Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Even older brains can change

Edited by Jill Wright,

Coincidentally, after I spent Sunday morning at an APS study group on ageing - an area that we at Psychology Melbourne are developing particular expertise in -

quite coincidentally this morning  I came across a mention of BBC Radio 4's program on The Science of the Mind, which last week explored the latest research in neuroscience and brain plasticity. 

That research offers considerable hope for the aged, those affected by stroke, and also the seriously depressed.

In the past few decades, psychologists have discovered that although the brain shrinks and some areas show cognitive decline with age, the brain can change and adapt, developing new neural pathways and tissue, helping to maintain equilibrium.

As the program points out, the adult brain can learn and even brains damaged by stroke can adapt to compensate for the loss. The program is available online, and it's worth listening to.

Neuroscientist Heidi Johansen-Berg, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, both from the University of Oxford, are interviewed, along with writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough from Durham University, author of a fascinating book called Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memoryon how we construct memories. The other guest is Ben Shephard, author of Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind.

What Fernyhough tells us, for instance, is that we construct our memory every time we need to remember. In other words, when we recall things, we aren't replaying a recording of the events. Our memories are constructed.

Another is that depression slows down memory.

Williams, who wrote Cry of Pain: Understanding Suicide and the Suicidal Mind, explains that people who are suicidal judge themselves for everything and inevitably the judgment is "guilty". 

They can be literally trapped by their memories, which give people their sense of self. But as Williams points out, "biases and deficits" occur in memory, leading to distortions that can affect mood and interfere with the ability to solve problems and make plans for the future.

The program also touches on some myths about mindfulness, describing it as "training in paying non-judgmental attention moment by moment".

And it also emphasises that physical activity is good for brain health.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.