You Can’t Teach an Old Brain … or Can You?

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In her New York Times article “How to Train the Aging Brain,” Barbara Strauch discusses ways in which people in middle age and beyond can keep their brains strong and nimble. Although there is no lack of evidence that certain brain functions, such as memory, tend to weaken in aging people, scientists now agree that brains not only continue to develop but actually become more capable of discovering big-picture patterns instrumental in problem solving. However, it is essential that aging people practice their brains’ functionality by maintaining and fostering connections between acquired knowledge and today’s changing perceptions of almost every subject.

The thrust of Strauch’s article is that, according to educators, adults who want to learn more and further cultivate their brains must “challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young.”  In other words, they have to leave behind the thoughts and opinions that they’re comfortable with, and seek out different or even contradictory viewpoints. The goal is to reach a point of disorientation from which one can look back critically on one’s previous attitudes. “Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune,” Strauch writes.

For those of us who work in the field of imagination as the radical agent of change, the big question is, does imagination fit into this notion of intellectually challenging oneself?

Imagination is the capacity to conceive of what is not: it’s all about daring to move beyond the limits of what has hitherto been accepted as possible. An excellent way to engage in the self-challenging that the experts advocate is to think imaginatively. Pushing past the status quo into the realm of new possibilities would seem to be an a very good means of “cracking the cognitive egg and scrambling it up,” to paraphrase the words of education professor Kathleen Taylor. After all, an imaginative act inherently involves putting aside our preconceived notions, asking ourselves if things could in fact be otherwise. As Strauch’s piece suggests, such activity helps keep adult brains sharp and—to borrow from the lyrics created by the aging but superbly sharp brain of Bob Dylan—forever young.

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