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The Surprising Strengths Of The Middle-Aged Brain.

In middle age, most of us get forgetful and easily distracted. But new research finds that our minds improve in some ways as we age: We're better at seeing the big picture and comprehending complexity. Writer Barbara Strauch details how the middle-aged brain grows and changes in The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.


Other segments from the episode on April 14, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 14, 2010: Interview with Barbara Strauch; Review of Yoko Ogawa's novel "Hotel Iris"; Review of the The Plimsouls' live album "Live! Beg, Borrow & Steal."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Exploring The 'Secret Life' Of Our Middle-Aged Minds


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You know the sensation of being so distracted that you've forgotten where
you're going or why? Or you're with a friend and you run into someone you know,
but you can't remember her name, so you can't introduce her to your friend?
Distraction and blanking out on names are just a couple of the brain issues
that tend to get worse in middle age.

The changes that happen in the middle-aged brain, for better and worse - and
yes, there are some improvements that come with middle age - is the subject of
the new book "The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain" by my guest, Barbara
Strauch. She covers the latest scientific research about the middle-aged brain,
and by middle-aged, she means 40 through 68. She's in her late 50s.

Strauch's new book is kind of a sequel to her book "The Primal Teen: What the
New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids." Strauch is
health and medical science editor at the New York Times.

Barbara Strauch, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the middle-aged brain
issues you were experiencing that got you interested in the subject of the
middle-aged brain?

Ms. BARBARA STRAUCH (Health and Science Editor, New York Times; Author): Ah,
well, lots of them. For instance, as I reached middle age, I think, as all of
us, we begin to have what we call senior moments or whatever, that I'd go
downstairs to try to get paper towels. By the time I got there, I couldn't
remember what I went down there for.

It was driving me crazy. You couldn't remember what I had for breakfast or the
movie I saw last weekend. And, you know, we all have a lot going on in our
lives, but I think there was kind of a qualitative difference in this in terms
of, you know, things that I really normally would remember sort of vanished
from my brain.

And I was concerned. And earlier, I had written a book on the teenage brain,
and many of the people who had arranged me to talk about that were middle-aged,
and they would say, too, you know, you really should write a book about my
brain. I'm very concerned. You know, I can't remember anything.

They were middle-aged. So I began to think: What is going on? Where do those
names go? What's - I mean, do they float up into the sky and are laughing at
us? I mean, is happening in middle age that makes our brains so forgetful and
forgetting whole episodes, really, which was kind of worrisome.

GROSS: That sense of vanishing is really scary.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Feeling like there's a blank where a memory is supposed to be.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah, yeah. It is scary, and I think it makes us all worry. Many
of us have watched our parents, you know, suffer from dementia and things, and
I think we're kind of scared. You know, our parents aren't necessarily falling
off the backs of tractors and dying or things like that.

We're watching many of them, you know, become older and suffer dementia of one
form or another. And I think there's kind of a collective worry that maybe this
name-forgetting, this kind of not knowing, you know, your train of thought is
maybe we're on some sort of slide into dementia. And I think we're all a little
bit worried.

GROSS: And what did you find? Do you think that typical sense that memories are
vanishing, you forgot you started boiling water after you started pouring it,
that you can't remember the name of someone you know - is that part of the road
to dementia, or is that separate?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, what they've found, when I started looking into this now,
for the very first time, scientists are actually looking at what actually
happens in middle age, and they're sort of looking with brain scanners, and
there are many more sophisticated studies out there now that started 40 years
ago that actually followed the same people through their lives.

And what we have now as a species for the very first time is this long span of
time, a long middle age, which has never actually existed on the planet before,
and there's many researchers who are going in and looking at this for the very
first time.

One told me it's like, you know, sort of studying nuclear physics because this
is brand new for the species. And so we now have the results of long-term
studies. We have brain-scanning. We have genetic analysis. And when I started
looking into this, what I found out is that we have a whole new image of middle
age. And yes, it includes some of this decline and forgetting names and things
like that.

There's no question that there are declines in our brain. But what they're
starting to do is sort of sort out what is normal aging, what is pathology and
leading toward dementia. And they now know that dementia is not inevitable, and
that basically this normal forgetting is part of normal aging, and in many
ways, we can, if we keep ourselves healthy, actually improve our brains from
middle age going on. And we can live, actually, throughout our lives with
pretty sharp brains if we're lucky. So it's not necessarily inevitable that we
are headed toward dementia, no.

