Great Advice

Question: What is the best advice you ever received?

Tommy Thompson: My mother always taught me, “Always say hello. Always have a smile on your face. And always be nice to people.” That was my mother’s way. She said . . . She was very outgoing and she was involved in everything in the community. Everybody knew my mother. My father was on the county board, so all the people from . . . from the city would come in on Friday night. The grocery store stayed open seven days a week in order to make a living for the family, and the business community would stop into the Thompson Grocery store on Friday evening and talk politics – local politics. And my father was on the county board. So they came in to talk about roads being . . . if they needed snow plowing or if they needed grading . . . upgrading. And they always came in and discussed those kind of current events with my father. And I was absolutely enthralled by these kind of Friday night meetings, and I think it really got me interested in politics at a local level; but more, it whetted my appetite to get involved in politics. And my father also had a saying. He said, “You have two ears and one mouth, Tommy. You use them in that proportion and you’ll get along just fine.” So my mother was the outgoing. My father was the more disciplinarian, and an individual that was much more on task. So I had the . . . I had the best of both worlds. I enjoyed life, but at the same time learned how to work very hard. And these are the kind of things, you know, that brought me, I think, to the forefront. Because all of my elections – every single one of my elections that I ran for – people said I couldn’t win. And I always outworked my opponent and always had a way of getting along with people. And people liked me. And so even though the political pundits said I couldn’t win when I ran for the state assembly at the age of 23 . . . the youngest person elected to the state legislature that year; and when I got elected as governor at the age of 43; and even when I went away to Washington everybody said, “It can’t be done.” And I always have been able to measure up and actually defy the political pundits and do well.

Recorded on: 7/6/07

 

 

Life lessons from a small town.

Participatory democracy is presumed to be the gold standard. Here’s why it isn’t.

Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.

Photo by Nicholas Roberts /Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
  • Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
  • Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.
Keep reading Show less

How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Learn the art of conversation, with comedian Pete Holmes

We have a new range of skills coming to Big Think Edge this week, including communication, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.

Edge Weekly
  • At Big Think Edge this week, we delve into ways you can make your conversations sing. So to speak.
  • Learn a valuable lesson about psychopaths, from diagnosed psychopath (and neuroscientsit) James Fallon.
  • If you're not a subscriber yet, join Big Think Edge today. Boost your skills with our 7-day free trial.
Keep reading Show less