Work and the middle-aged brain

Hitting middle age often brings with it complaints of increasing forgetfulness and absent-mindedness.  I hear these laments frequently — and share the concern personally!

But perhaps there’s hope for us middle-agers after all.  New York Times health editor Barbara Strauch is the author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.  She recently sat down for an interview with health writer Tara Parker-Pope, (whose 2008 piece on workplace bullying attracted wide attention), and here are a couple of excerpts:

The Bad News, But…

Obviously, there are issues with short-term memory. There are declines in processing speed and in neurotransmitters, the chemicals in our brain. But as it turns out, modern middle age is from 40 to 65. During this long time in the middle, if we’re relatively healthy our brains may have a few issues, but on balance they’re better than ever during that period.

The Good News, No But…

Here is what we do better:

Inductive reasoning and problem solving — the logical use of your brain and actually getting to solutions. We get the gist of an argument better. We’re better at sizing up a situation and reaching a creative solution. They found social expertise peaks in middle age. That’s basically sorting out the world: are you a good guy or a bad guy? Harvard has studied how people make financial judgments. It peaks, and we get the best at it in middle age.

Problem Solving and Social Intelligence at Work

We hear so much about the need for problem solving and social intelligence in our workplaces.  It would seem that the middle-aged brain is tailor made to fill that need.  Our capacity to remember names and dates may be taking a hit, but on the whole we’re becoming better at seeing through the hedgerows, assessing ourselves and others, and making a bee line toward solutions.

Personally, I also think this deepens our capacity to be authentic.  Not every one has that inclination or desire, but I’d say that our workplaces, not to mention society at large, are very much in need of these qualities.

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