GROSS: Well, you write that what surprised you is that the middle-aged brain is
in some ways better than the younger brain, but let's get to that a little bit

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah, right. Hard to believe.

GROSS: Let's start with what is so troublesome and kind of frightening to a lot
of people, which is how easily distracted you can be, particularly in middle
age, that - the idea that you'll start something, go to another room for a
second, and then completely forget that you'd started something. Why is the
brain more distracted in middle age?

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes. There's no question that I think, you know, it's not
necessarily the only age - you know, teenagers are not sort of your example of
mindfulness. We all know that. But what happens in middle age is it simply
happens more often and in a degree, I think, that is more worrisome.

We will be boiling water. Someone will come to the door, and we'll forget we're
boiling water. These thoughts sort of bounce out of our heads, and we are more
easily distracted.

What is happening, they think, is that the brain can suddenly, as you age, fall
into what they call sort of a default mode. This is kind of a daydreaming mode
that - it's kind of an inner dialogue.

For instance, you'll be driving along and - this has happened to me. I know
that, basically, you're driving along, and suddenly, you look up, and you think
oh my goodness. I haven't been paying attention to the road at all. You've been
thinking about, you know, brining the turkey for Thanksgiving or, you know,
what you're going to do at work or whatever, and suddenly you realize you have
not really been paying attention.

And what they think happens is as you age, you do fall into some kind of a
daydreaming default mode more easily, and this default daydreaming mode is
brand new. They didn't know it existed in the brain before, and they're now
studying it and trying to figure out how that happens.

And I - there are also some researchers, some very good brain scanners out in
San Francisco who are watching this on a minute level. And what they find is
that as brains age, the very first second that we try to pay attention to
something, our brain's processing speed might be a little slower - that does
decline as we age - and that we might miss a beat in the very first moment of
focusing on something. And so we're a little bit off in terms of getting that
memory of what we're doing or what we want to remember into our brains in a
good, clear way.

So one thing they tell you is to focus very hard at the beginning of things so
that you can sort of get past that moment where sometimes we are more
distracted. There are things that happen in our brain. There's no question that
there are some declines.

GROSS: Now this default mode, this daydreaming state of mind that you refer to,
you say confirmation of its existence is considered one of the most important
discoveries ever made about how brains operate and age. So is it a discrete
place in the brain that's responsible for this default mode?

Ms. STRAUCH: It is, in a way. They can watch a brain, for instance, that should
be on sort of using maybe the frontal cortex, which is right behind our
foreheads and has grown very large in humans. This is the part of our brain
that makes us most human and really keeps us on task and planning and paying
attention, and they can watch, sometimes, people in brain scanners, for
instance, when they're supposed to be using that part of the brain kind of fall
into a lower part of the brain that is not in the frontal lobes at all and sort
of hang out in this area that is not the area that you use to pay attention.

So that's what they're watching. They can see it physically happen in the
brain, and they can see it happens more often with people as they age. And
these are normal aging things that happen.

Obviously, there's a spectrum of people who do it more than others, but I think
if we're all honest with ourselves, we realize that this does happen.

GROSS: So to sum up, you're saying that scientists have discovered that the
middle-aged brain more easily slips into this default mode and isn't - and is
what - not really concentrating on absorbing new information, paying attention,
remembering what you're doing, that kind of stuff?

Ms. STRAUCH: That kind of stuff, yeah. And so there's no question that, you
know, along the way, in our 40s or - actually, what happens in the brain from
our 20s on is that the processing speed slows down. There's no question that we
lose processing speed in our brains. That's - for instance, they test it with
how fast can you tap your finger, or how fast can you remember, you know, words
that start with D or whatever.

So they know that that processing speed slows down, and what's different is
they used to think that that processing speed under - was underpinning every
aspect of our brains, and so they really thought that since we saw such
declines in that, that our brains inevitably were declining in all sorts of

But what they now know is that the processing speed may affect certain
functions of our brain, paying attention in the beginning, falling into the
default mode, for instance, things like that. But in general, the other
attributes of our brain, by middle age, are so vast and so much better than
anybody ever thought, that we really - the processing speed and the declines
that we see in middle age may not matter that much.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Strauch. We're talking
about her new book, "The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising
Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind." And she's the deputy science editor at the
New York Times, where she's responsible for health and medical coverage. Let's
take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Strauch. She's the author
of the new book, "The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents
of the Middle-Aged Mind," and she's the deputy science editor in charge of
health and medical coverage at the New York Times.

