Open Book

Older and Wiser?

A neuroscientist shares his findings about aging

Magazine Issue
November/December 2005
Older and Wiser?

The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older
By Elkhonon Goldberg
Gotham Books. 337 pp. ISBN: 1-592-40110-4

Folded into the medical and psychology sections of bookstores these days is a new subcategory: aging. This is a piece of bookstore real estate certain to grow as the baby boomers (denizens of a rare demographic niche who still read books) try to fortify themselves against the prospect of inevitable decline. Many of these books say the same things –stay active, eat smart, take arcane supplements, and keep cognitively sharp (use your brains). But the research behind all this often seems a little suspicious: more promotion than science. Still, I find these books hard to ignore. It’s so tempting to think there might be something positive to discover, howsoever small, in the aging game.

Now a new book called The Wisdom Paradox by neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg has come along, pushing neither supplements nor cognitive tricks, but filled with fascinating science and some new ways of viewing the aging process. In his late fifties, Goldberg is facing the questions looming for all of us once we pass the mid-century mark: Can I keep myself in tip-top shape mentally? Is it all going to be downhill from here?

At the start of his book, Goldberg describes submitting himself to a full-brain MRI to take an unsparing look at what’s happening to his own gray matter as he ages. The results are neither terrible nor particularly pleasing. His cortical sulci (the walnut-shaped convolutions furrowing the surface of his brain) and ventricles (the inside spaces, filled with fluid) are declared to be normal in size, but, to Goldberg’s expert eye, both appear larger than they should be, suggesting brain atrophy. Also, two tiny areas of increased signal intensity indicate some brain-cell loss, particularly in the white matter–the long nerve pathways that connect distant parts of the brain. Despite reassurances from his doctors, Goldberg is convinced that he sees the signs of the mild brain damage characteristic of an aging brain.

One part of him is upset, perhaps unduly so (this part he calls “neurotic”). But the scientist and professor in him wants to transform his hypervigilance into something useful for the lay public. The book that resulted from this impulse is both a personal journey and a tour of the latest neuroscience.

During the last couple of decades, popular neuroscience has evolved into a series of oversimplifications: the left hemisphere of the brain is the language center; the right hemisphere is the more visual, intuitive, and holistic portion. Goldberg cuts through these boiled-down constructs to give a fuller explanation of how the brain really works.

In particular, Goldberg focuses on detailing how the hemispheres complement each other, with the left hemisphere specializing in pattern recognition while the right processes our experience of novelty. When you were a child, you learned language first through the right hemisphere, where new information is processed, before it shifted left. All new learning proceeds this way–information first enters the right hemisphere, and then a pattern is formed and the left hemisphere kicks in. As we age, our mental functions are increasingly left brained, because we gain a larger neural library of references. And the good news for aging baby boomers is that these left-brain centers are more resilient and less subject to decay.

Aging undertaken with an active mind reinforces pattern recognition. If we’ve acquired information throughout our early years, as we age, we can employ a vast neural network in the service of solving practical problems, as evolution fashioned us to do. This is what we call wisdom, which Goldberg describes as competence raised to a higher power–it’s the ability to connect new information with existing information patterns.

Genius is different. According to Goldberg, it’s the ability to reveal and grasp “undiluted novelty in its purest form.” The quality of genius often dazzles; geniuses can flame out or die young (just look at poets like Shelley, Keats, and Byron). Einstein was in his mid-twenties when he came up with the theory of relativity, and he’d visualized the thought experiments he based this theory on in his teens. After revolutionizing physics, he spent the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to find a unified-field theory. Physicists now say that Einstein wandered for years as a mature scientist. But when it came to politics and ethics, the aging Einstein was considered the embodiment of wisdom and authority.

The rest of us who aren’t geniuses can still hope for a little wisdom built upon pattern recognition. Here’s a simple example of the pattern recognition that underlies wisdom. When you scan the headlines in your newspaper, you often don’t have to read the story to know what it’s about. But total news novices would have to read every word if they wanted to get the meaning of a story (just think how clueless your kids are with these same headlines).

