Two good reasons to worry less about an aging brain

by Kathy Laurenhue on February 2, 2011

Two things happen to most human brains as they age: they become somewhat more forgetful and they tend to be slower to come up with answers to questions. Impatient teenagers may portray these as negatives, but there are upsides.

Let’s start with forgetting. Michael Anderson, a member of the Graduate Faculty in the Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at the University of Maryland, says that “forgetting is adaptive, that people actively inhibit some memories to facilitate mental focus.” If you have ever been immersed in a novel, ignoring the sounds and activity around you, to the point when you may not have even heard someone call your name, you have a sense of tuning out the irrelevant. (Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/05/health/psychology/05forg.html)

People who are bilingual are also adept at suppressing unneeded knowledge. A person who is bilingual slips easily between two languages depending upon the language required by the person he is talking to. Those of us who are studying a foreign language for the first time are much slower and clumsier.  If we see a picture of a pair of shoes, for example, we must translate the word into Spanish as “los zapatos.” It doesn’t come automatically.

What the research suggests is that memories are more often crowded out than lost. An ideal memory improvement program, Dr. Anderson said, “would include a course on how to impair your memory. Your head is full of a surprising number of things that you don’t need to know.” (Learn more at http://www.scribd.com/doc/7673320/the-role-of-inhibition-in-learning)

That would suggest that the aging brain – with its long lifetime of knowledge and experiences – is a very crowded brain, and that would also explain why the aging brain is slower to retrieve specific information. The late Dr. Gene Cohen, however, author of The Mature Mind, offered another premise: that the older we are, the more integrated our right and left brains are – we tend to think both more rationally and more creatively. That takes time.

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