So we've talked a little bit about distraction in middle age. Let's talk a
little bit about that sense of drawing a blank, that there's a blank where a
memory used to be. You can't remember a name. You can't remember that you did
something. You can't remember what you've read. You can't remember the title of
the book that you can't remember that you've read.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: What was that? What were we talking about?

GROSS: So what are some of the new scientific explanations for that sense of it
vanished, that name vanished?

Ms. STRAUCH: Right. What they now know is that memory is not one thing, and as
they look into memory, they find there's different parts of memory. For
instance, as we age, it's very odd, but certain parts of our memory remain

For instance, our autobiographical stuff. We know where we came from. We know -
I know my brother's name is Ron. Things like that stay with us. Other things,
like how to swing a tennis racket, how to ride a bike - habits, basically,
washing our hands and things - do not go away.

So what's going on, then, with this other part of memory, which they actually
call episodic memory or memory for things in context? For instance: Where did I
have Thanksgiving last year? Was Cousin Harry there? You know, these episodes
are what seems to be more problematic as we age.

So we keep that certain memories, and other parts of our memory seem to wane.
Short-term memory, obviously, for names gets a little bit dicey along the way,
and this episodic memory, you know, what did I have for breakfast, remembering
what happened in context.

So that's an issue, but part of the good news is there's some scientists,
Deborah Burke out in Pomona, for instance, who has dissected what happens, for
instance, to names. She finds that the problem with names is basically not a
storage issue. It's a retrieval issue.

In other words, those names are not really lost. They're just kind of
temporarily misplaced. And she has done lots of studies, for instance, that
show - well, if you're trying to remember a name, for instance Brad Pitt. If
you can't, later on, if you're given a hint and you don't know it's coming at
you and you don't know it's connected to what you're trying to remember - for
instance someone says cherry pit to you, suddenly that name Brad Pitt will pop
up into your brain.

So it's not lost. What it is is just basically a difference - a problem with
retrieval. And what she finds is that with names, in particular, that the way
that they're stored in our brain, the information about the sound of the name
and the information about what that name is, is kind of weak.

There's one connection. It weakens with age. It weakens with not use, you know,

GROSS: You say that the word and the meaning of the word are stored in separate
places. And those two - sound is...

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes, the sound of the word.

GROSS: The sound of the word, yeah.

Ms. STRAUCH: So, like, the sound of the name and what that name - information
about that name she finds are stored in different places, and the link between
them basically can decline. And if you don't - in other words, if you haven't
seen somebody in a while, those are the kinds of names - or used their names in
a while, those are the kinds of names that go.

Also, the names are very arbitrary. For instance, we might remember one of the
seven dwarfs is Grumpy because he is grumpy, but it might be harder to remember
Peter Pan, for instance, because that name doesn't tell you anything.

I have never forgotten the name of my childhood dentist. His name was Dr.
Smiley(ph). I think he's the only name that I remember from my childhood in
terms of medical professionals. So because it is linked, it wasn't quite so
arbitrary, that's in my brain forever.

And so what she finds is, though, that we can retrieve those names. They pop
up. That's why, for instance, we can't remember a name, and then, you know, two
days later, you think oh, Brad Pitt, or oh, you know, Terry Gross. I remember
her. And the name will pop up into your head.

They even find this, for instance, like, internal sounds. Say you're trying to
remember the name Velcro, and you can't for the life of you remember this word
Velcro, that stuff that sticks things together and we use on shoes and things.
What's the name of it? So if you can't bring that name to mind, later on if you
hear a word that is even internally similar - for instance pellet, with an E-L
in there - sometimes even that will be enough to prompt your brain to go get
that Velcro name, and there it is.

GROSS: Is it all words that are stored in separate places from the meaning of
the word, or is it just, like, proper nouns? You know, names, places.

Ms. STRAUCH: Proper nouns seem to be problem, again, because she thinks they're
so arbitrary. For instance, if you - there's a guy named Bob, and he's a baker.
You can see him on the street, and you will remember he's a baker, but you
won't remember his name is Bob. And the reason for that is because there are so
many other things that can prompt you to get to the word baker.

For instance, you can think white hat. You can think flour. You can think -
there's other places for that information to be stored and linked in your
brain, but the name is very arbitrary - not that useful, not connected, really,
to anything. So it's stored in fewer places.

