February 02, 2006


The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. By Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. Basic Books. $24.95.

     Here is a book designed to warm the cockles of the heart of baby boomers – or the brain’s equivalent of cockles, anyway.  Gene Cohen, founding chief of the Center for Aging at the National Institute of Mental Health and now director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, here argues that the brain and mind do not inevitably deteriorate, on either a physical or metal basis, as people age.  Instead, minds undergo positive changes as people mature.  Furthermore, there are specific things everyone can do to harness the power of mind and body in ways that will make those changes even more positive, actively building brain reserves and potential.

     Those are a lot of claims for any one book, especially one written for popular consumption, but Cohen has the bona fides to back many of them up.  A researcher himself, he is good at mining others’ research and explaining it simply, and in extracting nuggets of advice from scientific findings and jargon.  He also has a good sense of how to present his ideas to a generation that has been reading self-help tomes for decades.  For instance, he divides the “second half of life” into four phases: midlife reevaluation, a time of exploration and transition that he is at pains to say is not the same as “midlife crisis”; liberation, a time for experimentation and freeing oneself from earlier inhibitions; summing up, a time of “recapitulation, resolution, and review”; and encore, a phase characterized by the desire to go on “even in the face of adversity or loss.”  Cohen also introduces the concept of “developmental intelligence,” an umbrella term that he uses to encompass the ideas of increased wisdom, social skills, life experience and more.

     If all this sounds a touch too pat and formulaic, that is exactly the problem.  In his eagerness to make his thoughts comprehensible and accessible to large numbers of people, Cohen has not only simplified recent research findings but has also put them through the standard self-help grinder.  Just as everything that goes through a sausage machine comes out looking like a sausage – no matter what the internal mixture – so Cohen’s book comes across as just another rah-rah, you-can-do-it piece of overly optimistic self-delusion.

     Or perhaps that is a bit too harsh.  The suggestions Cohen makes for keeping the body and brain agile are good ones, after all.  The problem is that they are exactly the same suggestions made in hundreds of books, magazines, newspapers and at who-knows-how-many Web sites: exercise physically; keep your mind active; establish a strong social network; find challenging rather than mindless leisure activities; and so on.  None of this is wrong, but none of it is new, either.

     Cohen does a good job of countering now-outdated notions about aging, such as the ideas that mental decline is inevitable and that the brain does not form new cells in later life.  His optimism is refreshing and sometimes infectious, and his real-life stories of highly vital people in their 70s, 80s and 90s are well chosen.  But baby boomers looking for something new – or, even more unreasonably, something easy – that they can do to preserve their vitality into their later years will find nothing of the sort here…or, it must be said, anywhere.

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