An Iron Ranger's view: Consequences and risk test the young and oldImagine for a moment our journey through life is like walking with the sunrise up the eastern slope of a mesa, crossing the flat top and then walking down the western slope as the sun sets.
By: Joseph Legueri, Duluth News Tribune
Imagine for a moment our journey through life is like walking with the sunrise up the eastern slope of a mesa, crossing the flat top and then walking down the western slope as the sun sets.
When we are born, our brain is not mature. As we live out the days of our youth, we symbolically climb the eastern slope of the mesa toward adulthood. As we make this journey, our brains become capable of functioning at a much higher level; our bodies become strong.
After about 20 years of climbing the eastern slope, we spend the next 40 or more years walking the long distance across the top of the mesa on a journey that takes us through young adulthood and middle age.
Then, unfortunately, we start our journey down the western slope. Waiting for us at the bottom is Feeble City, which many have to frequent before reaching the Gate of Death.
During our journey across the top of the mesa, otherwise known as the prime of our life, many of us become judgmental concerning the adolescents climbing the east wall and the old-timers descending the west wall. “What is wrong with them?” we ask.
Many of us have forgotten what it was like to be an adolescent, and we don’t know what old age is like. So when we look at the ascending generation and the descending generation, we think they are boneheads because they do stupid and risky things.
Neuropsychologist Deborah Todd-Yurgelun of Harvard University’s McLean Hospital used MRI to study adult and teen brains. She found that “the frontal lobe, that part of the executive region that we studied, is not always functioning fully in teenagers. The teenager is not going to take the information that is in the outside world and organize it and understand it in the same way that adults do.”
That’s why many teens don’t understand consequences and, in our adult judgment, do so many outwardly stupid or risky things. So they must symbolically journey up the eastern slope of the mesa until their brain becomes fully functional. Then they can journey across the top.
Shelley Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA, conducted a study funded by the National Institute on Aging. In that study, 119 adults ages 55 to 84 and 24 younger adults looked at 30 photos of faces and rated them on how trustworthy they looked. Participants got functional MRI brain scans while looking at the faces.
“The researchers studied the response in the anterior insula of the brain, an area which is used for assessing risk,” Taylor reported. “They found that the younger adults showed anterior insula activation, especially when they were viewing the untrustworthy faces. The response is much more muted among the older adults.”
We descending oldsters with our muted anterior insula are losing brainpower in the same way the ascending youngsters are developing brainpower. The only difference is that the oldsters’ anterior insula will not improve with age. That’s why we oldsters are much more vulnerable to scams.
I swear that Alex Trebek knows about our anterior insula problems when, no doubt hired because of his trustworthy face, he tries to sell us insurance by the “unit.” I swear that the Gerber baby food company counts on our failing anterior insula when they try to sell us life insurance for our grandkids. Ever read their advertising? It’ll make you sick.
So what do we oldsters do when we can’t tell the difference between a trustworthy and an untrustworthy face and can’t judge risk? Don’t ask me. I’m already approaching the Gate of Feeble City and my anterior insula is shot. I was hoping some of you know-it-alls still crossing the top of the mesa might have the answer.
Joseph Legueri of Gilbert is a writer, a retired educator and a lifelong Iron Range resident.