They find, for instance, if you want to remember somebody's name, if you can
add places in your brain for that name to be linked to - for instance, if
you're trying to remember, you know, Joe, and you look at him and he has, like,
a big nose or bushy eyebrows. If you think when you meet Joe, Joe bushy
eyebrows, that will store some of that information in a place in your brain
that will help you, when you're trying to remember his name, retrieve it. That
means there's more of as they call a neural footprint in your brain.

GROSS: You mention a little memory trick that you and some of your friends have
tried that I use sometimes, too. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But
if you can't remember a name, that you know that it's in your brain someplace,
if you just run through the alphabet and say A, no, B, no, C, no, D - yeah,
it's David. You know...

Ms. STRAUCH: Right, exactly. That's amazing.

GROSS: How much success do you have with that, and what's the explanation for
the success?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, again, the explanation is that sound of the word. For
instance, once you get to B, B may prompt the word - the sound may help you,
just as you hear cherry pit might prompt you to remember Brad Pitt's name, for
instance, the sound may be a link enough to help you retrieve that name.

So that's why we're all kind of walking along and silently going through the
alphabet, and it may take us a little bit longer, and we might look a little
silly, but, you know, you'd be surprised how many people are - you know, when I
talk to them, they are already using this little trick, which I think is

So there's other tricks you can do. For instance, they find that if you're
trying to remember to take medicine or do something later in the day, if you
imagine yourself doing it, actually picture yourself doing it, again, it will
create a bigger neural footprint in your brain, more ways for you to remember

So that's kind of a couple things we can do to try to, you know, help ourselves
out through this period.

GROSS: What are - before we get to some of the good news about the middle-aged
brain, what are some of the other parts of the middle-aged brain that do

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, they think that - the people who have looked at this brain
cell by brain cell think that our brains do shrink maybe two percent per
decade, and that's really the brain branches that are coming off the brain
cells. There's some decline in some neurotransmitters like dopamine that help
us become alert.

There's no question that they see some decline, but the main thing about what
they see when they actually look at the brain, brain cell by brain cell, is
that the old idea that we lost 30 percent of our actual brain cells as we aged,
which has been sort of scientific dogma for decades, is not true.

In fact, as we age, if we're healthy, we keep our brain cells. And that really
has been the huge finding that has created a great deal of not, you know, sort
of rah-rah aging, but actual fundamental shift in how we think about how our
brains age and actually much more optimism because of that finding.

GROSS: What is this shift in thinking about the middle-aged brain that that
finding has - is responsible for?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, I think they think that - what they find is if we can keep
our brain cells, that means that there's all sorts of ways, then, that with
drugs or with eating or exercise or things, there are actual things that we can
do to keep them running well.

So if the declines in processing speed and this slight shrinkage of our brains
is taking place, what we also find is that the brain cells are in pretty good
shape. We have enough now what they call pristine agers who age, and their
memories stay intact, they are sharp for many, many years.

So we know it's possible. There's enough study now of people who have
successfully aged through many years, and they've studied them. They now know
sort of what's going on. They can separate pathology from what is normal aging,
and there's much more encouragement. As I said, it's not just, you know, let's
get old and be happy. It really is fundamental science, that they're watching
actual brains age, and they're much more encouraged about what's going on.

GROSS: My guest is Barbara Strauch, author of the new book "The Secret Life of
the Grown-up Brain." We'll talk more about the middle-aged brain in the second
half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Barbara Strauch author of
the new book, "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain." The book reports on the
latest scientific research into how the brain changes in middle age and how
those changes affect memory, focus and judgment.

The average middle-aged brain loses ability when it comes to memory and speed.
But there's some good news too. Strauch's book is a follow-up to her book about
the teenaged brain. Strauch is health and medical science editor at The New
York Times.

Are their processes that improve in the middle-aged brain?

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes. I think the most shocking thing I found was there's a woman
named Sherry Willis who's done The Seattle longitudinal studies, studying
again, the same people, you know, thousands of them as they’ve age and she now
has 50 years of data. And what she finds is that in middle age, which the
modern middle age is now, you know, remember, at the turn of the century, our
life spans were 48, by - on average. Now it's close to 80. So we now have this
long span of time in the middle that really is brand new and we now have, now,
science based on that brand new span of time.

