Why is crisis so central to your novel?

Question: Why is crisis so central your novel?

Khakpour:    Crisis is sort of inherent in the novel from almost the first page.  You know sort of the . . . the . . . the _________ minor crisis of family life, you know.  In the beginning the son probably for the first time realized that he and his father don’t think eye-to-eye when his father goes on this eccentric crusade to rescue all the blue jays in their apartment complex by putting bell collars on all the cats.  And he gets out of control and begins kidnapping all the neighbors’ cats at one point.  And the son has a lot of anxiety and fear, and part of it is because they are somewhat recent immigrants.  I was interested in the sort of minor crises.  And then those juxtaposed against the sort of brilliant crises.  And by brilliant I mean the sort of, you know, stunning and horrifying crises of our lifetime.  And 9/11 was a major one.  It was a personal one for me.  It was less a political choice, but a personal choice because I was there.  I was a resident of lower Manhattan.  You know I had to witness the thing outside my own window.  It was a perfect view.  So for me it seemed . . .  You know a lot of people say the first novel is generally the most autobiographical.  It often ends up being by default somehow.  But I did find, as I was writing it, the feeling that I wanted to get in all the traumas of my life into 400-something pages.  I had to throw some out of course, but there were . . .  There was . . .  The shadow of the Islamic revolution was a major one.  And then that put against 9/11; and the feeling that 9/11 to someone who is Iranian doesn’t necessarily mean much ethnically or culturally; but it does mean that all the things that you left your country for, you know . . .  Most Iranians came here to get away from an unstable government, and the sort of explosive nature, or the explosive clashes of religion.  And then to have it happen again once you’re here times a thousand . . . times you know . . . it was a very difficult experience.  I kept thinking . . .  In some early journal entries, I remember writing I always thought I could finally escape my, you know, ethnic identity.  And here’s the Middle East  . . .  And now the Middle East has come to me.  My family tried to get us out of that, and here it was outside my own window about a quarter of a mile away.  So you know those sort of global crises become opportunities for us to sort of reflect on all . . . you know our whole lives.  And so I was forced to do a lot of examining of my entire life after that point.  You know going through a lot of different . . . going through lots of the bad imagery of my life in order to come to certain conclusions about that sort of catastrophe.

I don’t think I’ve ever known a time outside of crisis.  I think it just happens to be when I was born and, you know . . .  You know 1978 I was born.  And then you know within a year you had the Iran hostage crisis.  And then you had the advent of the Iran-Iraq war by 1980.  And even though I wasn’t personally, you know, involved in some way in those, they were . . . they were very much present in my household – talk of them and on the news.  There was no escaping it.  So I’ve always felt like the atmosphere of catastrophe has just been around me.  And I even remember feeling, you know, a day or two after 9/11 that that was coming all along – you know that was definitely gonna happen.  Because my whole childhood I’d had all these sort of chaos dreams that had to do with cities just erupting.  And they were so abstract.  All I just remember was people being covered in rubble running through the streets.  And then when I . . .  When I think about the images we saw on TV that day, you know and we can continue to see, it’s sort of perfect mirror images.  So in a sense I think . . .  You know the ‘90s I suppose were a little bit of a break for a lot of us, you know?  But why were they a break?  Because we weren’t listening to the news or something?  Because we weren’t really taking the time to understand what was going on in Bosnia, for instance?  But I do remember I had that . . . I felt like “Okay . . .”  In the ‘90s I had a little bit of a break.  My biggest worry was probably would I make six figures a year when I got out of college like everyone else was, you know.  And then you know I graduated in 2000, and 9/11 happened in 2001.  So for much of my . . .  In much of memory, there’s been a lot of bad, bad imagery that’s been hard to run away with.  And because of the type of family I come from, we’ve always been obsessed with news and politics, that I never have felt that I was distanced from it in any way.  I always kept my earthquake preparation kit handy.  I, you know, had that on the day of 9/11.  We were one of the first cars that got out of the city because of me somehow feeling like emergency mode was familiar.  It’s Strange.

Khakpour says she's never known a time outside of crisis.

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  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
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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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  • "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.


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