Reading the paper is a lower order of competence, but wisdom works the same way, at a much higher level. A wise person recognizes a new situation as a variation of an old one. Wisdom is a gift of aging, but you have to earn it by feeding your brain stimulating ideas and concepts. And here’s some more good news on that front: your brain can keep working at the height of its powers, even if memory and concentration begin to fade. A well-reported study of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minnesota, focused on nuns who lived mentally rich, stimulating lives well into old age and appeared to have been spared Alzheimer’s disease. But when the brains of some of them were examined after their deaths, doctors actually found signs of the disease. How had the nuns managed to retain their mental powers, despite their neurological damage? It appears that they’d been protected from Alzheimer’s ravages by the vigor of their minds.

The ability of the brain to function at a high rate in spite of diminished capacity explains why political leaders are often older yet still high-functioning, like Churchill or, if you’re so disposed, Reagan. Goldberg calls top-functioning elders “eroding but powerful minds.” Churchill was nearly 65 when he began guiding Britain through World War II. He wrote his great literary works–a multivolume history of World War II and the History of the English-Speaking Peoples–for the most part in his seventies and eighties, even winning a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Goldberg also addresses the question of what pattern recognition and novelty have to do with the fact that positive emotion is processed in the left hemisphere and negative emotion in the right. Using evolutionary psychology as his guide, he speculates that the search for novelty located in the right hemisphere is linked with discontent. Goldberg asks us to imagine Magellan or Columbus on Prozac; they’d have been so placid, they wouldn’t have boarded their ships and discovered anything! Young people   also are often discontent, which causes them to strive for more. Goldberg’s observation doesn’t explain extremes or mental disorders among the young: it only suggests that a baseline of dissatisfaction comes with youth, to the benefit of the species.

Furthermore, says Goldberg, research shows that, as we age, positive emotions become more pronounced: we mellow, as the saying goes, unless depression disturbs this natural scenario. He writes: “Being at peace with oneself is the attribute of normal aging: geriatric depression is not.” This section is the trickiest part of the book, and the least convincing because, despite the good news that we appear to be wired to feel better and gain competence as we age, Goldberg seems to gloss over the prevalence of so much depression and distress among the elderly–as if they are just an anomalies that wouldn’t happen if we took better care. He considers mental acuity and contented aging as the standard.

Therapists may see a different reality among their patients and clients who feel more hopeless and depressed. Goldberg clearly suggests that those who haven’t been mentally agile throughout their lives will end up with decayed minds, which may account for some of the negative feelings. Not a cheery thought for millions entering into their golden years.

To apply his findings and respond to the concerns of his patients, Goldberg has started a cognitive-enhancement clinic at New York University. His program employs personal cognitive trainers and computer exercises. Unlike the positive psychologists, who glorify strengths, Goldberg tells his patients to work on their weaknesses. Physical rehabilitation specialists know that they should work on strengthening atrophied muscles. Rather than avoiding damaged areas by overworking surrounding, healthier tissue, they get their patients to exercise what needs to be exercised. Goldberg says to regard your mind in the same way. Simply put: if you’re weak in math or memory, do math drills and use memory techniques. For him, strengths don’t compensate for weaknesses when it comes to mental acuity (as they might in terms of character).

Unfortunately, Goldberg gives us nothing in the way of tangible examples. I suppose wisdom dictates he not give away his program for the mere price of a book, although a few examples would have been helpful. True, his take-home message is similar to other works in this growing field: keep your mind in shape and it’ll pay off later. But his book is carefully researched and delivered with authority. We aren’t born to be sages; we have to work at it all our lives. That’s good news for some and a kick in the butt to those who spend dull days at work and recline in front of their TVs at night. But in the end, it’s a hopeful message: wisdom isn’t just the delusion of the old who want to feel valued; it’s the neural gift of our species, if we live sensibly. We just have to tend to the three pounds of meat at the top of our spines.

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.