“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, “The 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 B.C.) 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.