Your Middle Age Brain: Brilliant and Ridiculous All At Once

This is the first in a series of four posts celebrating the aging brain.

I’m looking for my glasses, but I can’t find them because they’re on my head. So I find my backups and try to put them on, but discover I’m already wearing a pair.

I would feel stupid except at times, I feel downright brilliant. This has probably happened to you, too. Maybe you’re listening to a younger person explain a problem at work or you’re reading an article in the news, and suddenly all the facts connect and you come up with such an awesome solution you want to call the Nobel commission.

Except you don’t quite trust what happened, because only yesterday you came home from the grocery store and put the bananas in the hamper. Maybe what you’re having is some kind of brain flair before the cells die. You never shine so brightly as just before, you know - pffffft.

Stop worrying. Both things really are happening. New research confirms that you’re both more addled and more brilliant than ever before in your life.

If you’re a typical middle-aged* person, the glasses and bananas are real, and so is the intellect.

The science of the aging brain is quite new; conclusions being drawn just in the past few years prove that we have more to be excited about than ever. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told brain cells only died; none were regenerated. However, that has now been proven false. The brain DOES produce new cells, primarily in the area relative to memory.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a great new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, author (and science editor for the NY Times) Barbara Strauch produces tons of evidence that, while our older brains definitely have some weaknesses, they also develop amazing, surprising, even beautiful workarounds. In fact, the older brain is gearing up, not slowing down. All during December I’ll be telling you what I learned, and – plagiarism alert! – excerpting heavily from her book. That’s because I can’t say it any better than Barbara did.

Here’s some good news: in older age, you’re smarter. This is because you’ve accumulated such a wealth of data, and the human brain has a special talent: deduction. Per Ms. Strauch:

The brain builds strength (over a lifetime) by building up millions upon millions of patterns, allowing us to “recognize even vaguely similar patterns and draw appropriate conclusions.”

One researcher, E. Goldberg, calls it “mental magic.”

“Frequently,” says Goldberg, “when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary. The solution comes effortlessly, seemingly by itself…I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight…”

According to Barbara Strauch, when faced with new information, the older brain might take longer to assimilate and use it. But faced “with information that in some way – even a very small way-relates to what’s already known, the middle-aged brain works quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical endpoint.”

This is an evolutionary triumph. We’re not called homo sapiens – thinking man – for nothing.

Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re more easily distracted and more likely to lose focus as we age. This is because as you get older, new information comes into the part of your brain that’s good at daydreaming. So when you’re trying to read a newspaper in Starbucks and somebody’s jabbering loudly on his cellphone and you can’t concentrate, it’s because the daydreaming mechanism is doing a crappy job of managing the new info.

You can mitigate this with discipline and practice, but you have to work on it. Personally, I think daydreaming is a treat, and I’m not sure I want to curtail it.

Next week: your brain actually becomes stronger as you age.

*Definition of middle age, per Barbara Strauch, is that long period between youth and old age. I like it. I like it a whole lot better than assuming you’re at the halfway point. Because as vibrant and kick-ass as I am, I’m sure as hell not going to make it to 116.

Comments

  1. says

    Lynne: Thanks for the info on cognition and the overview of Strauch’s book. I’m going to link this post to my GenAboveMe FB page. Because I taught college English for 30 years and because I still have a lot of friends who are professors and because I’m graduating in May after 3 years in a gerontology grad program, I get a lot of request for information about age-related changes to cognition. And this book looks like it will help expand my knowledge in this area. Thanks for sending me the link at the #GenFab FB page! Have a warm and cozy week.

    • says

      Karen, the Strauch book really impressed me because she doesn’t just pump out these happy little platitudes; she quotes dozens of authorities and cites the particular studies. So I felt it was pretty authoritative. Plus she’s the science editor for the NY Times so she’s around science a lot. Your blog is powerful, BTW.

    • says

      Smart move, Robin. The thing I really liked about this book was that the author gathered up tons of legitimate, long-time, comprehensive, respected research to back up her statements. So I felt it was real, and I could believe it. Good stuff.

    • says

      Haralee, it IS remarkable, and here’s a tidbit: we have more control over the amygdala and our emotions later in life, even though it’s more difficult! It’s why we don’t get sucked into drama so much anymore. Not only have we been there/done that, we’re cooler and calmer.

  2. says

    I completely agree with the concept that I am getting smarter as I age. Partly it’s because I’ve learned so much over the years, and partly I’m sure it’s because my bullshit detector is on high. I intend to keep learning as long as I’m alive. Also, the Sunday NY Times crossword is a great exercise each week!

    • says

      Hi Sharon, I’m going to do a separate post on this as part of my Fridays in December thing, but you actually can generate new brain cells, and they tend to grow in the hippocampus area (good for memory); the two things I remember off top of head that cause regrowth are exercise and brain challenge (ie crossword). Good job!

  3. says

    Fascinating, Lynne — thanks for doing what you’re doing to make us boomers feel better about getting older! So many of us are on “brain overload,” trying to juggle a little of this and a lot of that, that sometimes we find ourselves wondering if we’ve still got it. This new research seems to indicate that, despite the challenges, we do!

