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See Inside June 2005

MIND Reviews: June/July 2005

Reviews and recommendations from the June/July 2005 issue of Scientific American MIND

A best-selling science writer who often tackles neuroscientific issues, Johnson argues against the presumption that popular media undermines our intellect. He claims that video games, television and movies are more complex than ever, to the benefit of viewers' cognitive skills. Whether we are mastering the intricacies of the simulation game SimCity or tracking the multiple plotlines in the TV drama 24, we are "honing ... mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books," Johnson writes.

The learning does not come from content but from form, Johnson says. Video games, for example, enhance our problem-solving and decision-making skills as we test the limits of a game's logic; the aliens we are blasting are secondary. After making similar arguments for television, film and the Internet, he proposes that this increasingly challenging media environment may help explain the upward trend in IQ scores.

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 ($26)

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.

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