by Gene D. Cohen
Basic Books, 2005
Review by David M. Wolf, M.A. on Feb 20th 2007
In this readable, concise report of his own and relevant research into the aging brain, Dr. Cohen delivers a real basis for hope. We're not just getting older; we're getting better. Maybe. And here's the point: we can mature and get better if we do the right things and participate in the right things. This book fully describes what activities, changes, or interventions are useful and beneficial. Cohen uses scientific studies and case examples to make the facts plain. Everyone over forty should read this book, because its findings will directly influence career moves and lifestyle choices.
Cognition, creativity, intelligence, and, especially, memory (or its impairment) are of vital concern to most people as they age. The Mature Mind inquires into the brain's changes as we age and relates these to how the human mind manages in the face of the brain's changes. Our job as educated people is to learn what is happening and make the adjustments and commitments that lead toward a vigorous maturity.
The brain, Cohen reports, is not just losing neurons and getting old; the brain is also developing, growing new neural networks and cells, and becoming more balanced between its two hemispheres. The worst "rubbish" from the past, according to Cohen, is in the false phrase, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." The essence of successful maturity is to continue learning, growing, challenging the brain and the whole human being as it ages. Doing this with wisdom, creativity, social support and attention to everyone's need for a sense of control and mastery is the right approach to successful aging.
Cohen's axiom for what drives and sustains us throughout life he names "Inner Push." As he uses this insight, it appears synonymous with the philosopher Spinoza's idea of the "fiery Conatus", and also, quite like Henri Bergson's more poetic idea of the elan vital. Inner Push is there while we breathe, and it's up to us to shape its energies.
We do this in the second half of life according to Four Phases, says Cohen: Midlife Reevaluation (ages 40-65), Liberation phase (50s through 70s), Summing Up (late 60s through 70s-80s), and Encore phase, until the end of life. The Mature Mind is largely a characterization and description of these phases, plus some helpful essays on creativity in old age and lists of resources. Cohen also spends some ink debunking "midlife crisis", which he says is a myth.
The "power" and "potential" of older minds is rooted in a human brain that not only ages, but also, develops over time. We may individually be surprised by age, but the biological brain is not: the program includes adaptive responses in which the brain can adjust and rewire itself. This physiological change can be far greater than people ordinarily suppose if the aging adult remains active mentally, accepts challenges individually and socially, and gets some regular exercise.
In other words, the hopeful result depends in large part on how much the brain is stimulated with learning and activity of the kind that promotes vitality. Depend on TV, let your friends die off, become isolated and alone, retire, become or remain inactive physically: these are the old habits that lead to degeneration and death. However, exercise, social engagement, creative (even artistic) expression, phased retirement or part-time work, volunteering, learning new things over which one develops a feeling of growing mastery--these kinds of changes lead to surprisingly vital older people who live better and longer than their unlucky peers.
Cohen has some startling findings in his data that supports his views. One in particular is that aging brains contain expansive bundles of neurons not available to the young, bundles that reflect a lifetime of experience. At the same time these brain assets become more balanced between both hemispheres, doing with the whole brain what the young cannot yet do or can do only with Left or Right hemispheres singly.
Older people have a "developmental intelligence" which better balances physical and emotional maturity. Development is wrongly seen as just for kids. The maturing brain is more capable of what Cohen calls "relativistic thinking" (not black and white), "dualistic thinking" (resolving opposites), and "systematic thinking" (big picture). These capabilities give the mature mind truly "advanced" status. It can take a lifetime to develop the basis for these advances, and they have enormous individual and social implications.
So, this book is more than a useful guide to saving one's own aging brain. It is also a review laying a basis for social, even political changes, reflecting the untapped potential of our aging American population.
© 2007 David M. Wolf,
David M. Wolf, M.A. has been leading a Philosophy Evening twice- monthly for the past year at Yoga Bookstore & Cafe in Honesdale, PA. He is the author of Philosophy That Works, a book about the foundations of knowledge, truth, and philosophy; you can read sections at Google Book Search or Chapter One at http://www.xlibris.com/philosophythatworks. David is presently working on a new novel, and a growing collection of sonnets, and other works