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When very young laboratory rats are exposed to highly stimulating environment they become brighter, healthier and more active. Moreover, their brains actually weigh more and contain many more cells than the brains of young rats raised in a more ordinary environment. But there is apparently a big difference in the brain between smarts and wisdom.
Marian Diamond, Ph.D. Came, a professor of anatomy at the University of California, Berkeley was determined to find out if the "life enrichment" results found in young rats would work on older rats. She carried out experiments with two- and three-year-old rats, basically senior citizenship in their world. Her results were equally impressive.
The elderly rats looked forward to the excitement of their playground like surroundings, and to the special care and attention they received, just as the juvenile rats had. Also, they were smarter and more adventurous than their contemporaries. They not only kept learning and functioning well, but some lived up to 30 percent longer than would otherwise have been expected. Their brains became bigger. Tissues seemed to be added especially in the cerebral cortex, the seat of conscious awareness. They developed new nerve-cell connections, which demonstrably improved the rats' learning ability. One might extrapolate that older equates to wiser, at least with the rats.
Wisdom and Experience
If this research can be applied to humans, it can-it uphold the long-standing observation that older human beings who have diverse interests and enthusiasms, and who maintain supportive social networks, tend to stay healthier and live longer than those who sit around listlessly waiting for the end. Perhaps part of the acquisition of wisdom was through experience.
Marjorie LeMay, M.D., professor of radiology at Harvard, estimated that, in weight, the brain loses about three ounces of its original three pounds over its life. Neal Cutler, Ph.D., director at American College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, has calculated that about 10 percent of the brain cells (up to 25 percent in certain areas) are gone by age 80. In size, says Harry Demopoulos, M.D., a pathologist at New York University, aged brains often shrink much more than 10 percent, mainly because the spaces between the cells shrink.
Decline in Weight vs Quality
But does this decline in weight, cell number and size really signify a decline in quality or function—especially in a healthy brain where no disease is present?
British Zoologist Richard Dawkins, Ph.D., of the University of Oxford, has theorized that the loss of brain cells doesn't necessarily represent deterioration, but rather might be likened to the chipping away of excess stone by a sculptor in order to reveal the finished piece of art-in this case, the mature human brain. Diamond's experiments imply that the more the brain is stimulated, the more advanced the thinking, the more adventurous the mind all lead to longer life.
So That is Wisdom
Through autopsies of healthy human brains, Paul Coleman, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester, has learned that even in the later years of life as knowledge is acquired, the brain cells that are part of the intricate networks through which the cells interact, can keep growing longer and reproduce. Could this be the sculpting that Dawkins's fancy suggests?
Young people excel at straight-line analytical thinking-the kind, for example, involved in solving most math problems. But older people are often better at complex intellectual tasks where Seeing connections and weighing diverse factors are of critical importance. It's pleasing to think that those ever more intricate neuron and webs, Coleman observed. They represent the special kind of knowledge and understanding that come with seasoning and experience. In a word, that is the stuff that wisdom is made out of.