Musing On the Aging Brain

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I recently finished up the last season of The Crown and it got me thinking about change and the natural tendency of the human brain to cling on to personal convictions; its aging inability to form new connections and evolve with time. Specifically, I was ruminating about how the queen (as depicted by the show’s writers and producers) refused or was unable to reconsider her convictions and way of being to accept the changes of the current times. For instance, being so steadfast and determined on the necessity of the royal yacht being renovated when, clearly, the population of England was not down to pay for that luxury. We can just spiral into a psychological rabbit hole considering all the factors surrounding what The Crown is presenting, so in order to get to my point, I will throw out my other thought of late: How do I keep my mind elastic like I try to keep my body elastic through yoga? Is it possible?

According to an article in Science1, there are a number of reasons why we start to be “set-in-our-ways”, so to speak, and why we cling more to the past and those stored memories. While I am far, far from an expert on such a topic, my take from it was that our “speed of processing” plummets; it becomes harder to recall long-term memory (think “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon); source memory begins to fail; working-memory – “mental horsepower: the raw mental energy to take in and manipulate information"1 – crashes; and attention switching and suppression declines, etc., etc. In a nutshell, it seems that much of the work done by the prefrontal lobes doesn’t get done as we age, or just slows down to quite a low rate as compared to those that are decades younger. However, studies have shown that we do become more emotionally stable and positive as we grow older, so that is awesome.

I often attribute my mode of transportation – a Vespa scooter – as a largely contributing factor to my frustrations of immediacy, of speed, in our society. Just this week alone, I have come close to witnessing six head-on collusions due to the driver of a large vehicle’s need to get around me and to where they are going “right *now*” and completely disregarding the oncoming drivers desire to continue living. But the thing is, I too am subject to that sense of speed, annoyance and personal immediacy as soon as I set butt into the seat of my Scion IQ. It is as if any existence outside of my little box fails disappears and I simply *must* get to the co+op and buy bananas. On my scooter, I have no choice but to be slower and much more aware of my surroundings. However, I often take a step back and attribute that slowed down feeling to age. We live in a society and world which places so much importance on the immediacy to things - Amazon purchases, responses in conversation, iced matcha lattes, large scale policy changes – that we are blinded to the importance of taking time to get things done and allowing ourselves to fall into our default mode network, which allows us to reframe our ideas, generate new ones and process information in the broader scale necessary in making a well-informed conclusion or hypothesis.2

Discussing my fear of my calcifying mind with my parents, my father mentioned that his belief that one of the activities to keeping that rut of thinking from becoming too deep that at an older age our wheels are stuck (though, according to scientists, the aging mind and its plummeting in operation is inevitable and I have accepted that) was continuing to keep your reading intake broad and varying; openly diving into works of words that is not quite in line with one’s own convictions. I agree with him. I also believe that during that act of reading a long-form piece of literature also provided us with the space to fall out of our conscious mind and into our default mode networks. It slows us down, removes the distractions flashing at us and allows us to dip into that default mode network thinking. It provides us with the space and time to intake information and ideas and reframe our thinking and perception of the world and its inhabitants. It helps us to keep our mind more elastic and fluid in thinking. It helps us from being steadfast in our belief that spending the countries taxes on renovating a royal yacht may not be the best allocation of funds, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate all that the person who holds that belief has done for us.

So, I suppose I shall end with my same, monotonous salutation: Keep reading; keep your mind flexible.

-Samantha Hanchett, Marketing + Outreach Coordinator

*Please note that the opinions of “Thoughts” are just that and do not necessarily represent the views of the Thomas County Public Library.

1Laura Helmuth. “All in Your Mind.” Science of Aging Knowledge Environment, vol. 2003, issue 8, 2003, pg. ns3.

2Leonard Mlodinow. “Your Elastic Mind.” Psychology Today, 07 April 2018.


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