Growing a Greenhouse of Wisdom in Your Senior Brain
“Age is a question of mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
– Mark Twain
By the age of sixty, an Australian survivor of a WWII Japanese prison camp in Burma, where only one in three of his fellow soldiers lived through unimaginable ordeals, speaks fondly his three years there, the good things that happened and the friends that passed. “When you repeatedly recall the same details from a scene over and over again, you will start to forget other details from the same scene,” says neural researcher Dr. Maria Wimber. We remember what we repeatedly choose to recall. While the capacity to remember what we choose is ingrained, we reinforce or teach ourselves what to repeatedly recall and can re-train ourselves at any time. That most essential of all choices, what we think each millisecond, gives us free-will and runs herd on the beliefs that both filter perceptions and how we remember them. By the age of sixty the tag-team of life and choice have taught us the lessons we most need to learn, our personal set of golden rules.
While surviving a Holocaust death camp prisoner Viktor Frankl eked out small meanings in everyday camp life and noted that those who managed to do the same were those most likely to survive. Frankel went on to write the best-selling memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” establish a new branch of psychology, and conclude:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
As we learn to keep trying and trying again, each choice we make moves with force and momentum to shape our lives. By the time we’re seniors we’ve learned to avoid the potholes and stick to the smooth pavement.
”A child learns to walk and falls down 50 times. He never thinks to himself, ‘maybe this isn’t for me.’” – Anonymous
Over a lifetime, if we keep aiming to be better than we are, we might end up becoming the best in ourselves.
However, our thinking and remembrances is often compromised, sabotaged by self-deception that creates false memories, or torpedoed by negative “self-talk.” We can also be mislead by “introduced memory,” revisionist histories from an authority figure, the media, and/or our peers. Two witnesses seeing the same event often recall or even reconstruct their testimony quite differently. Through greater self-awareness, introspection, or “mindfulness,” we can defuse this minefield of erroneous thinking.
Natural Selection of Positive Thoughts
“The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door;
On her divine majority, Obtrude no more.” – Emily Dickinson
As any political pollster or network news producer can tell you, we constantly select information that agrees with what we already believe. Since most of us believe that good news is also good for us, as we get older we show a greater and greater preference for positive situations, people, and memories. So much so that this natural bias has a name – “the “positivity effect.” Psychologists also have a name for the internal conflict created by information that runs contrary to our beliefs – “cognitive dissonance.” We generally reject, or hazily ignore, news that causes “cognitive dissonance.”
“My mind’s made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” – Roy S. Durstine, 1945
Apart from what we choose to accept as true, the natural selection of what to remember takes place unconsciously, mostly while we sleep, and tends to reinforce what we already consider most important. A converse process, that also occurs during sleep, erases memories that we consider least important or detrimental to our well-being. Psychologist Laura Carstensen refers to these beneficial preferences, one for consolidation, the other for erasure, as part of the “Socioemotional Selectivity Theory.” Her research shows that, “as we age we become happier, more content, and have a more positive outlook on the world.”
To Be or Not To Be, Retired
“Retiring too early can hurt you.” – Esteban Calvo, sociologist
Yes, retiring too early can hurt you; retiring is ranked #10 of 43 of life’s most stressful events. In a 2013 study, from Careerbuider.com, sixty percent of workers over the age of 60 said they would look for a new job after retiring. They wanted to stay working. The same year a French research agency, INSERM, showed that the risk of dementia declines 3.2% for each additional year that seniors remain in the workforce.
Yet for those who remain cognitively active after retirement, these statistics do not apply. Seniors living longer than ever before need not feel doomed when forced from the workplace, but rather, they should welcome the chance to expand, take advantage of their ever-adapting minds, update their thinking, and realize new potentials. After all, they’ve learned healthy beliefs, how to change what they can, to say no, to let go, and take responsibility for their own and others well-being. With luck, they’ve gained some humor and a lightness along the way. From their achievements they’ve developed confidence. From the gratitude of just being alive or maybe near-death experiences, they’ve learned faith and humility. By comparison, learning to transition into meaningful and challenging activities that replace work should be a “walk in the park.”
