An old adage warns against judging a book by its cover, but a title should avoid being a miscue to the prospective reader. In this case, unfortunately, the title could do just that. Besides coming off as slightly condescending, the choice of title for this book simply does not do justice to the contents. Rather than offering the implied simple-minded, overly optimistic, portrait of how much brainier you can appear to your friends when you finally grow up and reach serious-minded middle-age status, this book takes the reader on a solid scientific tour of current research into how the human brain actually ages—something heretofore largely ignored and poorly understood. In fact, we are in the midst of a revolution in understanding how the brain works and how it develops during our lifetime. This book focuses on the latter and presents the otherwise demanding material in an engaging way. Since it is not a scientific or philosophical treatise, the author does not distinguish between the terms brain and mind and uses them interchangeably for simplicity.
The long-standing view that the brain deteriorates with age, like our skin and muscles, has been convincingly overturned in recent years and on many levels. The primary tool that has enabled many of these new insights is functional magnetic-resonance imaging. Much of this book derives from studies of middle-aged brains using this tool. Here, middle age is defined as the period between forty to sixty years old. Since both the author and this reviewer fall into that age bracket, it’s not surprising that we would be more than a little curious about these new findings, but this book actually contains a timely message for the entire baby-boomer generation: The brain does not necessarily deteriorate with age, it can adapt itself and become even more efficient at certain tasks.
One of the most novel research findings reported by Strauch is something called cognitive reserve. Some people in the research studies appear to have high levels of brain capacity in reserve. One researcher even likens it to having a Mercedes-Benz brain, as opposed to a Volkswagen brain. Mercedes-Benz brain capacity may not only ameliorate the more superficial symptoms of brain aging, such as slowed thought and memory loss, but it might also be capable of inhibiting devastating brain damage due to age-related pathologies like Alzheimer’s disease. Most importantly, cognitive reserve appears to be adaptive, not innate; the marshalling of brain resources can get reorganized in middle age. The outstanding research question is: Can this Mercedes-Benz property be enhanced or developed in anybody’s brain?
In fact, Morphing Your Middle-Aged Mind might have been a more appropriate and catchy title for this book. A hyperbolical choice but, when you have the kind of solid scientific journalism that Strauch delivers, that’s a lesser sin than failing to garner readership for such an important topic. This is more than a mere marketing ploy. Strauch reports evidence that a typical brain might be morphed into a Mercedes mind through, of all things, education.
Prima facie, this seems like a trite conclusion. Didn’t the ancient Greeks know that? Yes, but that’s not the point here. That education could be key to how the brain structures itself, not just for the purpose of processing information, but to ward off the effects of aging and disease, is a breathtakingly new possibility. Moreover, given the currently confused priorities concerning our education system, the ramifications of this research are even more profound than Strauch explores. The requirement for competitiveness in the new global economy suggests that mind morphing should probably be viewed as the logical equivalent of the Space Race of the 1960s—the last major event that significantly reshaped the American education system. What Strauch has inadvertently touched on in her book might better be characterized as the Brain Race of the twenty-first century—the race for inner space rather than outer space.
Strauch’s anecdotal coverage is thorough, even when you think it might not be. On page 21, for example, Strauch makes a point about young versus old pilots and how older pilots have been shown to do better (in flight simulators) at avoiding collisions and keeping the aircraft safe. Because he only lives a few miles from where I live, middle-aged “Sully” Sullenberger gliding his crippled aircraft safely onto the Hudson River, sprang to my mind. But there’s no mention of him anywhere in the chapter! However, since this book contains an index, the Sullenberger drama can be found in a separate Epilogue. Most of the expected topics: stress and confusion, forgetting names, using lists as a support device, speed of thought versus persistence, etc., are all covered somewhere in the book. Although an index is helpful and appropriate, it does put an onus on the reader to do the work of checking for cross-references. It would have been more convenient if some of these index items were footnotes instead.
The organization of the book is broken into three parts containing eleven chapters. Many of the chapters are organized around the relevant functional subsystems of the brain. For example:
Chapter 3 covers the amygdala, and the frontal cortexes (gray matter)
Chapter 4 covers myelin (white matter) and glia
Chapter 6 covers the hippocampus, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
Chapter 7 covers bilaterization (the two halves of the brain)
Chapter 8 covers neuronal plasticity (rewiring on the fly)
Chapter 9 covers the dentate gyrus and cognitive reserve
Chapter 10 discusses the possible role of antioxidants; something most people have already heard of, but not in the context of the aging brain because it has been assumed that their impact is diminished, if not excluded, by the presence of the blood-brain barrier. New research shows that the blood-brain barrier may be more permeable, in subtle ways, than previously understood. This chapter also covers the vital role of aerobic exercise for spurring neural and synaptic growth and its association with morphing Mercedes-Benz brains.
