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Openness to different views builds brain resilience

In a fascinating interview, The New York Times Science Editor Barbara Strauch told Kim Hill some of what she has learned about the human brain. She has has written two books on the teenage and middle-aged brains and how research is expanding our knowledge of their development and function.

One thing that struck me was the research into the brains and lives of people who die old and at a high level of functioning, yet whose brains on autopsy reveal severe damage from the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The level of impairment associated with such damage should have been significantly more serious, raising the question of what causes this protective effect. As Barbara Strauch put it, these people seem to have developed some spare capacity in the brain that can be pressed into service to maintain function despite increasing damage.

Exercise and good diet (antioxidants and all the rest of the usual list) appear to be very important (I read somewhere else that sustained high levels of stress are to be avoided, as they are damaging over the long term). A high level of education, and presumably ongoing learning and/or other forms of mental stimulation are also strongly associated with high functioning brains well into late old age.

But it was one comment in particular that intrigued me: Barbara observed that being exposed to people whose views are very different from your own is also extremely good for metal agility and resilience.

Among my projects at the moment is an engagement plan on issues related to stormwater (or rainwater, as Hans Shreier would call it). We are scoping what level of engagement within the organization and with the community is needed for sustainable long term outcomes. Genuine engagement on complex issues involves multiple parties with many different and sometimes conflicting or competing points of view.

At the same time, I’m helping with some postgraduate lectures at the University, where Sam Trowsdale has set up a very popular course on Water and Society. It involves extensive analysis of stakeholders and their views and interplay in relation to the water sensitive city. One of the most popular parts of this course is a series of presentations from a developer, an environmental regulator and representatives of indigenous and community groups.

So it seems to me that cultivating openness to the views of those who may seem to be our opponents is not only part of solving what Sam calls the complex, messy, wicked problems of the real world, but also an investment in the long term agility and resilience of our own brain!