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The Grown-up Brain and Us
July 25, 2010 - 9:19pm

What if the real purpose of education should be to prepare our brains to function well throughout our lifespan? What if our explicit goals shift from creating brains that can operate well in the economy (or whatever other institutional missions we promote), to the goal of fostering cognitive reserves? What if promoting healthy brains was the best mechanism for creating productive citizens, and all the other values we believe in as educators and educational institutions were best served in service of the brain?

I'm starting to come to the conclusion that the brain, our brains, is a theme that should cut across all disciplines. That we should put the brain at the center of our educational system for purely selfish and self-interested reasons, namely that we all need do whatever we can to insure that we experience successful brain aging.

The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, by Barbara Strauch is a wonderful book. Strauch is a generous and wise author, writing about the middle-age brain through a combination of stories and science that seems well calibrated to the brains of her readers.

We learn that while the middle-age brain may not have the rapid processing power of its younger version, these deficits are more than made up for by increased abilities in judgment, expertise, and effectiveness. Our middle-age brains see the world in a more positive light and accurate light, and are much better at juggling all the demands that life throws at us.

The big revelation of "The Grown-up Brain" is that we have within our power to determine much of the course of our own brain aging. Through diligent mental and physical exercise, a reasonable diet, and a positive orientation towards our work and relationships we can significantly and dramatically protect our brains against cognitive slow-downs and dementia.

A prediction: Over the next twenty-years our colleges and universities will make a change from teaching to prepare for the job market to teaching to promote cognitive reserves. Innovative educational institutions will advertise a curriculum that is demonstrated to promote long-term cognitive health. We will begin to escape from the idea of economic scarcity, and start embracing the idea of lifetime cognitive scarcity - with educational programs designed to foster cognitive abundance.

This shift will require that the study of the brain become deeply embedded throughout all of our disciplines. We will talk about the brain when we think about teaching, learning and research. We will see our fitness centers and dining halls as tools to promote lifetime brain health. We will understand the mission of our institutions as providing our students the tools, habits, knowledge and fundamentals they will need to encourage and promote successful brain aging. Our rankings will be based on brain health related metrics, on the inputs that predict cognitive surplus. We will look back in disbelief at a time when our institutions took the brain for granted, and did not design our programs and environments explicitly to promote lifetime brain health.

What book is on your brain?


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