Wednesday, December 9, 2015

How Aging Improves Brain Function

The New York Times reported recently that researchers have discovered significant differences in the way young people and middle-aged people process information and solve problems. When young people undertake a cognitive task, the part of the brain they activate tends to be "highly localize." Older people draw upon a broader spectrum of cognitive facilities when approaching the same task.
The researchers—who probably wish they were still young, so they could be doing something  more fun than looking at brain scans—have come up with a perversely inaccurate acronym for this phenomenon: HAROLD. This stands for "hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults." According to the article, most researchers agree this phenomenon represents "a general reorganization and weakening of the brain’s function with age."
But is that true? Has it been established scientifically that the solution arrived at most rapidly, and using the least amount of brainpower, is invariably the best? Frankly, I think it's more often the other way around. Young people tend to have plenty of energy, but they often mistake their own tiny corner of the world for the world itself, and as a result, they make snap judgments that often prove to be inaccurate and can sometimes be personally harmful.
Older people, tempered and enlightened by such experiences, are much better at seeing the connections between things, reserving judgment, pondering alternatives. Due to these qualities, (which, prior to the age of acronyms, went collectively under the name "maturity") they often become adept at charting a safe, effective, creative, and reliable course between A and B.
(In the photo above, we see some seasoned adults pondering alternatives: mushrooms laced with truffle-oil, camponata with cocoa powder, prosciutto.)
Rather than burdening older folks with yet another dreadful syndrome, HAROLD, researchers ought to be studying, and celebrating,  HEART—this is, Hemispheric Equilibrium and Reflective Temper.

(And by the way, did you see the frost on the grass this morning, glistening in the low morning sun?)
On the methodological level, the study once again reminds us that it isn't easy to design experiments involving the complex tasks that older people typically have to deal with, where one of the options might be to ignore the task altogether.
(Which reminds me: I still have time to clean out the gutters before the snow hits!)
So the researchers took the easy way out once again, designing a simple study focusing on simple tasks. The conclusions were hardly startling: the elderly subjects who were best at solving simple tasks happened to be in better shape physically.
(And that reminds me: I haven't been to the gym in a week!)

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