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.