered by this freak mad-man. Your wonderful country of the United States is literally being blown to bits from these serial mass killers that copy each other, month after month.

    In Australia, we have had mass killings as well, the biggest of all was in 1996 at Port Arthur, Tasmania. This particular nut-case murderer killed 35 innocent people, many of them children, for no reason, no logic, except that he went “off his rocker.” He is now locked up permanently, never to be released. Following this shocking crime, our then Prime Minister John Howard brought in very tough gun laws in Australia. He had a lot of opposition from groups like the NRA but he resisted the gun lobby and brought an Act into our Parliament. Since then, in Australia, mass shootings are very rare – taking away the easy availability of high-powered repeating guns that can kill many people very quickly has been a highly=effective deterrant. It can work in the USA too.

    I realise the political and legal issues are more complicated for the USA because you will need to change or more likely, re-interpret your Constituion. The Founding Fathers did not ever intend these consequences of mass murder.

    I believe that the only road forward to stop the epidemic of killings is people power. A mass movement along the lines of Occupy Wall Street, because it needs a groundswell of citizens in every US State to take to the streets peacefully and occupy the places of Government, State and Federal for as long as it takes. The people of Australia are with you all the way to changing these gun laws through people power. In the meantime, we share your pain and outrage at this slaughter of the innocent little ones and their teachers. We pass on our our sincere condolences.

    • says

      Lynne, so good to hear from you. I agree with your points. The greatest deterrent to action is lethargy, and speaking for myself, it’s born of aversion to pain. The day this happened I was overwhelmed, and the only way I can function is to try to put it out of my mind, but that’s got its own problems. Did you see Pres Obama crying? I sure as hell hope he plans to stay the course, and I think many in the US are determined to. Thanks for stopping by and I do hope to hear the Aussie POV as often as you care to share it! Best wishes.

  5. says

    When my youngest child went off to college, I immediately set up a home office for myself in her bedroom. When she took off a year after her sophmore year, she rented an apartment nearby and took a job at Home Depot. That year she learned invaluable lessons about the “Real World,” went back to college, and did better that ever.

    No Empty Nest Syndrome here. It was wonderful to see my daughter become the mature, responsible, and thoughful young woman that she is today.

    • says

      Madeleine, I can’t answer you. I’m just overwhelmed with the Newtown shooting. I am so pissed at Congress and the NRA I can barely keep myself from making threats myself.

      • says

        Lynne, I understand. Everytime there is a shooting like this, I wonder whether finally we will join together and say that, as a nation, we have to put a stop to such shootings. Is this what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment to the Constitution?

        • says

          I’m just dying, thinking about the parents. I babysit a 7-month old every day, and his 2-yr-old sister once a week. All I can think of is their parents in this situation. Who in our country is going to protect the children? They have no lobbyists.

      • says

        Well said, Lynne. But we have to be the lobbyists, demanding restrictions on some weapons. If enough of us speak out, change can and will happen. Susan in Texas where everyone is NOT packing heat!

  6. says

    My whole life has been a series of crises, sometimes of the same nature and sometimes different–no big deal when taken into the context of the big picture. I do miss my kids a bit, but them leaving has freed up bedrooms to be turned into office spaces for my wife and I. I don’t think I particularly like to see any of them come back to live with us. If they did I’d be afflicted with “Lost Office Space Syndrome”.

  7. says

    I went through what I call a “Menopause” crisis a few years ago and bought a little red Mazda Miata convertible. The crisis was really that my other car died and I decided I didn’t really need a mom car anymore. It’s been a fun four years, but I’m over it and ready for a car that doesn’t make me groan when I get out of it. :)

    Great post – thanks!

    • says

      I’ve always yearned for a Miata. I remember when they came out. Oh, the ocean-themed one! And the “Merlot” edition! But rented one once and had to put half my luggage in the shotgun seat. Plus you could drive it under an 18-wheeler, it’s so short! But dang, so cute and fun!

  8. says

    I’m sure that there is truth in Laura’s observation about some (perhaps many) divorced and widowed women not having much time after the kids leave home. But in the case of my wife, obviously not divorced or widowed, after raising 4 kids, there was indeed an empty nest syndrome, and what characterized the syndrome was unabashed and overwhelming JOY!

    • says

      LOL Martin! The researcher did acknowledge that there might be a sense of sadness, but no study ever showed a significant uptick in dysfunction due to the kids leaving. As you point out, maybe a bit too much drinking and partying afterward, though!

  9. says

    I do agree that in most cases the brain learns to integrate both side in order to function well, I disagree with the empty nest syndrome as applying to every one in these days and times. Most women I know don’t have the time to just go out and do what they want when the children leave home. They are too busy trying to survive. Divorce and widowhood have left too many struggling. We don’t seem to have the safety nets that were enjoyed by our mothers.
    Laura

    • says

      You’ve made a lot of good points, Laura. Also, last night at my critique group, a retired psychologist begged to differ strongly on that assertion that midlife crisis is a hoax. My point was that, per Barbara Strauch’s summation of the research and researchers, crisis occurs as often in this age group as any other, but not any more often. And yes, for the group you reference, having the kids move out might improve a mother’s budget.

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