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.

You Look MAHvelous

I was standing in a mini-mart the other day waiting to pay for gas, and the beautiful young woman in front of me was complaining to the cashier that even though she’s 30, she always gets carded. I said, “It’s because you’ve got a face like a peach.” It just flew out of my mouth, and then I was glad, because she got it. The girl’s eyes got real big and her mouth opened in this gigantic smile as she thanked me. For a second I thought she was going to hug me.

Recently I was walking out of an office and a woman was walking in, and we held the doors for each other and then laughed, and as I went through, I told her the truth:  “You look wonderful.” She did. She had gone to a lot of trouble on her hair and makeup, and her outfit and jewelry were to die for. “Thank you,” she said, beaming. I think when you hand someone a spontaneous, honest compliment like that, it’s so unexpected that you get extra mileage out of it. Maybe that’s because the recipient knows in her gut that a total stranger wouldn’t say that unless it was sincere.

I read about this a long time ago, in a now-defunct magazine called “Lears – for the Woman Who Wasn’t Born Yesterday.” The writer said she was standing on a street corner in NYC, and this woman marched up, dressed to the nines, very tall, very put together, quite intimidating. Everybody was watching her, and her eyes were narrowed, as if daring someone to whistle. She stopped next to the writer, who said, “You look magnificent!” The tigress melted.

Of course we’re afraid to compliment strangers. It’s a weird old world out there, so we’re more guarded, but I think that makes it even nicer when it happens. Go ahead, take a chance. Tell another woman she looks great. Say it with conviction and a smile. Yes, it takes a bit of courage, but why not generate a burst of positivity in the world? The worst she can do is ignore you. The best that can happen is that you’ll feel great about yourself all day long.

Cougars vs. Leopards

Are you a leopard or a cougar? You’ve never heard of a woman being referred to as a leopard? Me neither. Here’s the def from Urban Dictionary, with my comments interspersed in bold:

NOT an “urban cougar” but still a single or divorced woman 35 to 55 (why the upper age limit? Do we just become unsexed at 56?), intelligent, successful, educated, secure in herself, her looks and her life. She enjoys the company of men on her terms. She does not seek younger men, older men or even men her own age. They seek HER. These women are far, far classier than the trashy “cougar” (oh, stop with the hokey women-to-women conflicts.) They do not frequent bars for pick ups, hook ups or anything other than a drink and some company with their girl friends. They do not hide their ages (unless they’re over 55?) or their attitudes and are impatient with obvious come ons. Mostly solitary, they are very, very difficult to hunt, hence “leopardess”. Katherine Hepburn would have been the Ultimate Urban Leopard(ess). You might call them a MILF if you want to get slapped (good; I was wondering when we’d stop using that insulting acronym). Also called a leopardess or quite simply, a grown woman.

“Dude. Don’t. That’s no cougar. That’s a leopard. She will smack your ass and send you home to Mommy.” –overheard in a bar

Lynne again. I can’t believe we even use terms like cougar, leopard, and MILF. As if our worth is still being defined only within the context of our f#*kability. What about all the other outstanding, magical aspects of our existence? Like creativity, productivity, love, heroism, practicing a profession, saving the country, raising kids, caring for parents, running corporations, running for office…

On a Lighter Note, Can Old People Learn?

I’m laughing about how a friend recently had a run-in with a younger person. This younger person expressed doubt that older people could learn new things.

Yes, old people can learn, if they think it’s important. If, say the “old gal” is a public school teacher and she’s being asked to learn yet another package of cross-your-fingers curriculum to improve test scores, handed to her by a central office administration that hasn’t even bothered to determine whether or not this newest package is effective…well, the old gal might just tell you – and she likely WILL tell you, because this ain’t her first beauty contest – what she thinks of the new effort. Can she learn? Most certainly. Will she make the effort? Maybe not.

Rather than throwing up their hands in ageist defeat, today’s employers might find it more effective to demonstrate the value of the new thing to the older workers.

Hey, that sounds familiar. Isn’t that what they’re saying about the millennials?