lunes, 11 de agosto de 2008

"The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older"


Nine months ago I was looking for readings about the damaged frontal lobe. I had read again the masterpiece "Cortex and Mind" by Fuster and "The Executive Brain" by Goldberg. A brilliant neuropsychologist at the "Ramón y Cajal" Hospital of Madrid and also researcher at the Complutense University, Patricia Trigo Cubillo, advised me, via e-mail, to read this book. I confess that I was skeptical for the first moment. Ummm..., ¿this title?, ¿another book about the miraculous effect of the brain stimulation? Voilá, you have suffered a brain injury..., don´t worry, recovery is possible..., but not, the book does not defraud... Let´s see...
This book by the renowned neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg, was published by Gotham (2005).
It is a common prejudice to think that as we age we will increasingly lose brain power. But in "The Wisdom Paradox", Goldberg asserts that in some key ways the brain power actually increases as you age. As we age, we become better identifying patterns in life and situations, that is, we can make better decisions and, the most important, know what to do. The brain develops a vast store of "generic memories" underlying competence and expertise and can compensate for age-related declines. According to Goldberg the brain´s left hemisphere is oriented toward familiar patterns, whereas the right hemisphere focuses on novelty. Whereas the right hemisphere is the novelty hemisphere, "the explorer of the unknown and the uncharted, the left hemisphere is the repository of compressed knowledge, of stable pattern-recognition devices that enable the organism to deal sufficiently and effectively with familiar situations". The right hemisphere is activated when an individual is in the early stages of acquiring new cognitive skills but as that task is mastered, the left hemisphere takes over. In this sense, Goldberg uses a comparison in which there are two bird watchers, one a beginner, one experienced. The beginner "flips through a field guide, shuttling between pages with large silhouettes, birds that undulate as they fly... The experienced bird has synthesized all that data and internalized a signature pattern, while the novice must rely on an external device which can only provide information, not synthesis, and inefficiently at that. The experienced bird watcher responds quickly because she is relying on the accumulated wisdom of "intuition" ". So the left hemisphere becomes increasingly salient over a person´s lifetime. The left cerebral hemisphere is more resilient, and can develop an increasing inner connectivity that pays out in superior ability to solve apparently novel problem with little effort. This sort of practical mastery is what Goldberg means when he speaks of "wisdom". The author defines wisdom by means of several interrelated notions. Whereas talent represents the potential ability to create novel content and genius represents supreme talent, competence represents the ability to relate new challenges to existing skills or knowledge, wisdom represents supreme competence. Genius and talent are associated with youth and wisdom and competence with maturity. The paradox is that wisdom emerges as our body begins its decline. In fact, the brain is shaped by how it is used and it is very important to maintain an active mind as a defense against mental decline. We can actually exercise our brains to enhance their power. Goldberg suggests art as an exercise for the mind. Art provides a form of right hemisphere challenge in informal settings, so that we will be in cognitive shape to tackle similar real problems when they occur. Goldberg outlines a cognitive fitness program for participants in their 60s and 70s, curtailing the negative mental effects of aging. If we are lucky and we train our brains, the kind of mastery described by Goldberg may come to us. And this excellent and practical book might help us to achieve this.