Even more important than antioxidants is the effect of inflammation. Chronic inflammation, and its long-term stimulation of the immune system, has been recently recognized as a culprit in many seemingly unrelated diseases such as atherosclerosis and diabetes. The same seems to be true for the brain. A very recent article on the web discusses the impact of inflammation of the meninges on learning capability, which ties back to Strauch’s point about the relationship between the Mercedes mind and education.
The book’s title further miscued me to expect little more than a disguised infomercial for so-called “Brain Fitness” computer programs, such as seen recently on PBS television. It was a great relief to find that Strauch does not broach the topic until the final chapter. Having already declared in her Introduction that this whole area is “steeped in hype,” Strauch presents a brief and even-handed review, which notes that even researchers who have become persuaded about it, also acknowledge that more scientific studies are needed to confirm that these computer programs are more beneficial than, say, learning a new language.
Using the famous concert pianist Arthur Rubenstein as an example, Strauch makes the important point that neural speed is not everything—unless it’s saving your life. In his later years, Rubenstein deliberately slowed otherwise difficult, fast passages to create a more dramatic musical contrast. He was probably making good use of his Mercedes-Benz brain. Although Strauch doesn’t discuss it explicitly, slow and steady is also a winning strategy in scientific research. Few Nobel Prizes are awarded for being quick—persistence trumps pace. Albert Einstein spent ten years developing his special theory of relativity and another ten years developing his general theory of relativity. The same is true of much of the brain research covered in this book. It takes years to reach robust scientific conclusions.
Other scientific Mercedes-minds, not covered by Strauch, include: Linus Pauling, who was a scientifically active chemist into his nineties; Carl Djerassi (inventor of the Pill), an active polymath at eighty-six; the mathematicians Carl Gauss, who started learning Russian in his sixties and Paul Erdös, who remained an itinerant and seminal influence until he died while attending a mathematics conference at eighty-three. But, as Strauch cautions us, biology is not always kind. Claude Shannon (of information theory fame) was a highly educated electrical engineer and mathematician who presumably had a Mercedes-Benz brain, but he also developed Alzheimer’s disease in later life. Stephen Hawking has ALS, which affects the myelin around the nerves of his sixty-eight year old body, but not in his Mercedes-Benz brain, thereby allowing him to make contributions to cosmology at an age when all scientists are considered to be long past their prime.
There are some weaknesses in Strauch’s presentation. The role of sleep is mentioned but not explored, even though new research insights have also been uncovered there. Socio-cultural effects on our brain, like the rushed pace with which we are often forced to live our lives, are alluded to throughput but not considered in any depth. It may not be that our brains are overload, so much as we are not discriminating enough about what we allow to grab our attention. Gravitating toward the superficial is also symptomatic of a more general failure to connect informational dots in other contexts. In particular, it shows up as a failure to comprehend the big political picture, poor teaching methods in schools (it’s not the teachers, it’s the methods; or lack of them), and poor newspaper reporting. None of these implications are considered in this book. Multitasking (a word not indexed) is declared on page 95 to “tax the brain at any age,” but there is no mention (even in the Epilogue) of the recent PBS Frontline program entitled “Digital Nation,” which concluded that twenty-year olds, talking and texting on their mobile devices, not only do not do as well at multiple tasks as they think they do, they are unable concentrate on deeper issues. Have we already bred a generation of VW brains with the attention span of an ant? If so, let’s hope that morphing their VW brains into Mercedes-Benz brains can actually be made to work!
Finally, there’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question that must be raised when considering any new biological concepts. If the middle age brain is capable of better than expected performance, why did evolution allow it? What’s the evolutionary advantage? Presumably primitive people died at a younger average age than we do now, so how could this Mercedes-Benz neural capacity have evolved in the first place? Strauch overlooks this fundamental question.
Could it be that when we were more primitive, the wisdom of older brains kept younger members of the tribe from going over random cliffs, so to speak? After all, their survival in the wild would have been vital for the reproductive success of our species. How else could you be reading this review? We may have lost sight of the importance of tribal wisdom because of our current cultural emphasis on youth and reinventing ourselves. Even the so-called developing nations are following us in this pursuit. Ironically, reinventing ourselves by morphing our brains may be just what we need to ensure our future survival as a species. Although Strauch does not discuss this point, she does discuss the notion of wisdom at length (see index), but more from the neural-correlate standpoint than its role in evolution.
Most readers will be looking for themselves in this book, but it’s also about our children and us the collective: us as a nation, us as a species. If education (in the sense of the Brain Race I defined earlier) is the real challenge of this century, then older teachers will prove to be best. Who needs retirement, anyway? Although Strauch doesn’t suggest it, the best time to be a parent may be post middle-age rather than pre middle age. Not the original intent of biology perhaps, but it might become the new normal.
Strauch is a journalist, not a scientist, so it’s not surprising and quite acceptable that she has missed some of the deeper ramifications of her own writing. Conversely, most of the scientists Strauch interviewed for this book could not convey their own material as engagingly to a lay audience as she does. Omissions notwithstanding, anyone who is serious about their own quality of life and that of their children should ignore the title and read this book. It may contain one of the most important scientific developments of the century.