Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Too much experience might dull our brains.
          Besides its obvious advantages, of all the disadvantages of experience, and there are many, the most frightening one is its cumulative effect on the brain.  As growingly more activities become familiar and routine, sometimes even automatic, there is less and less need for analysis and thought.  Rather, our brains search their enormous database and conveniently find a precedent.  This is a fast process with minimal expenditure of mental effort.
          A superficial look at this situation would not see anything wrong with it.  On the contrary, as we gain more experience we move through our days with greater ease and efficiency.  There is, of course, always the danger that a precedent doesn't fit well the current situation and thus we shall, practically without awareness, commit a mistake.  (See my earlier blog on this issue).  But on the whole the system seems to be working quite well.
          The true danger lies elsewhere.  As our need for effortful thought diminishes, so does our cognitive vitality.  A lazy brain that can manage without major and frequent challenges, by necessity becomes a dull brain.  There is now plenty of scientific evidence about the importance of novelty and challenge to cognitive health.  Our book:  "Maximum Brainpower:  Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom"  (Shlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway, Ballantine, June 2012) devotes several chapters to this important issue.           We even understand today some of the biological mechanisms that are involved in the benefits of cognitive challenge.  Chief among are:  blood supply to oxygen starved neurons, the establishment of new connections between neurons and their close and distant neighbors, nerve growth factors, and neuronal regeneration.
          The above argument is so critical that I would even venture to claim that the age-related cognitive decline found in elderly people is at least partially due to the vast experience of this group.  As we grow old we rarely find ourselves in unfamiliar situations.  We have already seen everything, heard everything, and thought about everything in the past, and "there is nothing new under the sun."
          This is a systemic problem, since our brains cannot not to learn from experience (see also my previous blog).  Systemic problems require a deliberate intervention and can't be left to chance events.  More about that in the future.

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