But making the transition into this third stage of life with dignity is never a given. Strokes, diseases, accidents, bad habits, unhealthy thinking, genetics, and what we now know as “epigenetics” can thwart even the most saintly intentions. With epigenetic markers that turn our genes on and off we inherit both good and bad behaviors from our parents, their parents, and their parent’s parents. We also become imprinted with a new set of epigenetic tags during “critical periods,” or windows of early learning.
These molecular tags can stay with us for a lifetime. Or, with long-term effort these molecular attachments, that modify both behavior and physiology, can be deleted. Collectively, this long, long array of markers is called the “epigenome.” While the majority of molecules of this “epigenome” stay attached to our chromosomes, individual tags are designed to come and go, as the molecular basis of ongoing experiences and motivations. Generally, epigenetic modifications create beneficial adaptations, or “expressions” of our genes that serve us well for life. Some, however, create disease, and/or make us increasingly susceptible to physical and mental afflictions.
Nevertheless, with self-discipline we can add healthy and erase unhealthy epigenetic tags, and thus activate the genes we most want to express. At any time in life we can learn to overcome our obstacles, disease, and sometimes cancer. Surprising things happen. If we are weakened or maimed in one area, a surge of spirit might inspire us to compensate in other areas. “When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” – Helen Keller
So why is it that retirement is such a four-letter? We’ve spent a lifetime planning for it, working hard to achieve it; we’ve earned it, and best of all we’ve lived long enough to enjoy it. Why not welcome the chance? Have we succumbed to dependence on work to give us meaning and identity? Can we re-direct a lifetime of conditioned responses to work, to achieve, to perform? We can either worry about the half-emptiness of our cognitive functions that statistically might be in decline, or celebrate the half-fullness of insight and common sense that tell us we have so much more to learn and to give.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
― Confucius (551- 479 BC)
Growing Your Greenhouse of Wisdom
Whether you decide to retire or keep on working, make more money or less, the last third of life can be your richest. A rising mound of research shows that enriching your life with physical and mental activity, with passions, challenges, and possibilities increases your production of new neural stem cells! Somewhat less as we get older, but still, 700 neural stem cells are born everyday in your hippocampus!
“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain
At every stage in life, those newborn neural stem cells go where you direct them to go. Any effort, challenge, and/or passion that amps up neural activity not only causes greater numbers of neural stem cells to be born, but guides and nurtures those cells already in the process of development and heading to areas of greatest activity. The more exercise and mental effort you expend, the greater the percentage of these newborns will thrive and reach maturity in brain areas where they are most needed. The greater the number of new stem cells that make new neural connections and new circuits, the greater the basis for new beginnings and happinesses. This 24/7 neuroanatomical assembly line churns out precise and specific nerve cells, customized by the choices, thoughts and motivations that also make us individuals with free-will.
Several ways to promote new neurons, new connections, and keep growing a greenhouse of wisdom in your senior brain are:
- Enrich your life, enrich your mind with new experiences, learning, a wide range of activities, friends, loved ones, family, hobbies, and conversations.
- Know that you can maintain and improve brain health, grow new brain cells, and even develop new brain circuits.
- Exercise and Walk Regularly, with an effort that improves both circulation and willpower.
- Relax, Take a nap, you’ll feel refreshed and have a more vital second half of each day.
- Accept Imperfections; flaws are only human, within yourself and others.
- Create your own happinesses, little by little, being grateful for small rewards.
- Re-direct your “Cognitive Destiny” by applying yourself daily in challenging ways that may be strenuous but not considered “work.”
- Honor the strength and wisdom of your senior brain: it has evolved over a lifetime and adapted to give you and your loved ones the best years of your life.
Embrace the fact that as the senior brain matures it selectively forgets what it doesn’t need. Informational names and addresses, declarative nouns, and negative experiences can be forgotten and often are. It’s only natural. We’re older now and more selective about what’s important. We prioritize more, react less; we’ve learned patience. A lifetime of experience gives us broader perspective and vision. Our thinking becomes more independent with less need for validation. We’ve become our own mental coaches and personal trainers. Life has afforded us the luxury of growing wise in our own particular ways – so that we have a brainful of gifts to give back. Most importantly, we’ve learned that every moment counts, and that right now is the time to appreciate every one of them.