License to Learn

The middle-aged brain

October 1, 2010

In 1998, Sen. John Glenn returned to space at 77 years of age on shuttle mission STS-95. As our oldest astronaut, he’s a great source of inspiration for anyone worried about their aging brain. NASA, however, didn’t let Glenn spacewalk. Perhaps officials were worried that because of his advanced age the senator would exit the shuttle and simply wander off. If so, then their worry was probably misplaced. While normal, healthy brains can and do suffer moderate declines with age, the losses are not as serious as we once thought.

At one time or another, most middle-aged pilots begin to wonder whether or not they’ve finally exceeded their brain’s TBO. Their worry is inspired by the little things they forget, ignore, or misplace, causing them to question whether they’ve still got the mental might needed to fly safely. In her wonderful book The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, author Barbara Strauch reveals that recent brain research studies have identified a new brain state called the default mode. Strauch says, “This is a kind of daydreaming state of quiet and continuous inner chatter where our brains increasingly go as we age, leaving us distracted, and confirmation of its existence is considered one of the most important discoveries ever made about how brains operate and age.”

Fortunately, our default mode isn’t the result of cell depletion in the normal, healthy brain. According to Strauch, most of our brain cells stick around for quite a while, way into our 80s and 90s, perhaps even beyond. Instead, it’s more likely that slipping into our default mode is the result of using more brain real estate—more of the brain’s component parts—to solve problems as we age. After years of collecting, connecting, and conveying experience, we’ve made more neural connections, which allow us to engage many more parts of our brain to help us think and be creative. Our brains don’t do this because they’re weaker. They do it because it works better. Middle-aged brains perform better on vocabulary, spatial orientation, pattern recognition, verbal reasoning, and—this is a biggie—inductive reasoning. The downside is that with more neural circuitry involved in thinking, fewer mental resources are available to stand sentry against those pesky distracting influences.

So what’s a middle-aged pilot to do? Should you just live with your occasional forgetfulness? After all, who cares if you forget to put on a shoulder harness or adjust the trim for takeoff every now and then? Well, you care. It matters to you, especially when your forgetfulness worries you or presents a safety issue.

Fortunately, there are two common ways to help minimize—if not prevent—errant behavior caused by distractions. Modifying your environment can help you remember to perform critical behaviors. You can, for instance, place a sticky note at a critical place as a reminder to switch the fuel selector at a certain time. You might activate your phone’s alarm function to remind you to close your flight plan after landing. You can even raise your hand and point to the tow bar attached to the airplane in the event you’re forced to walk away from it during the preflight. It’s hard to avoid noticing your arm and hand pointing toward your airplane.

Modifying what goes on inside your head by talking to yourself is another means of fending off distractions. Talking to yourself out loud helps you concentrate on what’s important at the time. (If this makes your passengers nervous, then tell them you’re talking another pilot down.) Self-talk is extremely effective at stimulating and enhancing short-term memory, which ultimately helps focus your attention in the cockpit. Your mind interprets your own voice commands as if they’re initiated by a separate but trusted entity, thus allowing self-talk to give you immediate influence over your own behavior.

If you’re feeling a bit overworked and more easily distracted during an instrument approach, then speak up—to yourself. Tell yourself what you need to do now, what you need to do next, as well as how to do it. Visualization also helps. Neuroscientists Denise Park and Linda Liu found that older people wanting to remember to do a specific task later in the day were 50 percent more likely to perform that task if they visualized doing it for at least three minutes in the morning. According to Park, the strategy creates a “neural footprint” that stimulates a primitive component of memory— automatic memory—that doesn’t decline with age. So the next time you’re worried about forgetting a specific action in an airplane, it might help to visualize performing that action for a few minutes earlier in the day.

The middle-aged brain is sometimes like a puppy dog unhooked from its leash. It tends to wander a bit when distracted. Using memory aids, self-talk, and visualization helps focus your attention and fend off distractions. Despite its distractibility, the middle-aged brain is more creative, has greater reasoning power, and is far wiser than it was in its youth.

Rod Machado is a CFI and aviation speaker with more than 8,000 flight hours. Visit the author’s blog.

Join the fun

Rod Machado will be a featured speaker at AOPA Aviation Summit 2010 in Long Beach, California. He will offer three different forums this year. He is also a co-host for a “Dine Around” event on Thursday, November 11. For more information, visit the website.