Why We're Hardwired for Midlife Reinvention
The PBS special reveals that the mature brain has its own special strengths
On Thanksgiving weekend, PBS will begin airing a new special: Boundless Potential With Mark Walton. (Check your local PBS station listings for air dates and times). The program is based on Walton’s book, Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond. Next Avenue asked Walton to explain what he learned about the “new neuroscience of potential” in midlife and beyond, which is featured in the special and in his book.
State-of-the-art neuroscience has recently revealed that we are literally hardwired for lifelong reinvention through the emergence of extraordinary new, creative and intellectual powers as we mature.
What’s more, a growing number of men and women are learning how to leverage this inborn potential.
Rather than lowering their aspirations in midlife, boomers are raising the bar — inventing profitable new careers, businesses and avenues for social impact that extend well into their 70s, 80s and even 90s.
Turning Brain Science on Its Head
I discovered this during seven years of research that gave me access to some of the brightest people in the field of neuroscience. These are experts who are engaged, even obsessed, with the question: What is the long-term potential of the human mind?
What they’ve discovered in the past decade, through the use of cutting-edge brain imaging technology and new behavioral studies, is that practically everything they had thought about the mature brain is patently untrue.
Simply put: The mature brain is not inferior to a younger person’s brain. It is organized differently.
And, as such, the mature brain has within it strengths and assets that are not available to us in life’s first half.
(MORE: Midlife Crisis or Power Surge?)
Among the pioneers in this field is Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and a pioneer in the field of brain plasticity, the brain's ability to continue growing and developing at every stage of life.
The Plasticity of the Mind
In my PBS program, I asked Merzenich how he would characterize the long-term potential of the human mind based on his research.
“We’re continuously plastic,” he told me. “We have the capacity to extend our abilities at any point in life. The brain, in fact, is continuously changing, revising its wiring as a consequence of what you do. And each time you acquire a new skill or ability or take on a new set of challenges that requires new learning on a substantial level, the brain is remodeling itself. This gift is with us for the duration of our life."
In my research, I consistently observed surprising leaps in the mental abilities of women and men who successfully reinvented themselves in midlife and beyond.
For example, Dr. Sherwin “Shep” Nuland was a nearly burned-out physician who reinvented himself as a brilliant writer in his 60s. Gil Garcetti, after losing his job as Los Angles district attorney in his late 50s, transformed into one of America's leading photographers. Soon after Marion Rosen's physical therapy practice collapsed in her mid-50s, she created a unique method of bodywork treatments that is now practiced and taught around the world.
When responding to financial and other challenges, people like these seemed to rapidly demonstrate previously hidden talent and potential in areas you would never expect.
Our Hidden Potential
I asked Merzenich whether, based on his experience, such people were aberrations. Or could it be, I wondered, that we all have such hidden potential. His answer took my breath away.
“Of course we do,” he said. “And we also have within us the ability to step life up a notch in whatever we’re doing, to carry ourselves to a higher level of operations.
“One of the interesting things that we commonly see when people transform themselves later in life is that they’re not just doing a new thing at a more or less mundane level,” Merzenich added. “We see that they have found what they’re really meant to do in life and suddenly move into the domain they were really constructed for.”
By nature, I’m not a “believer.” I’m a serious journalist and executive educator. So it takes a significant amount of hard evidence to change my thinking.
But let me leave you with this advice: When you encounter people who try to convince you that they're “over the hill” and incapable of reinvention, try to talk them out of it. If you can’t, take a deep breath and walk away.
They don’t have a clue.