Unfortunately, Johnson uses only a modicum of neuroscience to back up his thesis. Elsewhere, and in the absence of footnotes, his arguments lack rigor. It may be true that a child's zombielike stare at the TV set is a sign of focus, as he writes, but the positive implication inherent in this statement pales in the face of a large amount of research that links young children's excessive television viewing with attention, learning and social problems during childhood and teen years.
Johnson also addresses video-game violence with more opinion than science. Even though he maintains that content does not matter, he often underplays the violent objectives of popular games. I am not convinced that the cognitive skills derived from building a virtual city equal those gleaned from shooting cops and innocent bystanders. In the end, Johnson has persuaded me that perhaps some of what is bad is good, but certainly not everything. --Aimee Cunningham
Older but Wiser
The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Grows Older
by Elkhonon Goldberg. Gotham Books, 2005
The possibilities of cognitive decline and dementia are among the most frightening aspects of aging. But according to New York University neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg, brains get better in key respects as they get older. Moreover, he argues in The Wisdom Paradox, people can do much to ward off the debilities associated with aging.
The brain's capacity for pattern recognition is central to Goldberg's premise. Moving through middle age and beyond, the brain develops a vast store of "generic memories"--knowledge of the shared patterns in events or things. This reservoir gives older people an improved ability to size up situations and solve problems without going through the step-by-step assessments a younger person might need.
Such pattern recognition underlies competence and expertise and can compensate for age-related declines in attention or memory. Pattern recognition can even amount to "wisdom"--basically, knowing what to do. The author cites various elderly achievers to demonstrate that mental vigor can persist late in life. He notes that sculptor Eduardo Chillida retained formidable abilities even as his Alzheimer's disease progressed.
Delving into the relevant neurobiology, Goldberg points to a growing body of evidence that the brain's left hemisphere is oriented toward familiar patterns, whereas the right hemisphere focuses on novelty. He argues that this dichotomy is more important than nuts-and-bolts partitions, such as the left hemisphere handling language while the right handles spatial reasoning. This maturation of mind means that the left hemisphere becomes increasingly important over a person's lifetime.
Moreover, the brain is shaped by how it is used. For instance, musicians who practice consistently develop a larger Heschl's gyrus, an area involved in processing sound. And contrary to onetime scientific belief, the brain forms new neurons throughout adulthood.
Through such observations, Goldberg emphasizes the importance of maintaining an active mind as a defense against mental decline. Though not a new idea, Goldberg impressively fits it into a wide-ranging picture of the aging brain. He speculates, for example, that art serves a central societal function in boosting mental acumen. He also outlines a "cognitive exercise program" he runs in which participants engage in computer-based exercises. The discussion here would have benefited from home-based exercises readers might try.
Altogether, The Wisdom Paradox makes a compelling case for the possibility of maintaining a sharp mind far into old age. The book merits attention from the old and not so old alike. --Kenneth Silber
The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
by Jack El-Hai. John Wiley & Sons, 2005