Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Aging Brain

Lately, I have been talking to more and more "older people" - that is, those past the age of 55 or so, many well past 65 - and have noticed a few things that are probably more than anecdotally related.
For one thing, older people seem to think more conservatively (with occasional Conservative leanings, but not necessarily). They may make slightly inappropriate remarks, racist, sexist, or otherwise "narrowminded" in ways that may have shocked their younger selves (and certainly now surprise me). They generally also shut down their willingness to try new things. Xenophobia, wariness of novelty, and anxiety about the unfamiliar: all these point to a more conservative way of thinking and dealing with the world.
Why should that be? That the elderly become distressed about "newfangled" technology or foods or customs is a commonplace. A good way to get an easy laugh in a TV show is to show an obviously elderly person trying out a computer or video game - and either getting horribly flustered or mastering it in record time. Like many stereotypes, this one has a ring of truth to it. But no one asks why.
Familiarity suggests access to robust memories. You cannot feel certain about anything you just encountered for the first time, and as you age, your suspicion of novelty - untried, inverified things - grows. We like to have memory, the deeper the better, to check for data. (Younger people tend to embrace the new: since pretty much everything in the world is new to them, this is generally adaptive trait, even if it can lead to trouble when wise counsel from elders is disregarded.) The strongest memories are the oldest ones. What we call habits are actions and expectations that have been repeated and proven safe, useful, reliable, etc. All this reliability relaxes us and saves us mental (and sometimes physical) energy.
And that energy allocation is key.
When we have to make a decision, e.g., see this movie not that, or try this weird food our friends are pushing on us, we engage certain parts of our frontal lobes, and this requires increased nutrient-rich blood flow. If we are tired, hungry, stressed, etc., that blood may be needed elsewhere in our brain. The thought of having to decide something is annoying to say the least. Remember how it was the last time you had to "have a talk" with a significant other or boss after a few hours' sleep or while you had the flu? Awful, wasn't it? You didn't have the energy to weigh things up, say the right thing, avoid further trouble. Such things are always better when we are in top form.
As we age, our bodies require more energy just to keep functioning smoothly. Systems start to break down. Food processing becomes less efficient (fact: stomach acid production decreases with age and leads to incomplete digestion and uptake). Muscles, among other things, heal more slowly. And on and on. The last thing a person like this needs is the unfamiliar.
Sad to say, the familiar includes one's usual group - whatever that group happens to be. It is sad because the avoidance of the Other, the outsider can turn into, or merely appear to turn into, bigotry. Me = good. Not-me = bad.
If this is all in the brain, so to speak, does that mean society should give carte blanche to the elderly to say whatever they want? No. Anyone still in possession of their faculties should be reminded that such remarks are not appreciated, no matter how devoid of ill will they may be. What this knowledge should do is help us understand what's going on, foster patience as we introduce new things (no life is without unwelcome novelty), and remind us what kind of energy battle is going on just over and behind the eyes - as it goes on in everyone, everyday.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Homo economicus - and the Passenger Pigeon

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of an entire species. The Passenger Pigeon officially went extinct on Sept. 1, 1914, when "Martha" died, age 29.
Although this is tragic, for many reasons, and is not - alas - a unique event, even in the past 150 years, the extinction of this bird stands out because it didn't happen to some rarity, such as a species endemic to a single island. The species we wiped out once numbered in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. Whole flocks took days to pass overhead, blackening the skies, even changing the weather with the collective force of their wing beats. That was one species that "should have" withstood any and every assault the human population had the power and stupidity to exact upon it.
Yet it didn't.
There are many theories about the rapid collapse of this once-numerous bird species, and I won't get into them here. What has always interested me is the psychology - a collective mind, if you will - behind the relentless slaughter.
Human beings are incredibly diverse in their thinking, yet we can make some generalizations (albeit carefully). When faced with a huge supply of some "resource" (a word I have learned to use sparingly), something in the average mind opens up the floodgates. It is open season on whatever that abundant item happens to be: fresh water (e.g., huge lake, regular rains); minerals; fruit; easily caught animals; even human capital, e.g., housework performed by wives (that is, unpaid labor as part of a social contract). The abundant good or service ends up being taken for granted, and it is often exploited, abused. Even if it has high utility - it is very useful, for example, for a working man if he can come home to a clean house and a warm meal - it will end up having low value. That's when the trouble begins.
Lacking any grasp of ecology (a word that didn't yet exist, actually), the North Americans of the mid-1800s relentlessly pursued the passenger pigeon, and forced it into oblivion. If some people with the power of persuasion - a big if! - had studied the birds and figured out what role they played in the ecosystem, perhaps they could have curtailed the overkill. In fact, had they taken a look at the almost contemporary overkill of the bison, a species that went to the brink but did not go over (thus exists in small numbers to this day), they may have stopped before it was too late.
I think the numbers doomed the passenger pigeon. A smaller population overall, or many locally modest gatherings, perhaps, could have failed to provoke the frenzy of blood lust, and spared the species. (Habitat loss contributed to the decline, by reducing nesting sites, but the slaughter was responsible for more actual deaths.)
Are we genetically predisposed to act like this? Are we, as author Philip Roscoe suggests in his new book, I Shop Therefore I Am, Homo economicus? Do we always see the world in terms of costs and benefits, calculations of value, and the almighty Bottom Line?
It's an interesting proposal, and I tend to agree. I wish he were wrong. Although people defy "conventions" and buck trends all the time, it's a pretty sad state of affairs if we tend to see the world through money-colored glasses. It is cold and short-sighted, and results in things like disappearing species. In fact, it may have helped usher in the Sixth Great Extinction.
It's time we tweaked that vision, exploded the paradigm.
That other "eco" word - ecology - is, in my opinion, a better alternative.
I will write about that another time.