It is impossible to really know whether what we are seeing corresponds to reality, and how much our social and family background serves as a filter to what is perceived by our brains. Certainly it is now well known that the environment can affect our responses radically. When care units for Alzheimer’s patients are designed intelligently, anxiety, aggression, social withdrawal, depression and psychosis all decline according to a 2003 study (Zeisel). Providing bright light can also reduce depression and keep the brain functioning optimally, since circadian rhythms affect hormone levels and metabolic rate. A study published in 2008 by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience found that brightly lit retirement homes slowed down cognitive decline. This is not just important for the elderly – school design can account for some 15% variation in results.
No studies have been done on the effect on the brain of moving into an assisted living facility, but it is possible the environment sends a message that primes a reduction in independence and possibly mental ability too. It is difficult to deny that our environment calls forth a response in us. Our thoughts and bodies respond differently to a work environment and to home for example; they respond in one way when faced with a shabby urban setting and another when contemplating a beautiful landscape. Graffiti for example has been described as a crime against an entire community because of the feelings of fear and decay it engenders, leading to insecurity, decline in property values and loss of services and businesses. Our environmental consciousness is largely subconscious, but all the more powerful for it, since it affects our thoughts and our bodies through the stress or relaxation response.
The brain’s job is to maintain a coherent view of the world. It will therefore interpret what it sees to fit our assumptions, and this includes our beliefs about ageing. This begins the moment we are born. Newborns do not see the world the way we do. They cannot track moving objects but see mainly fuzzy shapes and contrast. Up to three years old their brains are making 24 million new connections every minute. What happens then is interesting – synaptic pruning occurs from age 10 to 18. This basically means that connections that have not been used are eliminated to free up space for the ones that are more useful in their environment. The brain is not fully developed until 25 (which is why teenagers cannot see the bigger picture). In this way our brains create our reality.
As we age the brain (probably the orbito-frontal cortex) puts together pieces of information to make sense of our ever-changing environment. However over time if something fails to fit what we have been taught, the brain will literally alter the information to maintain coherence. An example of this is the McGurk Effect. If we are exposed to the sound “bah” but watch a video of a person mouthing the sound “fah”, our brain will hear ‘fah’. Even when we are told the sound is in fact ‘”bah” (and verify this by closing our eyes), the moment we watch the person mouthing “fah”, the brain will again hear “fah” (see video page). Another example of how the brain discards information is motion-induced blindness. This may happen when driving at night when there are so many stimuli (lights, sounds, flashes) the brain avoids being overwhelmed by weeding out what we do not need. The same thing happens when wine experts are given white wine to taste and then the same wine coloured red. Their description of the taste alters dramatically.
So, how suggestible are we?
As we grow older, we are confronted with an onslaught of assumptions, reports, facts and figures about what it is to be over fifty, sixty, or eighty for example. It is all too easy to internalise this information and allow it to affect our mental and physical responses. But we have far more control over how we age than we think. An example of how our environmental consciousness can affect our health is stress. When faced with a challenge our sensory systems function more quickly leading to lots of mental energy. This continues as long as we feel we can cope. The minute we decide it is too much the amygdala is turned on which leads to a deterioration in brain function. However, the key here is that it is OUR decision – only we can decide when we are overwhelmed. Once the fight-or-flight response is triggered we go from creative ideas to no creative energy at all.
Let us imagine facing a steep flight of stairs. A young person will ‘know’ they can cope, but when we are older we may think, “I can’t be expected to climb those stairs at my age.” The stress response will then pump harmful cortisol into our bodies. Unless we are aware of what we are doing, we may always react in the same way to those stairs from then on, signalling a decline in ability and fitness. Seeing the stairs as a challenge would trigger quite a different response.
70% of our brain connections change every day. From our first to our last breath everything we are doing is changing our brain. We allocate our 100 billion processors differently depending on what we put our attention on. Experiment after experiment has demonstrated that focusing on a particular skill or response will cause the corresponding area of the brain to grow.
The concepts we internalise and the words we use can cause us to get stuck in attitudes that do not serve us. Through questioning our response to the environment, and through meditation, we can transcend language and thought. The ability to think about thought, to have a sense of who we are outside time, space, our society and contemporary ideas empowers us not to be a victim of our environment but instead to transcend environmental consciousness. What we perceive and how we react to it will always be affected by the programme our brain is running until we become aware of it.
So, are we running a programme that tells us we are an old person?