Just when most people my age are convinced that they have already lost an excessive number of brain cells that can never be retrieved, new research about the aging brain tells us a very different story. The latest findings were reported in The New York Times on January 3, 2010, in “How to Train the Aging Brain” by Barbara Strauch. The article is most encouraging when Strauch says, “Many longheld views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, have been overturned.”
Strauch quoted several professors about the role adult education could play in helping us keep our brain connections and create even more. It seems that as we age we are better able to see “the big picture.” We don’t need courses that emphasize facts and data; instead we should hear points of view that challenge us to think differently or engage in activities that are not our usual fare. Strauch quotes professor emeritus Jack Mezirow as saying that presenting students with a “disorienting dilemma, or “something to help you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired” are the best ways to help older adults learn. Another professor, Kathleen Taylor, puts it this way. “As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses. We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up, and if you learn something this way, when you think of it again, you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”
It sounds like the best way to mix it up is to get out of our ruts, study something new but not so foreign that we can’t make connections to what we know, change our exercise routines, talk to someone we know who espouses a different political view (but set a time limit for this experiment), cook something we’ve never cooked before, or give up green beans and start to eat lima beans. Wait. Don’t get carried away. Not everything needs to change.