Sunday, December 21, 2008

Older Brains in Flow

I have no doubt myself that a man or woman earnestly seeking in grown-up life to be guided to a wide and suggestive knowledge in its largest and most uplifted sphere will make the best of all the pupils in this age of clatter and buzz.
-Winston Churchill (1953)

When speaking of education, one often refers to something gained in youth. A young brain, busy organizing itself, thirsts for content gleaned and processed from experiences. These experiences may be mental or sensual or interpersonal; in any case, they are triggered by input from one's environment. Yet the human brain remains plastic; it retains the ability to reorganize itself, as needed, with new experiences, learning and memorization, throughout the entire lifespan. But lacking new experiences or triggers, brain function does atrophy. As a healing arm under a cast weakens because of lack of use, brain function weakens with decreased use as well. Cognitive abilities remain sharp with appropriate challenge. Psychologists Patricia Reuter-Lorenz and Louise Stanczak believe attention span may actually increase with age as "attentional functions of the corpus callosum may be relatively preserved and assume a more prominent role in the aging brain".
The loss of cognitive function associated with age, may actually be due to lack of educational, or growth opportunities. A stereotypically older person retires into a flurry of novel experiences lasting about a month. Then she settles into a more laid back, restful life pattern. The problem with this more restful life pattern, is that a resting brain is a brain on the path to atrophy. People of every age need to exercise their brains in novel ways every day to remain relevant and lead lives of meaning. Healthy life patterns are not organized around rest, but around vibrant life experiences or "Flow". Positive psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following as accompanying an experience of flow:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).

  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

  4. Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.

  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
    Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

  6. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

  7. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

  8. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.[2]

Although not all are needed for flow to be experienced, the older members of our current societies may be the hardest pressed to participate in flow inducing activities. If society would redefine loss of cognitive function as unhealthy in old age, maybe eventually our concept of education would grow to include mental growth for people of all ages.

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