Thursday, April 15, 2010
The Middle Aged Brain
Have you ever heard a middle aged person pause while trying to collect a thought, then say they just had a senior moment? I listened to a very interesting report on this subject on NPR's All Things Considered this evening. It seems that by the time we enter out twenties, our brains begin to lose processing speed, and eventually as we get into middle age, our brains drift off into a kind of day dream default mode. In other words, whenever our brains aren't taxed with trying to figure out a problem, we sort of go into automatic pilot and our minds wander. A good example of this phenomenon, is suddenly realizing you have been driving for 20 minutes, and you have no recollection of the turf you just covered. Your brain is so used to the task at hand, that it just automatically handles it, while you drift off into thought . This can seem scary when you realize what has just happened, but if an emergency arises, you brain just automatically brings you back into awareness.
Another effect of the aging brain, is that it becomes difficult to recall data, that isn't constantly update in your memory banks. A good example is remembering names. You would think that the brain stores familiar names all in one place, but no. It seem that an intelligence somewhat akin to Microsoft has engineered our brains, and bits and pieces of this information get stored in different places. When a middle aged person has to recall the name of someone they haven't seen in a while, they often can't recall the name, without some kind of memory prompting clue, to retrieve all of the different bits out of their various memory banks, and reassemble them for us. The memory isn't lost, it's just been shuffled around, and relocated in inconvenient places in our brains.
I experienced this first hand tonight. I have a CD of Johann Strauss Favorite Waltzes. While looking through my pile of CD's for something to listen to, I have come across this CD case several times, and have opened it up, only to find that he CD was missing. I thought it was lost forever. Tonight I opened it again, and suddenly it struck me that I had once listened to it years ago, in a portable stereo with a CD player in my master bathroom. The portable stereo had long ago been removed from the bathroom, and now resided out of sight in storage, where it was no longer played. Ahhh.........yes, I thought, that's where it is. I went to where the boom box was stored and flipped the CD open and there it was, a pristine CD recording of Strauss Favorite Waltzes. I pulled it out and transferred to the CD player in my computer room, and I am listening to it now even as I type. The Emperor Waltz is on right now, soon to followed by Overture to "Die Fledermaus" OP. 362, then onto visions of the shuttle coming in for docking in 2001 A Space Odyssey, as On The Beautiful Blue Danube, OP. 314 closes out the CD.
Getting older doesn't necessarily mean that we are slowly and inexorably drifting off into dementia, quite the contrary. Middle age brains are actually much better at some things than youthful brains. They are better at understanding a complex argument or situation, discerning if someone is a crook or a charlatan, managing finances and many other things. As we age, our brains may lose processing speed, and it may take more concentration to learn new things, but in many ways, our minds are sharper and more focused than when we were young.