Who hasn’t at least heard about Dylan Thomas, the beloved Welsh poet? But did you ever hear him read his famous poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”? Even if you did, you’ve got to listen to it again.
Dylan is raging against the ravages of age. In his sonorous voice, he summons people of all walks of life, of the whole gamut of human experience, even his father (God) up in heaven, to rage against “that night”.
Rage against “going gentle into the night” implies helplessness. There is nothing you can do except howl your frustration and despair. But is it right? Half a century before Dylan, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (yes, that guy of “God is dead” fame) wrote that to have a fulfilling life requires the experience of adversity and failure; the response is not rage but hard work.
So who is right?
Neurobiology settles the argument
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, recently penned an article in the New York Times that puts the lie to the defeatist attitude that all we can do about the indignities of aging is rage, as we “go silent into that night.”
But before we go into the really important substance of that article, a short introduction is in order.
The classical view of the architecture of the brain is that it is anatomically and functionally divided into three layers: An ancient inner layer, inherited from reptiles, that was presumed to contain circuits for basic survival. A middle layer, the “limbic system,” that supposedly contains emotion circuitry inherited from mammals. And the outermost layer that was said to house rational thinking that is uniquely human.
In an article in Current Opinion in Neurobiology, Feldman and Satpute advanced the hypothesis, supported by voluminous evidence, that this model is a bit simplistic. A great deal of evidence exists that there are anatomical and functional interconnections between the different layers and regions of the brain. The regions of the limbic system are now known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain. They’re important for many functions besides emotion, such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience.
A corollary of the network of all brain connections (called connectome) is that efficient coordination of various functions located in disparate regions requires the existence of hubs, just like those of airlines. Such an integrated system starts making sense of our daily experiences. The word ‘flower’ is not something disembodied, devoid of any associated feeling. It may evoke an image of a flower, a certain fragrance, or the memory of a field of California golden puppies, and, maybe, children playing in the meadow. The word ‘water’ is almost invariably associated in our brain with ‘wetness’, and sometimes with the sound of a rushing creek. Certain smells of cooking food conjure up a vision of my mother’s kitchen. These complex sensations can be evoked only through extensive connections between the simultaneous activation of disparate brain regions.
What does this all have to do with super-aging?
Who are the super-agers? They are not necessarily the people who live to a chronologically prodigious old age. Rather, they are those cognitively amazing people of, say 65 and over, whose memory and attention aren’t merely above average for their age, but are actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds.
Feldman-Barrett and her colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and compare the brains of 17 super-agers with those of other people of similar age. They identified a set of brain regions—hubs that connect areas of cognitive and emotional functions—that distinguished the two groups. These regions were thinner for regular agers, a result of age-related atrophy. But in super-agers, these hubs were indistinguishable from those of young adults.
In case you haven’t noticed, this is exactly what we have known about the body musculature. Muscles atrophy as a result of aging and disuse. And the older you get, the harder you have to work to maintain your muscle mass.
What can you do?
A lot, as it turns out. Any athlete can tell you that in order to break out of a plateau of performance, be it running or body-building, you have to train super hard and reach a point of pain where you think you can’t take it anymore. This is your point of inflection, reaching a higher plateau. The same goes for the brain. Just doing pleasant tasks that are mentally not very taxing is not going to change much of the trajectory of progressive neuronal atrophy. You’ve got to challenge your brain to the point of frustration. You learn a new language or learn to play a musical instrument. You repeat a phrase and screw it up, repeat again, mangle it again—repeat until you scream in frustration; that’s when eventually you master it. And, then you go to the next level.
We can also understand why all those brain games that promote a specific skill do little or nothing to increase one’s general memory skills or IQ; the hubs that coordinate many brain regions and functions are not activated. You can become a whiz in memorizing a sequence of numbers, but your skill in solving a mathematical puzzle, or your capacity to reason, or ability write a story—all those hard tasks that require mental effort and involvement of many brain regions—remain unaffected.
So what’s the moral of the story? Of course! We have known it for a long time:
No pain, no gain!