What's going on? And what they're finding is that, for instance, there's whole
areas where cognitive function actually is better during that span of time,
from 40 to mid '60s, than it was when we were in our '20s, which I think is
shocking to almost everybody that I mention it to and it was certainly shocking
to myself. We think we're sort of the smartest in college or graduate school or
whatever, and when they do the tests they find that's not true in many areas,
including reasoning, inductive reasoning, we are better than we were in our
'20s. And there's a whole host of areas where they're finding that we actually
improve in middle age, over our, you know, our 20-something selves, and it's
extremely encouraging. We are better at getting the gist of arguments.

When you’re younger, you may, I mean this is a very simple example but, you may
be better at remembering a list of fruit: bananas, oranges, whatever, grapes.
But when you’re older, as you get older, you’re better at recognizing
categories. Oh, those are all fruit. Or oh, those are all vegetables. And we're
much better at sizing up situations. They find that we're better at things like
making financial decisions. It reaches a peak in our '60s. Social expertise, in
other words, judging whether someone's a crook or not a crook, also improves
and peaks in middle age.

There's a whole bunch of stuff that we're sort of trained to think that our
brains actually decline and that we get depressed and things, and on the
contrary, our brains are functioning probably at their best in this new modern
age - modern middle age.

GROSS: In that category that you’re talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah.

GROSS: Not in everything.

Ms. STRAUCH: No. No.

GROSS: But in, I mean in sizing things up and analyzing.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: And you mentioned that there's, you know, a I guess a physiological
explanation for it. It's called bilaterization, that middle age people are
better able to use two sides of their brain instead of one when thinking
through a problem. Would you explain?

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes. Bilaterization, a big word that has been quite controversial,
actually, because again, when they started looking inside the brains of actual
people. When you’re younger you will use one side of your brain to remember
something or to learn something and another side of your brain - we're talking
about the frontal cortex again, behind our foreheads, this human part of our

When you’re younger you use one side of your brain to learn something and
another side of the brain to recall it. And as you age, they watched people use
both sides of their brain for both tasks. And originally, they thought uh-oh,
this must mean bad things. It must mean that there's some deficit somewhere,
these people, they're really trying to figure it out. And there was some
concern because people with Alzheimer's will use sometimes more parts of their
brain to try to do simple tasks that they could use with one part of their
brain before.

But what they're finding is, the people who use as they age, two parts of their
brain rather than one to do a task that they used to be able to do with one,
are really the people who are functioning the best in terms of cognitive

GROSS: Can you explain which two parts of the brain we're using? I mean, one of
them is the frontal cortex, which I don’t know much about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, the frontal cortex is right behind our forehead and it is
the part of the brain that, in humans, has gotten enormous compared to, you
know, our closest relatives on family trees - chimpanzees or whatever that
share 99 percent of our DNA. But if you actually look at the frontal cortex of
a chimpanzee and look at the one of human, the human frontal cortex is
comparatively enormous.

And this is the part of the brain that is developing as we're teenagers and
probably finishes developing at some level when we're 25. And this is the part
of the brain that helps us plan ahead, that see the consequences of actions.
And this is the part of the brain that solves problems, makes us most human,
really. And so we have a couple things going on when we're using two parts of
our brain.

If it is something that calls for our frontal cortex to do the tasks that we
want to do, then you'll see, as you age, people calling on two parts. We have
two sides to our brain - right and left - and if they call on two parts of
their frontal cortex to do a task, they can usually perform it better. If it's
something that they usually don’t need their frontal cortex for, you'll find
that people who are really cognitively better than others will go in and reach
for that frontal cortex to help them do whatever they need to do.

And they think that basically, that people who are used to reaching up and
getting some of that high power brain juice, really, they find correlations
with education. The higher educated people are better at doing that. They find
people who maybe have more efficient brain through genetics or whatever, are
better at doing that. And what they're trying now to do, actually, is teach
people to use two parts of their brain to call on their frontal cortex more.
And that's why you get all these efforts to try to push the brain - as you get
older - to try and make it work really hard.

And what they're trying to do is get you to use more of your brain and keep
using more of your brain, so that your brain doesn’t get in a rut and go
fallow, or call on that frontal cortex more so those pathways are clear and you
have it there when you need it.

GROSS: How can you consciously call on your frontal cortex more?

Ms. STRAUCH: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: Hello. Frontal cortex. I think it really has to do with patterns
of your brain. And what you really need to do is keep pushing your brain. It's
not a conscious thing. I think that if we try to focus really hard on
something, that's calling on our frontal cortex. If we learn something new,
they say foreign languages.

