No brain like an old brain. / by KirstenStudio

brain_map-182x300It is my understanding that science and the smart people (apparently young ones) who study it, tell us that as we earthlings age, our brains gradually decay. Our minds mature, and bit by bit, produce less neurotransmitters. From what I gather, these neurotransmitters are made up of important brain chemicals.

Said chemicals are super-critical because they allow your mind’s cells to communicate and perform a wide variety of functions. Another disadvantage to an aging cranium is the decrease in blood flow to the brain. This doesn’t help our situation either, since that blood brings a bunch of helpful nutrients and oxygen to those cells up top. We see the effects of all this internal routing and production (or therefore lack of, depending on how old you are) in details of our daily lives. As we get older we don’t always have the memory retention we once did. Making sense and remembering multilayered information becomes more challenging than it was when we were 20.

Depressed about your approaching golden years yet? What about your silver? According to the American Federation for Aging Research, cognitive abilities seem to be at their peak between ages 30 and 40 and people in their 50’s and 60’s may begin to see little signals that reveal they aren’t as quick or on top of it as they once were.

Of course, no need to get completely bummed. There are all sorts of nifty ways you can slow this decay way down. Maintaining healthy eating habits, regular exercise is a big one, the right supplements and so on, but that’s not what got me going down this road.

Today I’m more interested in the effect aging has on the creative part of my noggin. This is something much more precious to me than whether I’m going to remember my email address or if I can still decipher my monthly budget or my ancestory.com tree when I reach more mature years. (Of course now that my iPhone remembers everything for me, my retention may be even more doomed, but at least I'll have my super pocket computer to remind me!)

As a woman, society already provides me with a pretty powerful message that external beauty is an exclusive possession of youth. This I can chalk up to ageism and the trend of our current society (obviously there's a long history of obsession with youth, but it does seem to currently be at an all time high). Giving up my creative endeavors to fleeting moments of yesteryear, however, is far more difficult to swallow. I know our time here on earth is only temporary, but all I ask is for a few things to flourish. Selfishly, my imagination is one of them. For better or for worse, but I’d like to think for the better.

Unfortunately, I'm no doctor, so these references and quotes are from light reading here and there, but I did find pretty awesome information on our mind’s creative endurance. Wat first got me going on all this was a piece in the New Yorker written by a terrific writer named Malcolm Gladwell. The article entitled, Late Bloomers, Why do we equate genius with precocity, explores the popular idea that artists peak early. Malcolm Gladwell wrote “Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.” For people like me who have explored some wonderful creative avenues, but feel as though there is a lot more to experience and develop, this is comforting news. Mr. Gladwell comes up with some pretty remarkable artistic examples that produced, what some refer to as masterpieces, in their 50’s, 60’s and well beyond (ever hear of Alfred Hitchcock, Mark Twain, Daniel Defoe, Strauss, Bach, O’Keefe, Yates?). Malcolm Gladwell’s article goes into much more depth than what is here and is well worth the read, no matter what age you are.

While I was stuck on this aging creativity subject, I looked at some other blogs and studies. A guy named Paul Baltes of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin made a study of "wisdom". His test criteria contained qualities that included insight, sound judgment, a sense of proper perspective, and the ability to weigh opposing values and come up with solutions to problems. All were tools that he felt were used for creative organizational thinking. His findings were older people consistently out-perform younger people on the wisdom scale. Baltes study says, "In all areas of functioning in which age means more access to information, older people may be better off than young ones." It would appear that wisdom and experience, two hallmarks of the mid-life to late-life period, might contribute much to the mind's ability to find order in chaos thus fashioning new models of creative expression. Creativity in the human mind is a complex symphony performed by many "players". Another smart person, Marion Diamond, a neuroanatomist has done some research on the role of the brain's glial cells. One function of these cells is to support and nourish the neighboring neurons. But there appear to be a greater number of glia in the more creative brains and remain nearly unaffected by age. They are able to divide and renew their numbers (something that the age susceptible neurons can't do) and Diamond discovered them in her study of a portion of Albert Einstein's highly creative brain, meaning that they were thriving when he died in his late seventies. She concurs that the brain's "wonderful plasticity remains throughout life."

So just think of all that creative potential we can continue to bring to fruition throughout our lives. Today I’m editing, maybe in my 80’s I’ll paint and who knows after that. The possibilities are endless. Now I just need to get off this blog and do something!

Reference:

http://www.gladwell.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Baltes

http://www.craigbickhardt.com/graymatters.html

http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~psichi/diamond.htm

http://www.neuropsychiatryreviews.com/may06/einstein.html