“Grams, are you still growing?” my 4-year-old grandson recently asked me. Did his parents tell him that when you get older you stop growing, i.e., that you don’t get taller? Or did he think that because one of his grandparents had passed away a few weeks earlier, he was concerned that if I stopped growing, the same thing might happen to me?
Of course, as I age I am still growing because my brain and mind are functioning. The two always work in conjunction with each other. As long as we still dream, travel, have desires, hope and spirit, we will always grow, no matter how old we get.
THE BRAIN AND MIND AGING
“The brain is the core of thought and the organ that perceives sensory impulses and regulates motor impulses,” write Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley in The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Most importantly, the brain does not cease to function or diminish its capacities due solely to growing older. The brain controls the organ systems of the body. It does this either by activating our muscles or by initiating and emitting body chemicals such as hormones. This centralized control allows for our responses to environmental conditions.
The mind is housed in the brain and comprises awareness and consciousness that physically influences and interacts with the brain’s functions.
A more complex definition of the mind includes seeing it as the aspect of intellect and consciousness experienced as combinations of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will and imagination, including all unconscious cognitive processes. The term mind is often used to refer, by implication, to the thought processes of reason. Mind manifests itself subjectively as a stream of consciousness. The mind is awareness and consciousness that physically influences and interacts with the brain’s functions. In this regard, it is one’s volition for a conscious or deliberate decision to be made. Realizing all this provides one reason for maintaining the aforementioned positive attitude.
“Walking in the woods, one’s attention is drawn to a beautiful tree,” Schwartz and Begley write. “The usual human reaction is to set the mind working, ‘what a beautiful tree,’ I wonder how long it’s been here, I wonder how often people notice it.” They further explain the mind being volition. The brain makes connections to realize you’re in the woods as the mind perceives that you are an observer of the tree and see yourself observing it. In this regard, you have an inside thinking and sensing/feeling of the tree, and then an extrinsic awareness of yourself doing that. This happens for older people as well as younger ones.
NEUROPLASTICITY AND AGING
The brain and mind, unless something happens to them, continue to operate until they don’t. Throughout our lives there is constant change in brain/mind function. This is how it works, as Norman Doidge explains in The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science. Referencing Pascal-Leone’s 2000 concept of neuroplasticity, Doidge writes, “It’s obvious that the brain is constantly changing. This is due to its varied stimulations and experiences where shaping, reshaping, and more reconfiguration is evident, allowing for changes to occur.” Or, as Neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg says, “[T]he brain’s neuroplasticity is its ability to change under the influence of experience and activities, as well as comprehension of how the brain changes from one moment to the next.”
And, as related by Lao-tzu (2,500 BC) in the Tao Te Ching, “Everything is in a process of change, and is constantly evolving. If one puts their foot into the river and removes it and then places their foot into the river again — it is now a different river, because the original flow of the river changed, due to the interruption of the foot being originally placed in it.” The plasticity of the brain affects and causes an effect on all experiences with the mind’s volition. According to Kenneth Wesson, “This underlies the brain’s extraordinary capacity to learn, unlearn, and relearn … to create meaning from what one does in the world, as opposed to exposure to its representation.”
THE BRAIN, MIND AND MEMORIES
Much like modeling a piece of clay, the brain changes and the resultant behaviors are altered, but the previous ones experienced may be returned to, although not in exactly the same manner. This ongoing and continual reconfiguring of the brain and mind results in what will be our memories.
“The brain continually refines its processing capacities to meet the challenges with which it is presented,” write Schwartz and Begley. “This increases the communicative power of neurons and circuits that respond to oft-received inputs or that are trapped for habitual outputs. It is the brain’s astonishing power to adapt and change, to carry with it the inscriptions of our experiences, that allows us to throw off the shackles of biological materialism[,] for it is the life we lead that creates the brain we have, and all of this involves the brain’s and mind’s memory of experiences.”
All memory involves cognition — the ability of the brain to processes, store, retrieve, and retain information. For example: You receive an invitation to a party — you process the contents of the invitation with its given date, time and directions, as well as a list of those who have been invited, and you store this information until the date for responding is at hand. At that time you retrieve the invitation’s content information, you make a decision as to whether to attend or not, resulting from what you’ve retained about this upcoming get-together — you retained, processed, stored and retrieved information until it could be put into practice.
“The most fundamental things scientists have learned about memory is that we do not store memories whole and therefore do not retrieve them that way either. When we remember something we actually reconstruct it by combining elements of the original experience,” writes Ron Brandt in “Educators Need to Know About the Human Brain,” an article published in Phi Delta Kappan. Neuroscientist Antonio Demasio explains in Desartes’ Error that a memory “is recalled in the form of images at many brain sites rather than at a single site.” And Michael Gazzaniga writes in The Mind’s Past): “Evolutionary theory has generated the notion that we are a collection of adaptations — brain devices that allow us to do specific things … Many systems throughout the brain contribute to a single cognitive function.”
The act of remembering occurs in three ways:
- Attention: The ability to focus on a specific stimulus without being distracted
- Orientation: The ability to be aware of self and certain realities and facts, and manipulate information. These are commensurate with the ability of a person to respond to stimuli and interface with everyday life experiences
- Decision-making and problem-solving: the ability to understand a problem, generate solutions and
Each of these, one through three, relies on the brain and the mind working in conjunction with each other. This is accomplished though their separate functions, and with thoughts and feelings imposed by our conscious will.
LIVING WITH MEMORIES:
Because aging people have so many memories, we find ourselves living with them. Any new situation most likely will bring a recalling or reflection on something from the past. Some of these memories are treasured and some give us pain, while others are neither positive nor negative. Nonetheless, we build new meanings with these memories. Aging is not a deterioration of the brain and mind but rather a period of tremendous potential for mind and brain to develop by recognizing different and enthralling situations we can utilize for further growth.
“The tragedy of life is in what dies inside a man while he lives,” wrote essayist Norman Cousins. Our lives are what we choose to make them. There is the thought to embrace what we now know: The brain and mind welcome aging. They do the same job as in earlier years, and this process takes a lifetime to complete.
My mind tell me that the physical signs of aging are simply symbols, reminders or indicators of memories that caused me to be who I am now. “Yes, my dear grandson, I am still growing,” I say. “And, what a joy it is, as I use my conscious will in deciding to have it be that.”
Rev. Dr. Marjorie Schiering is a professor at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York, and has been an educator for 45 years. She’s also an ordained interfaith minister who volunteers as a chaplain at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York.