Something that one professor at Columbia who has studied adult learning through
the years says what's good is even talking to people who disagree with us.
Creating in your brain, what he calls a disorienting dilemma or kind of shaking
up the cognitive egg. We have to present our brains with things that make it
wake up, make it pay attention, make it work really, really hard. And it can
have an impact in terms of just presenting your brain with, not just new
information and not just retrieving information you know like with crossword
puzzles, but actually getting out there and letting your brain confront things
that are different.

GROSS: And make an argument to synthesize the thoughts you have and...

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...put it together in defense or an argument against an idea. That too?

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah. I think it sharpens your brain. I find that, you know, if I
listen to people who disagree with me or something, I find it sharpens my own
thinking. You know, so it kind of makes sense. I think we all know this is kind
of going on but we just never really paid attention to it and the scientists
never really broke it apart to, you know, try to figure out what was actually
going on.

GROSS: My guest is Barbara Strauch, author of the new book, "The Secret Life of
the Grown-Up Brain."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Barbara Strauch. Her new book, "The Secret Life of the
Grown-Up Brain" is about the latest scientific research into the changes that
happen in the brain in middle age.

There's a whole industry now of courses, teaching memory techniques, of foods
that are supposed to like enhance your thinking and memory capacity. And you’ve
looked at this new industry that's growing up. Is there any proof behind any of
the products, whether they're food or memory devices, that are being marketed

Ms. STRAUCH: Not much. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: This field is still just beginning. Most of the stuff that's out
there is while harmless also not scientifically proven to really work. There's
only one I think of this new brain testing - brain challenging things that have
actually been tested in a scientific way and they did find it worked. That one
was called Brain Fitness and they actually did a scientific study of that and
found that that system, which is extremely rigorous, really makes your brain
work hard.

GROSS: What's the system?

Ms. STRAUCH: It's a system that uses all sorts of things. For instance, they
use sound like mat, pat, sat, and you listen to these and you have to keep
distinguishing between the fine tuned differences between the sounds, for
instance. So again, it’s training your brain to focus at the beginning, fine
tuning it and push it really, really hard.

GROSS: In your book you mention that exercise and oxygen can be helpful for

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes. If there's a star in aging brain research, it is probably
exercise. The best data is with exercise and across the board they find that if
the brain needs anything, it is very much like the heart and it needs blood. It
needs to circulate - the blood needs to be circulated. It needs oxygen. And so
when they do the studies from rats to humans, about vigorous exercise, they
find that it improves cognitive function across the board. And they're finding
now, as they look inside brains, it creates new baby brain cells. Something
they didn't...

GROSS: Exercise?

Ms. STRAUCH: Something they didn’t think happened in the grown-up brain at all.
So you get better. You get bigger brain volume if you exercise, and it seems to
last. So there's no question that, sadly, exercise works in terms of keeping
your brain in better shape. So that one is studied probably the best out of all
the things you can do.

GROSS: When we say exercise, what are we talking about? Does it have to be like
lifting heavy weights and, you know, doing all the machine stuff in the gym?
Are we talking about walking every day? What are we talking about?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, some of the studies are Kramer, University of Illinois, has
found that people who simply walked around a track three times a week, you
know, at a certain pace were better off than others. Walking, anything aerobic
is considered quite good. You can’t - it's probably best not to sort of take a
stroll, but actually get your heart pumping. That's really what you want. Just
as you were thinking about what do I need to do for my heart, think about the
fact that you should do that also for your brain.

GROSS: So do you feel like there are social implications of what you learned
about the middle-aged brain?

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah. And I think that, you know, we’ve just gone through this
recession - maybe we're still in it - where we watched a lot of people, in
particular, older people lose their jobs. These are people really in the prime
of their lives. And we know from studies, that there's a great deal of age
discrimination in hiring.

And I think when you learn this stuff it just makes you kind of sad, that our
society is still setup for a lifespan that ended at 60. And many people are
vigorous at 60, vigorous at 70, vigorous at 80 and we're sending them home and
telling them they're not part of our society anymore. And I think it's setup

We really have to adjust to our lifespan and we have not yet. And even in my
own company, I watched people who were 70 - the old days, you retired at 70, at
60, and that was considered what you’re supposed to do. We watched people
retire at 70 and they're still vigorous and maybe that was too early too. So,
but the world is not setup to appreciate, I think, this middle age brain that
we have.

