The Challenges of Being a Bright Young Thing
Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran in 1978 and raised in the Greater Los Angeles area (South Pasadena, to be exact). Her first language was Farsi, her second (and luckily mostly forgotten) tongue, Valley Girl. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MA program. She has been awarded fellowships from Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo.
She began writing as an arts and entertainment journalist—her subjects have spanned from clubs (Paul Oakenfold!) to couture (Paul Poiret!); Maggie Gyllenhaal (Maggie’s first big feature!) to Fabio (Porochista’s first feature at 16!); New York City’s finest drinking establishments (Paper magazine bar columnist, 2000-2001, as well as New York magazine online bar critic) to rural Illinois’s most dangerous skydiving compound (2004 staff writer stint at The Chicago Reader). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, The Chicago Reader, Paper, Flaunt, Nylon, Bidoun, Alef, Canteen, nerve.com and FiveChapters.com, among others.
She currently spends a third of her time in New York City and two thirds three hours away in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where she teaches Fiction at Bucknell University.
Question: What is it like being a young female writer?
Khakpour: Well on the one hand being a young female writer, you know, there is the sort of obvious disadvantage that you’re not being taken as seriously – that it still, you know . . . You’re dealing with a world that largely takes middle aged White men seriously. And so, you know, you sometimes get the feeling that people are saying, “Wow,” you know. “This young girl can write!” You know, “Look at that!” And that’s somewhat hideous and embarrassing. But there are definitely advantages. There’s another level of press worthiness I suppose that comes from it, again, from that bad impulse of like, “Oh look! A young woman can write!” It’s a strange feeling because I never thought of myself as that young. There’s several . . . There’s been many great novelists in the last decade that have had works out that have been much younger than me. I just turned 30 yesterday, so I was excited to have the novel come out while I was still in my 20s – the last few months of it. But you know it was sort of a strange feeling to have some of the press focus on that, you know, yeah you’re more likely to have your photo run with you . . . with your (01:03:10) book review, say, in the New York Times or something like that. And I just hope that people weren’t snickering at that, and that wasn’t off putting. But I also feel like sometimes people immediately assume that young women will be writing some form of chick lit, and that was frustrating. I immediately got raised eyebrows when they realized that this novel had a lot to do with fathers and sons, and that it wasn’t gonna be a sort of, you know . . . that Iranian women’s novel or memoir that they seemed to all really want. So the curve ball, I guess, has offered an interesting story.
Question: Does a bright young thing age well?
Khakpour: I think luckily in the field of literature there’s not that sort of anxiety. You get the feeling that, you know, the best writers always hit their strides later. And for the most part you’re not gonna have all the glamorous photo shoots, right? And you’re not gonna have that much attention put on what you look like. And you know maybe Zadie Smith has paparazzi moments, but most of us won’t. So luckily I don’t think so. I think, you know, that might be reserved for the world of models and ballet dancers. And that’s exciting because I like that I . . . I probably will never experience retirement as many do. So no, I have no anxieties about that. I’m excited. I’m excited about getting older because it seems to be less distracting. Youth can be very distracting I think. And even getting some of that press is quite distracting. You know much of the last four months of my life, you know, have the sort of atmosphere about constant anxiety about, “Oh did I say that right” in some interview? Or, “What did I look like in that interview?” Or like, you know, “Do I . . . Should I go to this event, or should I . . .” You know so much of stuff that has nothing to do with the book, and nothing to do with me being a writer. And it was very distracting. So I think writers value quiet and introspection more than anything. And so a future of more of that seems not so bad as long as it can still somehow go hand-in-hand with a living. But I’m also a teacher, so I hope to always be in the academy somehow, and hopefully depend on them for my earning a living more so than the world of publishing.
"Wow! This girl can write!," can cut both ways, Khakpour says.
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Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.
- "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.
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.
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