June 1, 2023

Henry Kissinger’s brain

Henry Kissinger turns 100 on Saturday 27 May 2023: how could his intelligence remain so lucid? Is his a rare exception or a model that can be replicated to some extent? The interview with Giulio Maira, neurosurgeon at Humanitas University in Milan

At the threshold of 100 years (the exact date is that of May 27, 2023), a few weeks ago, Henry Kissinger warned the world about the dangers of AI and ChatGPT from the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

His, of intelligencecertainly does not fear comparison: lucid, brilliant, visionary, with an eye always focused on the present but even more on the future.

We would all like to cross the finish line of the century with a brain in shape like yours or like that of the art critic, painter and philosopher Gillo Dorfleswho exhibited his drawings at the age of 106 at the Milan Triennale, or by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyerwho at the age of 103 inaugurated the Auditorium that bears his name in Ravello on the Amalfi coast.

What is inside these minds that have remained exceptional until a very, very late age? Nothing (too) different from what each of us has in the skull according to Julius Mairaneurosurgeon of the Humanitas University of Milan and president of the Atena Onlus Foundation for research in neuroscience: Maira, one of the greatest connoisseurs of the brain, explains in fact that this organ has an extraordinary capacity, neuroplasticity. It means that throughout our lives it continues to change, reinvent itself, learn: a maximum capacity in the child, but it never disappears. The brain at birth is like a forest full of bare trees, which gradually thickens: over the years some trees die, but those that remain can develop and always give new branches, leaves, flowers.

Remaining in the vegetable metaphor, we all fear that over time the forest in our heads will inexorably move towards a winter without greenery. So, brains like Kissinger’s are just rare exceptions?
As we age, the brain loses cells and synapses, the connections between cells; the transmission of neuronal messages worsens, but thanks to neuroplasticity the effects can be compensated. Cognitive decline, therefore, is not an ineluctable nor necessary destiny, indeed it can be counteracted.

What then is the secret to a brain that does not age?
First of all, good genetics is needed: DNA does not determine the evolution of the brain but if it negatively affects our lives, because it favors certain diseases or the development of unhealthy habits, it will be difficult for the nervous system to age at its best.

Who in the family has cases of not exactly brilliant minds in the third age should worry?
No because the cognitive reserve counts a lot (the ability to compensate for any damage and/or brain changes while maintaining good functionality, in practice the resilience of the brain, ed), which we build through the ability to create new brain connections, new synapses, new networks of neurons throughout our existence to realize our heritage of knowledge. The brain is like a muscle, the more you use it, the better it works: keeping it active every day means keeping it snappy, brilliant. Even as seniors.

What is the right exercise for the brain-muscle?
Thinking, the fundamental brain activity: thoughts travel through the connections between neurons, the more we exercise thought, the more we are able to learn new things, faster and faster.

It’s never too late to train your brain?
No because it can always learn, develop, learn thanks to neuroplasticity. But it must get excited: the brain is bored, we have to make it think of something we are passionate about. Only through emotion does what we experience arrive in our memory, it becomes teaching, it really makes cognitive abilities develop: what distinguishes man is that he has overcome the mere survival instinct of other animals, we get excited because we seek quality in life, not just survival. This is why what leaves us passive is useless and doesn’t let the brain ‘grow’.

Any examples?
Children and teenagers should be given fewer cell phones and tablets, more books. Many then do not use the brain well, they take it for granted, they mistreat it with incorrect lifestyles: from an unhealthy diet to a sedentary lifestyle, from a lack of quality sleep to drinking little water. Preventing cognitive impairment with a healthy lifestyle is a personal investment, but also for society: science has given us longevity, which however only makes sense if we arrive at the finish line with the mind still intact and to do so it is essential not to smoke, avoid drugs, treat threatening diseases such as high blood pressure. Although then all the great old men should thank mom.

Thank “mom” for “good” genes? Or for anything else?
Because the trajectory of our brain, the one that in the third and fourth age can lead us to have a sharp or clouded mind, is a ribbon that unwinds from conception onwards: everything that happens to us from when we are in our mother’s belly ahead has an effect on cognitive abilities. a great journey during which the brain changes, develops, faces difficulties that can undermine its integrity: what we will be in ninety or one hundred depends on what we have lived and how we lived it, from the balance we have known find in adversity. And yes, also from how our parents looked after us, because relationships with others, from an early age, are another pillar for the well-being of the brain.

Is it true that loneliness kills neurons?
No neuron does much on its own, just as none of us can do much without the others. The networks, the connections are the real secret of the human being: in the brain, where the set of connections between cells creates the consciousness, the imagination, the creativity that makes us extraordinary; as people, because we need others to be happy. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Umberto Eco, Zygmunt Bauman said it and science proved it: social relationships are the secret of happiness, but also of the ability of our cerebral “forest” to create new branches, develop and gain in wisdom and vision with each passing year. Something that, moreover, artificial intelligence cannot achieve: it processes an enormous amount of data, but does not have the ability to interpret phenomena as a wise and elderly man with Kissinger’s experience can do.

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