The erosion of political culture has consequences for corporate culture as well. A child’s brain is like a sponge, absorbing everything with which it comes in contact. As the brain gets older it learns to process, to analyze, to interpret. And eventually, it begins to slow, begins to forget, begins to lose function.
Few prospects are as forbidding as mental decline, the specter of which haunts us as we advance toward old age. And so the experts tell us to keep our minds active, that using the brain is the surest way to stave off mental deterioration.
- Crossword puzzles
- Word games
- Logic problems
These are common recipes from the diet books for the mind. But don’t stop there; the more creative and more challenging, the better for your brain.
- Go traveling
- Take up knitting or gardening
- Learn Italian
- Drive a different way to work
- Get an advanced degree
Anything and everything that piques cognitive activity belongs in our catalogue of mental health activities.
“That’s all good,” says Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind and New York Times health and medical science editor. But the most intriguing advice Ms. Strauch has heard is this:
Deliberately challenge your view of the world. Talk to people you totally disagree with.
It makes sense. Nothing kicks the brain into overdrive like having to defend your point of view against attack, or the desire to dismantle an argument you find unsound or wrongheaded. What’s more, Ms. Strauch asserts that the brain is actually primed for questioning assumptions, since reexamining our beliefs provides the opportunity to revisit, or more deeply contemplate, why we believe the way we do.
“Confronting things you disagree with may not make you change your mind,” she says, “but it will perhaps give you a view that is more satisfying to the middle-aged brain.”
And who knows? Sometimes we may even discover that we’ve been wrong.
Don’t rock the boat?
Bill Bishop would almost certainly agree. In his 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Mr. Bishop shows how local communities are becoming increasingly homogenous as people sort themselves into demographic cliques. The most striking irony is how the increasing singularity of ideas and values in neighborhoods across the country is resulting in increasing divisiveness throughout the country as a whole.
The statistical evidence is compelling:
The 2004 reelection of George W. Bush over John Kerry was decided nationally by one closely contested state (Ohio) and a sliver of the electorate; in the same election, almost half the counties in the country recorded landslide victories locally for either one candidate or the other, nearly double the percentage recorded in 1976.
Mr. Bishop describes how economic and geographical mobility allowed people to orient themselves around and among others who share their beliefs, values, and predilections. Members of religious and civic organizations have become increasingly uniform in their ways of thinking, particularly with respect to politics.
Citing marketing analyst J. Walker Smith, Mr. Bishop explains how a pervasive movement of “self-invention” gave rise to a desire to impose our will upon the world around us, to redefine ourselves and our environment according to our own narrow world view. According to Mr. Smith, prosperity and technology have enabled people to “wrap themselves into cocoons entirely of their own making.” We expect the world to be the way we want it to be, with no room for compromise.
Mr. Bishop reaches the conclusion that:
As people seek out the social settings they prefer — as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable — the nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.
We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life.