GROSS: Barbara Strauch, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. STRAUCH: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Barbara Strauch author of the new book, "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up
Brain." She's health and medical science editor at the New York Times.

You can find a list of brain exercises and read a chapter from Strauch's new
book on our Web site
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
In A Seaside Town, Hidden Desires Surface


Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of the new novel "Hotel Iris" by
the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. Maureen says that in Ogawa's recent books, like
"The Diving Pool," and "The Housekeeper and the Professor," Ogawa has proven
herself to be a literary connoisseur of off-kilter relationships. In her new
short novel, she offers yet another variation of this unsettling theme.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: "Hotel Iris," Yoko Ogawa's tale of sadomasochistic love, is
mercifully short. I say mercifully, because this is a novel you find yourself
reluctantly transfixed by. Ogawa is a writer capable of seducing readers
against their will, and as proof of her power, she's racked up major literary
awards in Japan and serious critical raves in this country for many of her 20-
some previous books. Like her compatriots Kenzaburo Oe and Natsuo Kirino, Ogawa
is drawn to the grotesque in human personality and behavior. In "Hotel Iris," a
1996 novel newly translated by Stephen Snyder, that fascination with the
grotesque is explicitly - even repellently - sexual.

This isn't the kind of redemptive novel suited for one of those brisk publisher
appendices entitled "Questions for Book Group Discussion." Instead, think
decadent, minimalist, profoundly sad and warped.

Ogawa's novel is set in a moldy seaside hotel presumably on the coast of Japan,
but given the sparse detail here, it might as well be Torquay or the Jersey
shore. Mari, our main character, is a 17-year-old high school dropout and the
daughter of the proprietor, a widow who barks orders and cuts corners. When a
newly arrived guest turns out to be blind, Mari's mother abruptly downgrades
her room to the one with the worst ventilation and no view.

Unconsciously revealing her mother's ruthless frugality of emotion, Mari
recalls that when her grandfather became ill with cancer, he suffered for
almost six months but he died in his own bed. We had given him one of the good
mattresses from a guest room, but only after it had broken a spring. Whenever
he turned over in bed, it sounded like someone stepping on a frog.

One evening in the off-season, something crashes in one of the few occupied
rooms, and a disheveled woman, obviously a prostitute, runs out and down the
stairs screaming curses. Her middle-aged customer also steps out of the room:
He's impeccably neat, and when he coldly orders the prostitute to shut up, Mari
is mesmerized by his voice. As she later says: I was confused and afraid, and
yet somewhere deep inside I was praying that voice would someday give me an
order too.

Mari's dark wish is granted. When she spots the man again in town, she follows
him and they strike up a conversation. She learns that the unnamed stranger
works as a Russian translator and lives in an isolated house on an island off
the coast. Soon, Mari is taking the ferry out there for trysts whose brutality
is made all the more shocking by Mari's poetic, enthralled descriptions.

Here's a relatively restrained snippet.

He had undressed me with great skill, his movements no less elegant for all
their violence. Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became -
like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an
oyster for its pearl.

Mari subjects herself to all manner of humiliation without a trace of self
understanding, and that emotional ignorance is precisely what draws readers in
and compels us into subjecting ourselves to the harsh pleasures of this novel.
We can connect the dots between Mari's mother's stinginess of spirit and the
allure of the translator's cruelty, but Mari can't - she's too young and too
tamped down.

What also imbues "Hotel Iris" with an undeniable magnetism is Ogawa's mastery
of mood. This is such an off-beat, out-of-time story. When the translator
invites Mari to his house for a meal, all the food turns out to be liquefied -
pureed fish and spinach in bowls. That's because the translator's nephew is
visiting, and he has no tongue.

The hotel Mari's mother owns is populated by sunburned guests who pile up dirty
linen and dirty dishes filled with bits of ham with teeth marks to be scraped
away. Hotels and beaches are transitory places that promise possibility,
widened horizons. But in this novel, taking a ferryboat out to sea only
transports Mari to another form of servitude.

Using spare strokes and macabre detail, Ogawa creates an intense vision of
limited lives and the twisted ingenuity of people trapped within them. You'll
be glad you read "Hotel Iris" and also glad to check out.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Hotel Iris" by Yoko Ogawa.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Plimsouls: Looking Back At A Band's Raucous Pop


The Plimsouls were an L.A.-based pop band led by the singer and songwriter
Peter Case. They performed extensively during the early '80s, when our rock
critic, Ken Tucker, lived in L.A. and reviewed their concerts.