  4. says

    My husband and I sometimes argue over the silliest things because he is brilliant when I am daydreaming, and I am brilliant when he is ridiculous. Next topic — aging relationships!

    • says

      Donna, I hate when I’m trying to make a point to my husband about something he did wrong, and as I’m blathering, I suddenly see, in some weird place in my mind, that I do exactly the same things wrong. I don’t know if I found my soulmate, if I finally have the wisdom to see my own failings clearly, or if at this age I realize nobody’s good enough all the time, including me, and we should all just relax!

    • says

      I have more good news in the next three Friday posts, Kathy. We do have limitations but they’re manageable, and the good that comes from the changes really is a blessing. Thanks for saying hi, Sis. I miss you.

  5. cydmadsen says

    I bought that book in a hurry! Now I’ll turn on my Kindle in a few minutes and wonder where the new book came from :-) It’s nice to hear good news about my aging, addled brain. I don’t have too much trouble keep track of my glasses, but I do miss having my daughter around to point out I forgot mascara on one eye.
    Hmmm, the part of the brain involved with daydreaming. I must’ve sneezed out that part some time ago. For a long time I had no dreams of any kind, but that’s slowly returning. The first to return were night dreams, and it was a whopper. I saw a naked Elvis (from behind, thank God) standing on a windowsill with his arms held up to the sky, screaming, “Give me my sandwich! Give me my sandwich!” Lately I’ve been nurturing myself back to daydreams. If they’re anything like that first night dream, it could be fun. Ah, perchance to daydream…and remember a name.

    • says

      You crack me up, Cyd. But about daydreams…I find I can now sit quietly (when I have the chance, which is rare, dang it) and my brain is like a pleasant sieve. Things flow in and out, and nothing sticks unless I work at it. Bad for actually working on something – in that case I have to write things down and draw diagrams for myself. But good for relaxation.

  6. says

    I spent two minutes looking for my glasses that were on my face yesterday and then went down and conquered the crossword, so this makes perfect sense to me. Now, where are those bananas? :)
    Laura

  7. says

    There’s so much bogus information out there about aging and the brain. It’s harmful–in part because of the asumptions of other people–and in part because it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    I find that if I get stuck on a name from the past, I don’t force it. It’s there and will pop into my head shortly. My tongue-in-cheek theory is that all the info I’ve ever learned is on a mental rolodex. As the years go by, there’s more and more information, so it takes longer to retrieve.

    • says

      Hi Madeleine, good to hear from you! That bogus aspect is why I felt so good about this book. Barbara Strauch compiles results of research, and much of it is downright impressive, like the 40-year Seattle longitudinal study, or the “Nun Study.” So I feel her stuff is solid. BTW, she calls what you’re describing a TOT (Tip of the Tongue) experience; says it more often happens with names as opposed to common nouns, and happens less with occupational information. This is because the names are (to the brain) more arbitrary, whereas occupations automatically come with associative triggers. Ex: you might not remember the name of John the Accountant, but you’ll associate his face with accounting.

  8. says

    Now I know there’s hope for when I have my snazzy progressive lens glasses on and I try to put my computer glasses on over them while I look for the post-it note I had in my hand a moment ago. I’m waiting for the brilliant moment …

  9. says

    Great info, Lynne. I’ve been hearing about this in different places, and it makes such sense. Perhaps this is why “primitive” cultures valued their old people so much, why grandparents were relied upon and consulted regarding communal problems. Especially old women, I might add, since we usually live longer than the men. We cared for the children freeing up the younger women and men to forage and hunt. Sound familiar?
    Anyway, it’s very heartening. Looks like I can go right on writing novels for the next twenty years – if my eyes hold up. My mom is 94 and can no longer see well enough to read or write, but her hearing is better than mine. Hey, books on CD.

    • says

      And Kathryn, there’s something called the Grandmother Hypothesis wherein a certain gift of old age is considered to have evolved to preserve the tribe. It’s about regulating our emotions, and you can do this better with age. I’ll write about that – I think it’s the third Friday in Dec. but off top of my befuddled head, not sure! PS by the time you’re 94, we’ll be able to apply a Think Strip to our forehead, think the words, and see them appear on the screen. You won’t even need hands!

  10. says

    This confirms what I’ve been going through lately. I find that I have the answer to a question or a solution to a problem, but I’ve no idea how I figured out the answer or solution. Who knew that I was just brilliantly addled. Fascinating.

    • says

      It is interesting, isn’t it Ally? I’ve felt it too, and it’s magical! Unfortunately I have just as many befuddled moments, but I’ll take the good with the bad.

  11. says

    Hi Lynne,
    Enjoyed this post and I feel this brilliance happening often. Oh, the other day i wrote a blog post about “emergence” theory which is another way of looking at brains and connections etc. you would like it I think (Dec. 4 post: http://heddaplace.blogspot.com/) just sharing not plugging. . .

    • says

      Hedda, thanks for stopping by and for mentioning your link. I’m eager to check it out – going to be a few hours until I get the kids settled but I’ll save it for my coffee break. Welcome to AST.

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