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The Wisdom Paradox : How your mind can grow stronger as your brain grows older

The Wisdom Paradox

Author: Elkhonon Goldberg

Review by Mark Tyrrell

The Wisdom Paradox

Last night I watched a political interview on TV which I found particularly depressing. A young interviewer was firing questions at a grey haired man who was going for the leadership of a political opposition party in the UK.

"There's no easy way of saying this, so I won't make it easy," proclaimed the youthful interviewer, "but, well aren't you just too old to be any use to politics? I mean, you look too old and you are too old!"

In a world where the greatest taboo is getting old, it's easy to see only disadvantages in advancing years – which is why 'The Wisdom Paradox: How your mind can grow stronger as your brain grows older' is so refreshing.

It's common to fear that as we age we will increasingly 'lose it'. As you age, so the popular notion goes, you are supposed to 'lose your marbles', or go 'ga ga', as dementia extends its inevitable grip. But read this encouraging book by neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg and you may adopt a wholly more optimistic view of the aging brain.

In 'The Wisdom Paradox', Goldberg asserts that we can do a great deal to ward off age-related brain function decline and also that in some key ways your brain power actually increases as you age – which is why wisdom has traditionally been associated with age.

His basic premise is that as we age, as long as we continue to use our brains, we become better at pattern recognition – seeing the bigger picture. So though we may be less adept at dealing with life's details, we can see patterns in life and situations more clearly. This means we can make better decisions and know what to do, what is needed and what action to take more readily than when we are younger.

We have this increased ability to recognise patterns because as your brain develops through time you build up a massive store of 'generic memories' – knowledge of fundamental patterns associated with people, events and circumstances. So older people can size up situations more accurately and quickly – and know what to do and when to do it! This is the wisdom bit. So contrary to the presumptions of that TV interviewer, older leaders may be (more likely to be) better leaders.

Goldberg encouragingly relates the achievements of those whose successes arrived in later life, contradicts the common belief that we can't generate new brain cells as we age and re-emphasises the importance of keeping the brain active as we age. He reminds us that the brain is literally sculpted by how we use it. For example, people who practise playing a musical instrument regularly develop a larger Heschl's gyrus, a brain location central to processing sound.

It's never too late to exercise and strengthen the brain, just as physical exercise will strengthen your body even when you are 103!

This is not to say we can definitely avoid senile dementia (although it's important to remember that most old people don't become senile), but it's also true that the more brain connections you build up through constant learning and experience, the longer it will take for dementia to have any effect. Just like it takes longer to dismantle a large building than a tiny one…

A great, encouraging and life affirming read.

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Mark Tyrrell
Creative Director