Now a live club performance from October 31, 1981 has been released for the
first time. It's called "Live: Beg, Borrow and Steal," and instead of
nostalgic, it left Ken feeling freshly enthusiastic about the continued
vitality of the Plimsouls' music.

(Soundbite of record, "Live: Beg, Borrow and Steal")

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: L.A.'s finest. Let's hear it for L.A.'s finest
(unintelligible) the Plimsouls.

THE PLIMSOULS (Music Group): (Singing) (unintelligible)

KEN TUCKER: These days, Peter Case is known as a respected, cult-audience
artist who specializes in a thoughtful neo-folk-rock. In 1981, however, Case
was the front man for The Plimsouls, a jittery, raucous band that inserted
itself into the thick of a newly thriving Los Angeles rock scene.

(Soundbite of song, "Now")

THE PLIMSOULS: (Singing) Yeah, I need your love tonight. I can't wait another
moment. What's on your mind? The same thing's on mine. So why wait any longer?
Oh, yeah. ‘Cause I need you now. Right now. Now. Right now. Oh, yeah...

TUCKER: In the early '80s, L.A. was just getting around to reacting to the
late-'70s punk rock that had emerged from New York and England. I lived and
worked in L.A. during this time, and the reason for the lag was very clear to
me: L.A. was very much a music industry town and the industry of that time
still revered Fleetwood Mac - as it should have - and The Eagles – eh – more so
than The Sex Pistols and The Ramones.

So when punk hit L.A., it arrived as damaged goods, broken and splintered. What
emerged locally were bands like X and The Germs, and power pop as practiced by,
among many others, The Plimsouls.

(Soundbite of song, "Inch-by-Inch")

THE PLIMSOULS: (Singing) Locked in a drum, so now it's the potion. We don’t
have to lie, let the world slip away. Before this night is done we'll see what
we've become. Day by day, inch by inch, we can take it bit by bit. Inch by inch
(unintelligible) love and misery...

TUCKER: The Plimsouls' music consisted of tight little melodies with terse
guitar hooks from Eddie Munez and hoarse vocals from Peter Case. Their
colleagues and competition range from now almost forgotten bands like The Three
O'Clock to the rancid smirk of The Knack, L.A.'s power pop's most commercially
successful act. The Plimsouls reside in history somewhere in the middle. Their
best songs didn't just sound like potential hit singles; they sounded like
anthems, soaring tunes such as "A Million Miles Away."

(Soundbite of song, "A Million Miles Away")

THE PLIMSOULS: (Singing) Friday night, I'd just got back. I had my eyes shut,
was dreaming about the past. I thought about you while the radio played I
should have got loaded, it's the reason I stayed. I started drifting to a
different place, trying to hold on to the hands of time (unintelligible) you.
And there was nothing there to bring me back. I’m a million miles away. A
million miles away...

TUCKER: Peter Case and The Plimsouls avoided the use of the first person in
their lyrics and rarely begged for love in the manner of so many romantic pop-
rockers. They sang about reaching bliss through persistence, aiming for a kind
of earthly nirvana - or, as they called it, the zero hour.

(Soundbite of song, "The Zero Hour")

THE PLIMSOULS: (Singing) Bells are ringing ‘cause it's getting late. Trains
pulling out, there's no time to waste. Now, you better you better move fast,
yeah, you better move fast. Staple your ticket on your shoes. Pack up your
suitcase, there’s no time to lose. Now you better move fast, yeah, you better
move fast. It’s getting late, now it’s time to go. It’s over the top now, it’s
out of control. Just a matter of time ‘til the zero hour...

TUCKER: The Plimsouls made two studio albums and left behind the memories of
tough, brief performance sets, during which the band made its point and then
stalked off the stage.

I saw them in all the local clubs, from the Sunset Strip legend the Whiskey A
Go-Go, where this album was recorded, to the Starwood off Santa Monica
Boulevard, to smaller joints like Madame Wong's and Cathay de Grande. They
always presented themselves without arrogance, but also with the confidence of
the big pop stars they never became.

I respect Peter Case's latter-day recordings, but I love his work with The

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for "Entertainment Weekly." He reviewed a
recording of a 1981 Plimsouls concert called "Live: Beg, Borrow and Steal." You
can hear two tracks from it on our Web site,

I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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