January 30, 2013

The Wisdom Paradox: Can We Get Smarter?

In 2006 author Elkhonon Goldberg wrote Wisdom Paradox, a book about how our minds can grow stronger as our brains grow older. I was unaware of the book until a few readers mentioned in in comments about an earlier post. Since then I have read Mr. Goldberg's work and found a lot to think about.

Wisdom Paradox is not a simple read. The author spends a good portion of the book on very detailed aspects of how our brain works, the interplay between the left and right hemispheres and what happens in all that grey matter as we age. Frankly, when his descriptions became better suited for a med student I skimmed those pages. But, there was plenty left to raise questions about some assumptions most of us make: that our mind goes into an inevitable decline as we get older. We lose memory function, we are vulnerable to dementia and Alzheimer's, and we become unable to learn new things.

Mr. Goldberg does his best to cast serious doubt on those contentions.  He leaves the reader feeling a new sense of hope and excitement about the future. Old age doesn't have to equal decay and loss. The mind has every possibility of becoming stronger and remaining vital. But, importantly, it changes how it does what it does.

To set the stage, here are several direct quotes from Wisdom Paradox:


"I wage a never ending war on stasis (def. standing still)

A life too settled is no longer a life but an afterlife

A mind isn't necessarily weaker or strongest than when we were younger..it is just different

We have an increasingly strong feeling that life is a feast, not a struggle.

Life is not a one way street of decay.

The aging of the mind has its own triumphs that only age can bring

Being at peace with oneself is an attribute of normal aging,geriatric depression is not."


I feel better already! Mr. Goldberg states that there are undeniable negative changes that occur in the brain as we age. Importantly, they can be balanced with increased competence and wisdom. Our memory and mental focus decline with age. That is true. But, it is also quite normal for our wisdom and competence to grow.

How? Our brain is used differently. He says, "The right hemisphere is more important in our youth but as we age the left hemisphere dominates. That is the side of the brain that builds upon experiences and patterns and allows us to more quickly come to conclusions and decisions, to possess wisdom. The left hemisphere also activates during positive emotions and it withstands the decay of age much better than the right hemisphere." 

The key to making the most of this shift in which side of our brain is more dominant is to engage in vigorous mental activity. Mr. Goldberg's studies shows such use does change the brain in positive ways by increasing the number of new neurons in certain areas of the brain. We have been lead to believe that our neurons are dying off by the millions, only to be replaced by...nothing. Not true. Rather, we form new neural pathways our entire lifetime. 

To scientists a startling fact is emerging: lifelong mental activities is sufficient to counteract the effects of an brain condition where dementia became evident. That is great news. While not true in all cases, many of us have the ability to delay or defeat the obvious effects of dementia.


An active mind?
His conclusion is simple: regardless of our age, we must continue to test our mind and strive for new mental challenges. Our brains get older, but our abilities to make the most of our accumulated wisdom and experiences get stronger. It is up to us to take advantage of that fact. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" isn't true for pets or people.

You don't have to learn a new language, re-build a '57 Chevy, or write the great American novel for this to work. Changing simple daily routines is enough to start your new neurons firing. Read an hour a day instead of watching TV, go for a walk around your neighborhood and take note of front yards you've never noticed before. Your mind is built for change, any change.

As the author says, "a mental comfort zone is a mental stagnation zone." If we don't continually learn and try new things, we have missed a built-in system designed to keep us mentally on top of our game.

This is rather exciting news!

21 comments:

  1. Sounds like it comes down to "Use it or lose it!"

    Interestingly, I've always been curious why my brain is so tired when I leave one of my active learning classes at the university. Perhaps it's because its been hard at work creating new neurons? If so, I like that!

    I've heard that most humans generally use no more than 10% of their brain capacity in their lifetime, which I find oddly comforting. As I go about learning new mental tasks (currently that list would include learning Spanish, playing a new instrument, learning Sudoko and playing bridge), I remind myself that there is no reason why I can't excel at my new challenge. It's simply not possible to exceed our mental capacities in one lifetime!

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    1. Like you I have always heard the 10% brain use statement. But, recently there have been scientists say that is simply a myth and untrue. Their research shows we use much more everyday.

      Until I read this book I had no idea of the different rate of decline between the two brain hemispheres and why that occurs. Our mind is an unbelievable piece of engineering.

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  2. I have to read this book! it will give me hope and a positive view for the future.I want to live to 100 anything else is gravy sooooo I need to keep my brain functioning....Although my personality is already a combo of Aunt Clara and Endora hmmm didn't see that coming lol

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    1. The book is not an easy read...feel free to skim the very detailed parts. But, it is quite encouraging about our innate ability to keep ourselves functioning at a high level.

