The Way Our Brains Wind Dow

Excerpt from "Creativity and the Everyday Brain," Rex Jung in conversation with Krista Tippett, On Being, March 22, 2012: 

My Demyelinating Brain, March 17, 2012It's pretty well known from neuroanatomists that our brains are myelinating. The wires that connect up different regions of our brain are myelinating as we develop. And that peaks in our frontal lobes in our early 40s, and that thereafter it starts to unwind and demyelinate, gradually starting at the front of the brain and working to the back of the brain.

So if you think of the myelin as the insulation around the wires that keeps the electrical current from leaking to other wires, you know, it's the same thing as the blue stuff around your Internet wire. It keeps the signal going down the wire instead of leaking from side to side. So the myelin allows the electrical signal to transmit faster and more efficiently. So that myelin completes its developmental trajectory up in our mid-40s and then thereafter reverses. And so, I think that we might be able to take advantage of that. 

I'm 47, so I'm on that downward trajectory and I work with a lot of patients who are worried about their cognitive decline in their 50s and 60s and want to have that brain of their 20s and 30s. And that is frankly unrealistic. Our memory is going to start getting spottier. We're not going to have that word quickly at the tip of our tongue. That's just the way of the world and that's the way our brains wind down before we die. However, this capacity of our brain as it changes can be co-opted for creative capacity.

If transient hypofrontality is true, this is more conducive to that hypofrontal state. And there's lots of apocryphal stories about older people and, you know, they're retired and that may be the reason, but older people picking up a paintbrush, picking up a musical instrument and being creative, undertaking volunteer activities and getting more engaged in doing things. My mother started quilting in her 60s and is now winning prizes at quilt shows. I mean, she is enjoying herself immensely in her early 70s. This is something that makes sense in terms of the time she has, the abilities she has, and the way her brain is winding down as she ages.

I think wisdom is probably the accumulation of this knowledge base and this back and forth between the frontal lobes and transient hypofrontality and lots of disappointments and successes and compromises and the fact that you've solved lots of problems in your life successfully.