Forget About It: Your Middle-Aged Brain Is Not On The Decline

  • 2016-03-25
  • NPR

Faced with her own forgetfulness, former NPR correspondent and author Barbara Bradley Hagerty tried to do something about it. She's written about her efforts in her book on midlife, called Life Reimagined. To her surprise, she discovered that an older dog can learn new tricks.

A confession: I loathe standardized tests, and one of the perks of reaching midlife is that I thought I'd never have to take another.

But lately I've noticed that in my 50s, my memory isn't the same as it once was. And so I decided to take a radical leap into the world of brain training.

At the memory laboratory at the University of Maryland, manager Ally Stegman slides a sheet of paper in front of me. It has a series of boxes containing different patterns and one blank space. My job is to figure out the missing pattern. The test measures a sort of raw intelligence, the ability to figure out novel problems.

Time races by. It takes me two minutes to crack the first question. I am stumped by the second and third. Finally, I begin to guess.

After 25 minutes, the test is over, and to my relief, Stegman walks in. This test was really, really hard.

The reason I am here, voluntarily reliving my nightmare, is simple: I want to tune up my 50-something brain. So over the next month, I will do brain-training exercises, then come back, take the test again and see if I made myself smarter.

Now, researchers typically talk about two aspects of intelligence. One is crystallized intelligence.

"Crystallized intelligence is our accumulated experience and skills, general knowledge, vocabulary that we learn across our lifespan, so to speak," says Susanne Jaeggi, a cognitive neuroscientist and my guide through my brain training experiment.

This crystallized intelligence can keep rising through your 60s and 70s.

And then there is fluid intelligence.