07:49am Saturday 06 June 2020

Why the wise man takes up juggling in old age

But they make up for loss of physical prowess and memory skills by developing greater wisdom – and that’s official, a leading researcher on elderly cognition told the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress in Edinburgh.

New research shows that the slowing down of the elderly brain provides the opportunity to develop of wisdom. Furthermore, their ability to learn new skills, such as juggling, remains undiminished – as shown by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans.

Professor Dilip Jeste of the University of California, San Diego, reported on a series of studies on 3000 San Diego residents, aged between 60 and 100. He said that wisdom, a uniquely human mix of intelligence and spirituality, may be hard-wired as an evolutionary tool to extend lifespan.  

He told the Congress: “The fact that older people are slower to respond than younger people is widely seen as a disadvantage. But that’s not always the case. The elderly brain is less dopamine-dependent, making people less impulsive and controlled by emotion. Older people also less likely to respond thoughtlessly to negative emotional stimuli because their brains have slowed down compared to younger people. This, in fact is what we call wisdom.”

Professor Jeste continued: “Probably the most exciting breakthrough in the last decade has been the finding that neuroplasticity, the ability to generate neurones and synapses, continues throughout an individual’s life. MRI scans have also identified the four regions of the brain that contribute to wisdom (the amygdala and the left prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), with older people demonstrating a higher level of activity between these regions than younger people.”

He said that older people should gain confidence from the knowledge that they can become sharper and develop new skills in older age. “We know from structural MRIs that the brain’s hardware changes when people take up juggling. Within three months, studies show that there is a significant change in the structure of the brain in the region that involves perceptual anticipation,” he said.

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International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Edinburgh, 21-24 June 2010.

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