From the brain’s perspective, life is like a roller coaster with one big rise, followed by a long, slow decline. But we have the capacity to change that.
The roller coaster analogy comes from American Dr Michael Merzenich, who’s now in his late 70s.
He says we climb the rise in the first two or three decades of life as we develop the skills and know-how to live in society. But once that’s done, the learning curve tapers off and for most of us our brain slowly wanes over the next five or six decades.
This isn’t so much about age-related degeneration as not keeping our brains sharp.
As a young man Dr Merzenich led a team that developed one of the world’s first cochlear implants.
That experience reinforced to him that the brain is ‘plastic’ or malleable — a deaf person learns to make sense of sound and speech by the brain remodelling itself.
In 2013 he published a book called Soft-Wired, to underline that the brain isn’t hard-wired or fixed.
He warns that retirement can be a time when we let our brain slide. While socialising, traveling, doing an adult ed course or minding the grandkids keeps us busy, it’s probably within our level of proficiency and we might need to do more to dial-up our brain.
He points to driving as an example of the way we can lose capacity and not notice. He says that while young drivers have accidents because they find it hard to reign in their attention and focus on what’s in front of them, older drivers make mistakes because their focus is purely on what’s in front of them.
Moreover, older drivers assume the problem is everyone else because we don’t appreciate what’s happening.
His point is that it’s easy to get into a rut and lose the flexibility of not only our vision, but our thinking, behaviour and brain function generally.
If this happens our lives can lose a bit of lustre, and we can find ourselves feeling less confident, less lively or even less happy.
So how can we remodel our brains to improve their agility? It starts with awareness and here are six suggestions based on Dr Merzenich’s work.
First, back to driving, we can try to stay mindful of what’s around us as well as ahead. (As a sidenote, Dr M says that after driving somewhere he tries to retrace the route in his mind, to tune up his memory.)
Peripheral vision is relevant to walking too. Plenty of us tumble over a gutter because we were chatting or stopped to pat a dog, so it helps to practice doing something like that while staying aware of our surroundings.
We can also switch up the routes we take to drive or walk rather than putting our brain in neutral and going the usual way. (On that, travel writer Jenny Herbert has released a book called The Art of Being a Tourist at Home, on rediscovering the places we live in.)
Second, we can practice being present generally. We’re often in la-la land going about our daily lives, and exercise is a good example. We get far more benefit from a movement when we have our attention on our body and what it’s doing.
Third, it’s important to notice whether we keep ourselves in our comfort zones by avoiding new experiences. If we get into the habit of telling ourselves that we’re too old for a lot of things that quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fourth, we can learn skills that will tap into different parts of our brain: a musical instrument, a language, pottery. Dr Merzenich does those big, hard jigsaw puzzles.
He’s also developed a website called Brainhq which provides activities that improve aspects of our brain fitness such as memory, focus and attention. Luminosity is another one. These are like gym workouts for the brain.
Fifth, we can bring awareness to our use of technology. For example, social media lets us feed our minds on opinions that match our own. Why do the hard work of researching a topic or reading long articles when a short scroll on Twitter can tell us what to think?
As much as it’s challenging to grapple with changing technology, it’s also worth noticing where technology takes over the mind work for us. For instance, it’s easy to not bother remembering how to get somewhere and just rely on the GPS. (And how much must screen use contribute to that narrowness of vision Dr Merzenich was talking about?)
Sixth, we can try to stay open and curious. By the time we reach middle-age most of us have firm ideas and opinions about everything and everyone. How many of us make an effort to really examine an issue from different perspectives or ask questions? How often do we open ourselves to being wrong and changing our mind?
Dr Merzenich describes the way older people can turn into a caricature of their younger selves. In their youth they were considered strong-minded; in their old age they can be stubborn, self-centred and insensitive.
None of this applies to everyone, and it certainly shouldn’t be another area where we feel like we’re not doing enough. But especially if life’s become a bit same-old-same-old, it’s food for thought.
Dr Merzenich is adamant that we don’t need to spend those last five or six decades on the downward slope, and that we can be continuously growing richer, more interesting and vibrant lives.