“One secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm. ~ Aldous Huxley
When my wife and I moved into our house on Whidbey Island, our first addition was two kittens, Archie and Lulu. Early one morning while I was busy bringing in wood for the stove, Lulu dashed out through the open door. She never returned.
To provide a play-pal for Archie, we got an English Golden Retriever puppy – Bodhi, who turned out to be a little friskier than Archie’s adrenals could easily handle. So we added Gracie, a rough and tumble alley cat who proved to be a good energetic match for Archie. This bit of backstory is necessary to properly introduce you to HAROLD.
There’s one additional reason we originally got Bodhi – he would insure that both my wife and I got out of the house to walk him every day. That strategy worked so well that we added The Three Bears (Olliebear, Emmybear and Abbybear – three Bernese Mountain Dogs). Our thinking was, “If one dog gets us out of the house X minutes a day, four dogs will get us out of the house 4X minutes a day.” We’re very good with specious reasoning around our house; but math and analytic assessment are not our strong suit.
Better Get a Move On
But the basic idea is sound: reducing our screen time and moving our bodies is a critical component of good mental and physical health. Consider: 80-90 percent of all the neurons in your brain have one primary purpose – to move your body. Even more telling: Every neuron in your brain traces a route through the maze that is your neural network, and every one ultimately terminates at a muscle! Do you think my brain is happy that we went out and got four dogs? You bet it is! (And we haven’t even mentioned the Canine Oxytocin Factor – mostly because I just made it up).
Anyway, this is where HAROLD comes in. HAROLD is an acronym (which I didn’t make up) that stands for Hemispheric Asymmetry Reduction in OLDer adults). It describes one way brain capacity and efficiency become reduced due to age-related structural and physiological decline. Essentially what happens is the older we get the worse we perform on the Stroop Test (The test where your speed of response is measured as you identify the color BLUE when it’s printed as the word GREEN). Old people can be really pokey on the Stroop (Named after the originator, J. Ridley Stroop in 1930). The part of the brain most affected – the prefrontal cortex, home to all the Executive Functions. And we all recall the Executive Functions, right? But just in case we’ve forgotten (Thanks, HAROLD!), here’s a partial list of ten:
Mindful awareness of happenings in the immediate, surrounding environment
The ability to focus on tasks or situations despite distractions, fatigue or boredom
The ability to change focus, adapt to changing conditions or revise plans in the face of obstacles, new information or mistakes (Flexibility can also be considered “adaptability”)
The capacity to think before acting (deficits are often observed as “impulsivity”)
The ability to readily modulate emotional responses
The ability to list steps needed to reach a goal or complete tasks
The ability to arrange information or materials according to a system
The ability to creatively implement skillful, living activities
The ability to comprehend how much time is available, or to estimate how long it will take to complete a task
The ability to stand back and evaluate how we are doing in day-to-day life (can also be thought of as “meta-cognitive” abilities or “mindsight”)
What “hemispheric asymmetry reduction” means is: Just when we’ve finally gotten used to being able to skip and chew gum at the same time, along comes the decline! But the good news is: it doesn’t HAVE TO. If we know what to address, e.g. 10 Executive Functions, we can begin to come up with preemptive, creative ways to begin to address them, and these other neurological challenges that come with aging. My number one and neuroscience’s best recommendation – put physical exercise, in whatever form you prefer, at the top of the list. It’s really hard to keep an enthusiastic child still. Ask any elementary school teacher!