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Middle-aged tears and talking to toddlers

Neurological-based advice

Dear Dr Ash,

I’m 58 years old and spent most of my life believing I was a fairly standard-issue, buttoned-up British male. My strict grammar school and ten years in the army (before I left to start my own business) taught me people expect successful men to control their emotions and stay level in stressful situations. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to hand on to my children and employees. But then lockdown happened and I began working from home. My wife and I bought a dog and started a weekly ritual of watching TV series together. That’s when I started to find I could no longer stay dry-eyed throughout a tearjerking drama – or even one that’s only mildly sentimental. I’d well up over a sick horse, or a Victorian child with scarlet fever. I even cried when Logan Roy died in Succession, and he’s a complete monster. What’s happened to me?

Tearful of Durham

Older adults are more aware of their emotions but less driven by them

Dear Tearful,

Today has been blessed with sunshine and gentle summer showers and I’ve been kicking a football around the garden with my teenage son. He is at an age where he is overtaking me in nearly every physical way: he is faster, stronger, more agile, and in a few short moments will be taller too. Yet when I think back to my own teenage days, I can’t say I would trade places with him. Despite its many apparent drawbacks, there is something deeply reassuring and comfortable about getting older.

Research into the ageing brain suggests this is no coincidence. Emotional life tends to get somewhat simpler with age, not because time brings wisdom or insight, but because as we get older our brains change in ways that enable us to detach from the turbulence of our own thoughts a bit more readily. The prefrontal cortex, which blossoms in teenagers and young adults, begins to lose density in mid-life in a very specific way. Sub-regions like the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate, which are involved in mood regulation and processing risk and reward, maintain their integrity throughout adulthood. Other regions like the superior and middle frontal gyri, associated with analytical reasoning and working memory, tend to thin out with age. The net effect is that older adults are more aware of their emotions but less driven by them.

Ironically this is precisely the outcome you were seeking as a younger man, when you worked to steel yourself against the onslaught of your own turbulent emotions. Paradoxically, now that emotional life has a less powerful effect on your cognition, you may feel more able to engage with it. In the safety of your marriage and your family home, and in the security of a fictional story, you’re able to let your guard down. A psychodynamic view might suggest that the emotions welling up around sick horses and Victorian children are repressed traumas and desires that you have not previously processed. I’m more inclined towards the simple biological view that changes in brain connectivity make emotional responses like these at once more likely and less threatening. Either way, I suggest you allow them to wash over you and to enjoy the catharsis they provide. Ageing is a baffling journey, and there is little you can do except embrace it, with both laughter and tears.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

Dear Dr Ash,

My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter has just hit the “why?” stage. Every single thing we say, from simple statements (“It’s raining”) to attempts to curb her behaviour (“Don’t lick that thing you just picked up off the pavement” or “Time to get out of the bath”) is met with an innocent “why?”. As a scientist, I see these questions as an opportunity to give our daughter rational explanations of why the universe operates as it does – so far as I am able. Some of this of course goes over her head and she wanders off to find someone more fun to talk to. But I feel I am giving her a good foundation for her future education – and at least I am being honest with her. My partner, a non-scientist, prefers the more poetic responses of those terrifying German fairy tales, such as: “Because your finger will get stuck” or “You are in danger of turning into a fish”.

I feel she is filling our daughter’s head with nonsense and fodder for future nightmares. She feels I am causing her to skip the magical stage of childhood and catapulting her straight into A levels.

Which of us is right?

The Fictional Fabulist
Leicester

The idea that science is antithetical to beauty and wonder… seems facile

Dear Fictional,

I’ve just read your letter on the train into London where, of course, it is gently but steadily raining. I’ve ducked into the British Library to write you back. It’s always a relief coming here, particularly on a rainy weekday afternoon when you can have a bit of cake and a cup of tea before settling in at a comfortable desk with good lighting. The entire building exudes a sense of calm and grace, a sort of temple to the written word where everything seems designed to facilitate deep contemplation. Well, nearly everything. I’m still a bit tripped up by that massive Paolozzi sculpture in the courtyard.

The sculpture depicts Isaac Newton as a sort of mechanical man, glowering down at a compass and unaware of the bedraggled readers queueing for a coffee just in front of him. Paolozzi’s sculpture is an homage to an earlier painting by William Blake, in which Newton is depicted naked and perched rather uncomfortably on some jagged rocks, again puzzling over a compass. At least for Blake, the painting was an overt criticism of scientific materialism: Newton is intently focused on his theoretical diagrams but unable to perceive the beauty of the natural world around him.

As a young graduate student in neuroscience I used to walk past this sculpture with no small measure of resentment. The idea that science is somehow antithetical to beauty and wonder – that, as John Keats said, Newton’s prism only served to “unweave a rainbow”, seems facile and outdated. As a scientist yourself, you have probably had moments of extreme wonder when the beauty and poetry of the natural world spoke to your heart and soul. These are the moments that make us spend our lives studying science. Not to ignore the natural world but to notice it in intricate detail, as a lover notices his beloved. And not because an understanding of science is important or lucrative or in some way essential, but because it is wonderful.

Your partner’s stories, fabulous and freewheeling, are also wonderful. They encourage fantasy and imagination and a mutual sense of play, attributes we can sometimes forget when telling scientific stories. We should not. Newton once said of himself, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” It’s this sense of play and wonder, of delight and quiet fascination, that your daughter is seeking when she asks “why?”. Whether you answer her questions with beguiling stories of fairies and fish or amazing accounts of black holes and rainbows, the point is to show her that the world is brimming over with mystery and wonder. I have no doubt, with two such passionate storytellers to guide her, she is well aware of that.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

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