The Marvel of the Mature Mind
By Dr. Gene Cohen
“Any activity that optimally uses both the right and left hemispheres is like chocolate to the brain,” says Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University. “Creative activities such as painting, music, and writing are all good examples of what the brain finds fulfilling.”
Cohen is fast becoming the go-to expert on matters concerning the mature brain and its lifelong capacity for learning and creativity. With articles about him in Newsweek and with the support of the White House and the National Endowment for the Arts, Cohen has gone a long way toward dispelling some of the persistent myths about aging and the brain and presenting a new paradigm on aging.
“In the past scientists and the public have been under the impression that we acquire all our brain cells by age three and never create new ones,” Cohen observes. “Not true. We create new brain cells throughout life. It’s how we challenge our brains that determines how many new brain cells we acquire.”
Early in 2006, Cohen published his latest book on the subject. The Mature Mind (Basic Books, 2006) is the follow-up to The Creative Age (William Morrow, 2000), which established how prevalent creativity is in the mature years. “My latest book explores the reasons for the capacity a mature mind has for positive change, both in biological and psychological terms,” he explains.
In terms of psychology, Cohen defines two key phases in a mature person’s life. The first is the “mid-life re-evaluation,” characterized by an “if not now, when” attitude toward new adventures. This phase, says Cohen, occurs between the ages of 40 and 65.
Overlapping the mid-life re-evaluation, and starting roughly in the mid-50s, is the “liberation phase.” This is characterized by a less self-conscious attitude toward trying new activities. “In the liberation phase, a person is no longer discomforted by failure,” Cohen notes. “He or she also reaps the added benefits of mature emotions and better judgment in this phase of life.”
In terms of biology, Cohen’s work picks up on that of Dr. Roberto Cabeza of Duke University. Cabeza made the extraordinary discovery that the mature person, rather than suffering from a shrinking brain, is more likely to use both brain hemispheres for a task a younger person would assign to one or the other.
Essentially, humans have “two brains,” continues Cohen. It’s a redundant system, similar to a human having two kidneys when only one is needed. When performing a new creative task, a mature brain will use the left hemisphere but also borrow extra gray matter from the area of the right hemisphere that corresponds to that being used in the left.
“It’s as if we’ve switched from two-wheel to all-wheel drive!” laughs Cohen, pointing out that a mature brain appears to work more efficiently and has, if anything, more capacity than a younger brain.
Cohen further postulates that when the left brain recruits the right brain “in order to learn trombone at age 60, say” a musician doesn’t just get extra “memory capacity.” He or she gets something extra the unique gifts the right brain has developed. In this case, the right brain will add its capacity for intuition, synthesis, and subjectivity to the trombone-learning experience.
This phenomenon might explain why there is less self-consciousness, more curiosity, greater willingness to fail, and ultimately intense fulfillment and satisfaction in older people who learn new, especially creative, tasks, says Cohen.
“The whole New Horizons Band phenomenon is testament to these findings,” says Cohen of the movement that has flung open its doors to Americans learning or relearning music making later in life.
“We’re at a conceptual turning point in society’s view of aging,” Cohen concludes. “The view is changing from one in which aging equals problems, to one in which new potential emerges with age. It’s the boomers who will translate this concept into a public policy that reaps social and economical benefits from providing creative opportunities to older Americans.”
Source: As seen in Making Music Magazine’s September/October 2006 issue.