“The juvenile sea squirt wanders through sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain any more so it eats it! It’s rather like getting tenure.” ~David Dennett, “Consciousness Explained”
And true to form, I have a client who’s a tenured college professor, head of department, who is “going out of his mind.” He came to me for coaching because he’s deeply dissatisfied with his life, and wants to change careers.
Without violating confidentiality, I can say this client is desperate for new experiences, for meaning and purpose, and for something new in his life. He is “hamstrung” by a high salary and a less-than-30-hour week with long vacations, but is beginning to see “price” is not worth it.
Though this gentleman happens to actually be a tenured professor, he is representative of many clients I have who are 50 or older.
As more Baby Boomers “come of age,” studies about aging continue to pump in lots of new information to counteract former stereotypes. Science is discovering that “old” rats given new toys and new playmates start growing new brain cells, and better brain cells. Imagine!
And, poignantly, this is what professor laments most – fact that he isn’t encouraged, or allowed, to innovate within department; and that there’s no camaraderie.
Let’s take a look at some myths about aging and brain, to encourage you to keep learning, and to keep acquiring new toys, and new playmates. And, oh yes, get toys that give you a good workout, both physically and mentally. That’s one of keys to resilience as you age!
MYTH No. 1: Once you’re born, all you can look forward to is a long and steady loss of brain cells (aka neurons).
REALITY: “Stem” cells in human brain can create new neurons indefinitely, and relatively idle neurons will extend their branches to carry signals to and from other neurons indefinitely, under proper circumstances.
MYTH No. 2: We can’t get smarter as we age.
REALITY: Mice (are we like mice … you be judge) in an enriched environment, with interesting toys and playmates, showed an increase in 4000 new neurons in hippocampus (crucial to memory and learning) compared to 2400 in control group with no toys or playmates. And older mice’s brains also got bigger and better! And quickly! (Diamond and Rosenzweig, Elizabeth Gould, Princeton)
MYTH No. 3: Creativity diminishes with age.
REALITY: According to Ralph Warner, author of “Get a Life: You Don’t Need a million to Retire Well,” “older artists often do well, commonly experiencing a sustained burst of exciting creativity after 65.”
MYTH No. 4: There isn’t much you can do to avoid Alzheimer’s.
REALITY: According to David Snowden, Ph.D., “Aging with Grace,” hardworking brains (the ones that get used in learning new things all during life) do well because their stimulated cells branch frequently, resulting in millions of new connections (synapses) so brain actually becomes larger and…evidence continues to accumulate that a larger brain can cope with effects of brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s and strokes. Theoretically because a larger brain has more active tissue, and therefore a greater number of ways to work around diseased or damaged areas.