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The Price of a Sharp Mind

Last week, I came across an Associated Press story about Rita Levi Montalcini who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1986, along with Stanley Cohen, for discovering the mechanisms that regulate cell and organ growth. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, she said, "At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20."

The implications of the quote are fascinating.

Montalcini suggests that experience, more than any other single factor, has sharpened her thinking, even as her brain enters its 11th decade. If this is in fact true, sign me up for experience, and lots of it.

The problem, of course, arises in first defining the term experience and then establishing the connections between it and continued healthy brain activity.

Experience has been defined in various ways, particularly within academic research. For example, in women's history, scholars have looked to experiential knowledge to gain access to women's voices that have been traditionally excluded from the archive. The term can also be understood in its more common sense definition as knowledge gained from repeated activity.

There has also been research on the connection between certain experiences and brain function. Benjamin Libet's work on the connection between brain activity and consciousness and a recent study on how brain activity is altered during religious experience are but a few examples.

However, when Montalcini mentions experience, she defines it in terms of difficulty. In the AP article, she explains that the anti-Jewish laws under Mussolini in the 1930s forced her out of the university and into a makeshift lab at home. "Above all, don't fear difficult moments," she says. "The best comes from them."

According to Montalcini's logic, difficulty makes the mind sharper.

Joan Acocella
, a cultural critic for The New Yorker, echoes this sentiment. In the introduction to Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, her excellent book of essays on dancers, writers and choreographers, she explains the thing that most of the artists she discusses have in common.

"But my view of things is more Grundy-esque: that what allows genius to flower is not neurosis, but its opposite, 'ego strength,' meaning (among other things) ordinary, Sunday-school virtues such as tenacity and above all the ability to survive disappointment."

If one had the option, it would be a difficult choice to make: have things be easy and the mind atrophies, or go through difficulty and survive disappointment and the mind gets sharper.

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