June 30, 2010 — -- By most measures he was an old man, approaching his 90th birthday, but the legendary man of science still walked with a sense of purpose as he raced to the front of the crowded auditorium to deliver his annual lecture.
There were no professors or university administrators in the room, even though some would probably have risked their tenure to sneak in and hear Linus Pauling talk about chemistry.
Only graduate students were permitted in the room. But that year there was one exception. I was a young science writer at the Los Angeles Times at the time, and Pauling had agreed to let me follow him around for three days, which included attending his annual lecture. So I had the hottest ticket in town.
But the lecture wasn't exactly a show stopper. Most of what he said went over my head, and probably over many other young heads in the room, but all of us paid respectful attention.
Especially when the old guy's mind went blank.
He was trying to recall something, but words, and memory failed him. An embarrassed silence filled the room, and Pauling looked a little panicky as he no doubt wondered if all those bright young minds thought he was losing his.
"Well, I guess you would like to know what we are working on in the institute," he said, regaining his composure as he referred to his research lab not far from the campus. He picked up a piece of chalk and went to one corner of the room, which had three walls covered by backboards. At the top of the first board he wrote an equation.
He described one experiment that forced a modification of the equation, which he also wrote. He continued developing the equation until the entire wall was filled. Then the second wall. And then the third.
When he finished, the work that had been his most recent obsession covered all three walls, each equation leading to another, and another, and another.
Pauling: Human Brain Is a Muscle -- Exercise It and It Will Serve You
The old man didn't look so old any more as he turned and smiled.
"Are there any questions?" he asked.
Not a single hand went up as the students sat there, awed by an intellectual Tour de Force that demonstrated that the old guy was still very much in command.
Had I not been there myself I would not believe this story. But it is absolutely true, and it may have been the most important lecture those students ever heard. Pauling's message was simply this: the human brain is like any other muscle. Exercise it, train it, use it, and it will serve you well. Neglect it and it will fail.
Pauling died a few years later, still trying to end war, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. Ending war turned out to be a lot harder than unraveling the mystery of the chemical bond, which earned him his other Nobel. But in the years, since we have learned much about the human brain, confirming what Pauling knew, perhaps intuitively.
Much of what is so often described as losses from the "normal aging process" can be meliorated, or at least delayed, by the lives we lead. Here is what a lot of scientists could add to Pauling's Stanford lecture:
- Intellectual challenges, ranging from crossword puzzles to solving complex problems, sharpen the mind. Mayo Clinic scientists found last year that older adults who participated in a computer-based training program to improve the speed and accuracy of brain processing showed twice the improvement in certain aspects of memory compared to a control group.
- Get off the couch. Exercise gets more oxygen to the brain, improving memory and reasoning, according to several studies. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered that physical fitness has a physiological effect on the brain too, actually increasing the size of the hippocampus, which is essential to memory formation.
- Can't remember what you ate last night? Get more sleep. Researchers at Michigan State University have found that sufficient sleep reduces mistakes in memory. Similar findings have been reported by several other institutions, including Rutgers University.
We Become What We Want to Become, Pauling Showed
- Want to think more clearly? Focus. There is growing evidence that transcendental meditation, or other forms of mental conditioning, can improve mental functioning, reduce stress, and even address depression.
It's doubtful that any of those findings would surprise Pauling today, if he were still alive. In that stunning performance at Stanford University so long ago, he demonstrated that getting old is not an excuse for poor mental performance, at least among healthy persons.
To a large degree, we become what we want to become, or unfortunately, what we are willing to let ourselves become. It's a personal choice.