What does it mean to be Iranian?

Question: What does it mean to be Iranian?

Khakpour:    It means a completely different thing to be Middle Eastern in our post-9/11 era.  It meant a completely different thing before that.  But I’m very interested in Pan-Middle Eastern identity, and I think that after 9/11, rather than even thinking of myself as an Iranian, I began to think of myself as a Middle Eastern person more than ever.  And it is very loaded, and it’s very mixed.  But probably when I grew up . . .  When I was growing up I felt a little bit ashamed.  You know I was born the year before the Iran hostage crisis, and I was always taught that we were Persian, not Iranian.  You know I had one of those families where they’d say, “Oh, say ‘Persian’”.  Then I even for a while said “Iranian”.  I remember growing up as a teenager, I knew Americans were saying “Iranian”, so I was Iranian.  And then after 9/11 it sort of forced me to confront who I was and what that meant.  And the ultimate outcome was pride, so that was . . . it’s a happy ending.

Question: Why have you become more Iranian with time?

Khakpour:    Well part of it is, you know, politics and world affairs.  Generally I think when you feel somewhat marginalized and you’ve become the new minority, you tend to gravitate towards your heritage, I think, more.  So that’s been happening to me.  I think naturally as you get older you go back to your roots, too, for the most part.  But the novel had a lot to do with that.  The novel . . .  For many years it felt like I had forgotten what it was to be Iranian.  And you know when I was in New York I was a New Yorker.  And when I was in California I was a valley girl.  And so it brought me back full circle because I was constantly immersed in issues, whether in the writing of it, or even in the press phase.

Question: What draws you to Iranian culture?

Khakpour:    It’s interesting to be from a place that’s dominated so much world news in the last 30 years particularly.  I think that, you know, a lot of people joke with me when my novel came out that, “Oh, isn’t it great that Iran is hot right now?”  Iran wasn’t particularly hot when I wrote the novel.  There wasn’t much talk about Iran immediately after 9/11 when I started the book.  But Iran has never stopped being in the news I think, particularly since 1979 or the advent of the Islamic revolution.  So I think for a lot of Iranian exiles in this country, there’s always been a sense of unease with who we are.  And we’ve often felt that we have to somehow explain to people who we are and what it means.  I mean you know there’s tons of misunderstandings.  You know I get questions all the time, you know, “What’s Persia versus what’s Iran?” or something like that.  So there’s always a lot of explaining to do.  So that’s one part of it.

The other part of it is you’re from this ancient, ancient culture – so much history, so much turmoil, and so much grandeur.  It seems hard, I think, for young people – particularly in this age – to know what to do with all that, at least for me for sure.  And then when religion comes into play it’s also very tricky.  I was raised without religion being a big part of my background.  Historically we were Muslim, but my father made the decision to informally covert to Zoroastrianism.  And my name is foreign to Iranians as well.  Porochista is the daughter of Zarathustra, so I didn’t quite fit in with other Iranian, and certainly not Iranians in Los Angeles.  The whole Tehrangeles phenomenon was very foreign to me because we grew up in a very modest suburb in Southern California where we were the only Iranian family – maybe the only for a while.  So it’s been very mixed I think, and continues to be.  And you know how much I speak about it and what I feel about it often determines . . . is dictated by my own reaction with things I read.  I’m sort of separated from Iran, too.  I don’t have a lot of relatives there.  My father just went there for the first time in 30 years last week.  But there definitely is a sense of unease and eggshells . . . walking on eggshells always with a country that you’re from, which I think few people feel.

Question: Have you ever been back to Iran?

Khakpour:    No.  Since you know 1981, ’80 I have not been back, and I don’t have any immediate plans to.  In the ‘90s I definitely planned on going to Iran at some point, and for whatever reason it didn’t happen.  But it seemed like the climate was perfectly fine for an Iran visit.  In recent years obviously since Ahmadinejad has come to power, it seems like less and less of a good idea.  So     . . .  But like I said my father went there last week and he had a wonderful time.  And he did have trouble at customs and he, you know . . . all that.  But when he was actually there he had a wonderful, wonderful time.  But I think it might be a little bit different for women – and particularly women who have gotten any sort of western press, or have any sort of prominent western identity.  So I’m gonna hold off on that for a second.

Khakpour feels she has become more Iranian with age.

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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.

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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.


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