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Your Midlife Brain

August '08

I have to admit it – my favorite course in Graduate School was “The Neurophysiology of Brain and Behavior.” I was pretty much alone with this predilection, except for one woman who worked in a research lab at the local VA Hospital. Each week my classmates moaned, and even groaned, as they crowded through the door of our large lecture hall. I, on the other hand, headed there like a homing pigeon. I even enjoyed poring over our doorstop of a textbook, A.R. Luria’s, Higher Cortical Functions in Man.

You can imagine my excitement when I read an article recently in Harvard Magazine about an unexpected finding on myelination in the brain by researcher, Francine Benes. Myelination is the accumulation of myelin – the fatty sheath that insulates our nerve fibers and speeds conduction. (By the way, this article was published a few years ago – I just came across it.)

One of the basic tenets of my beloved Neurophysiology course was that myelinization (or myelination) was complete by about age 5-7. In fact, this axiom was so basic, I still remember it decades later. We were also taught that the active period of myelination in the human brain was accompanied by an amazing period of growth in children as they learned to walk and talk. Then myelination was all over by about the time kids entered Kindergarten or First Grade.

According to Benes, however, that basic tenet is simply wrong. Turns out, increases in myelination continue – she actually measured them. She discovered myelination rises during the teenage years into our early 20’s and then plateaus. And decades later, in our early 40’s (surprise, surprise), myelination takes off again and increases into our 50’s.

The area of the brain where this midlife myelination occurs is responsible for our emotions and memory, as well as for their integration. Small wonder we can start feeling confused and like a stranger to ourselves at this stage of our lives!

When I consult with prospective clients over the phone, they often tell me they want to explore who they are at a deeper level and to start living more authentically. This inward turning may be a natural companion to increasing myelination, according to Benes.

So if you’re experiencing some mayhem in the emotional realm at midlife and find yourself on an inward journey, you are not alone. And there’s a good reason for these new feelings – it’s biology. What a relief!

Happy August,



  1. alice said on August 13, 2008:

    Very good Bon……..

  2. fran said on August 14, 2008:

    thank god we get another jolt of myelin in our 50’s.
    i have multiple sclerosis which de-myelinizes axons.

    i ‘d like to think of getting a set of re-treads. in fact, i think
    i will implement that vision in my meditative musings.

    and thank you, i enjoy the messages from you

  3. bonnieleonard said on August 14, 2008:

    Hi Fran!

    What a wonderfully creative use of metaphor. You go girl!

  4. bonnieleonard said on August 14, 2008:

    Thanks, Alice!

  5. AlexM said on August 16, 2008:

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  6. Marna said on August 17, 2008:

    Thanks for the informative newsletter, Bonnie. My two teenagers and I are re-myelinizing at the same time, which could explain some of the disconnects at our house!

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