Erik Erikson

Growing New Brain Cells As We Age by Anne Kreamer

We’ve all seen the cartoon timeline illustrating the stages of life – you know, the one that starts with a baby crawling, then tottering around, gradually walking upright, growing tall, then, as we age, slumping over, and walking with a cane until eventually we become helpless and baby-like again. But what if that whole cycle of life thing isn’t quite right? What if we actually continue to grow, not diminish, as we age? One thing in particular caught my attention in "Inventing the Rest of our Lives," Suzanne Braun Levine’s examination of life after 50. “Recent research,” she wrote, "shows for the first time that we and adolescents – and no other age group – experience new brain growth."

Dr. Francine Benes, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, happened on the discovery of new synapses while studying schizophrenia in adolescents. According to Levine, the growth identified in Benes’ study, "takes place in the medial temporal lobe, the area that is identified with emotional learning."

"The actual new growth is in myelin, the fatty coating to nerve fibers that insulates and speeds up connections between nerve cells. This augmented brain activity plays a crucial role in helping us synthesize what experience teaches, and it enhances our ability to make considered judgment calls."

"As I see it," Levine wrote, "the same process that accounts for the transformation of impulsive and irresponsible teenagers into thoughtful adults comes back for an encore at midlife, just in time to make us even more thoughtful – dare I say wise?"

More than half a century ago, Erik Erikson identified eight major stages of our psychosocial development - and in the seventh, adult stage, he suggests that our primary motivation is toward "generativity," or a concern in guiding the next generation. How interesting to think that this psychological need to mentor might have a neurological benefit.

When a Money magazine survey of 3,000 boomers reported, "what’s in is volunteerism. Boomers already have the highest volunteer rate of any cohort in the population," I thought, of course, our need to volunteer illustrates a beneficial link between physiology, emotion and action.

I think this is really exciting. The 1960s and '70s idealism of our adolescence and young adulthood can flower again. I’m standing taller already.