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  3. Just curious, did this book talk about the role of physical exercise and brain vitality? Other studies will say that physical activity is more important than suduko or crosswords or brain games, etc... Also, diet and sleep have been touted as helpful for brain health...did the author talk about those at all? I'm sure all are good for our brains but is there really just one key to keeping our brains functioning...or many?

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    1. Frankly, Jane, I don't remember for sure but I don't think so. This book was quite narrowly focused on the actual status of the parts of the brain and the changes affect our mind and how it works throughout our life.

      Like you, I have read of the positive effects on physical activity, diet, and sleep on the brain; that just wasn't the author's focus.

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  4. Good to know! Thanks for the review Bob. I've always felt a need to learn new things, now I see it's definitely in my best interest.
    b

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    1. Assuming his premise is correct, your brain is actually built for learning new things and applying that information to everything else we know throughout our life. That is good news.

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  5. I'm working on a presentation I have to give on humanitarian aid. I thought about dropping out of this Great Decisions discussion group because I really didn't want to work so hard. Guess I'd better get busy!

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    1. Buckle down, Linda. Sit outside in the glorious Tucson sunshine and think!

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  6. I've always been an advocate of the "Use it or lose it" school of thought, previously mentioned. However, I pair it with the analogy of the brain as though it were a muscle. The less you use it, it is so much more likely to atrophy. And when you do "exercise" it, the more variety of uses and flexing, the better. Even when watching the few television programs that we do watch (e.g. Downton Abbey, NCIS), my wife and I enjoy critiquing the show after - or even during. Though i am more of an introvert, I no longer bemoan the mental exhaustion I feel after a social gathering full of conversation, but instead savor the quiet, regenerating time that allows me to ponder any and all "mental stretching" that I hope I have achieved.

    I agree with other contributors here that (optimally) getting out of one's mental comfort zone via discussions and exploration of life's possibilities is vital to a vital life, be it youngish or oldish.

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    1. I really like Mr.Goldberg's line about a life too settled is not a life but an afterlife. Physically, I am probably not able to walk 15 miles anymore. But, mentally, I have 63 years of wisdom and experience to use to keep my mind stretched.

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  7. I always find it interesting when I hear about both mental and physical decay in humans over time. While I have never ascribed to that theory, I am not completely foolish when it comes to the physical part of my body. It is and will continue to break down, no matter how much I try to stave it off. But the mental side is very different. Barring injury or disease the brain is able to continually expand its capabilities at any age. I have found "brain-dead" individuals at all ages, and I have found extremely viable and engaging individuals, again at all ages. We have our own mental well-being in the palm of our own hands. If you have activities that expand your brain, at any level, it will expand. If you actively take measures to hurt your brain (excessive TV, limited exercise, drug or alcohol abuse, etc) you will pay the price in diminished mental capacity. You truly hold your mental abilities in the palm of your own hand.
    I'll have to pick up the book. Thanks, Bob.

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    1. I really enjoyed his insight on how the two hemispheres are used differently as we age. The way we process and use input in our youth is used by our mind as fodder for our older years. Fascinating.

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  8. I do so want to read that book. I haven't downloaded it yet but plan to when (if ever) I finish the book about Benjamin Franklin by Isaacson. I am almost there and really love every page.

    This is a great review Bob. Just saying!

    Be sure to take a look at the Ted Talk: Media and Children (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=BoT7qH_uVNo)

    For some reason I feel like these two are related.

    b+

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    1. Thanks for the Ted link. I am rarely disappointed by the quality of speaker or topic at TED.

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  9. I recognized the truth of this over 20 years of teaching. As I got older, my students got smarter, but I got wiser. Along with the science explained in this book, I've also read about studies showing that meditation creates healthy brain activity. There is much we can do to keep our brains and bodies as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

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    1. There is a world of difference between being smart and being wise. I'll choose the latter every time.

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  10. My favorite quote, "We have an increasingly strong feeling that life is a feast, not a struggle" sums up how I feel about retirement life. When we were younger and working, our focus was on completing a task, finding a solution, or producing a desirable outcome. We exhausted our minds towards a singular goal of achievement. Now, we get to think and ponder the entire universe at our leisure. To waste that opportunity would be foolish indeed.

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    1. Yes, indeed, Suzanne. Retirement really does allow for an important change of perspective and seeing life as a feast is one of the most important.

      I hope things are going well for you and Malcolm. I read on another blog that you are enjoying journaling instead of blogging. Good for you, though I miss your published thoughts!

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  11. Gandhi got it right again didn't he

    “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

    So many of us resist change at every occurrence but as you and I have repeated pointed out "Change" is our friend.

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