The Meaning of Midlife: How to Invest in Your Brain and Future Generations

I recently read a book called “The Meaning of Midlife” by David Bainbridge. Bainbridge is a zoologist and veterinary scientist at the University of Cambridge. His perspective is particularly grim, he regards people as ordinary animals, and from this he observes what position middle age occupies in a person’s life.

In the past, we all regarded middle age as the turning point of life going downhill. The first fact this book tells us is that in the animal kingdom, there is no turning point. When life reaches its peak, many animals will die after the reproductive period. For example, in some insects, the parents will die immediately after the child is born; in some more advanced species, the parents will die after the child is sexually mature. From an evolutionary point of view, the mission of this generation to reproduce the race has been completed, and it will only compete with the offspring for resources while alive.

But humans are very strange. After people lose their fertility or choose not to have children, they will survive relatively stably for more than 20 years before entering old age-this period is middle age. Why do people have to go through this stage?

On the surface, all we see is the downside of middle age. Are all middle-aged people going downhill? Bainbridge said it wasn’t a decline, but a change in the division of labor in life. Smooth skin and thick hair are used to attract the opposite sex when you are young. Now this part of energy should be saved to do more important things. What’s up? Help future generations be more successful.

This involves a question, what is the difference between human offspring and offspring of other animals?

In the evolutionary competition, why did humans win? It is because humans have a super brain in evolution. The brain is the most precious resource of our species. All human activities are essentially investments around the brain.

As young adults, we invest in our brains, absorbing knowledge and expending energy at an astonishing rate. After middle age, the rapid development of the brain stops, so who are we investing in? Stop focusing on yourself and think about the species as a whole. Yes, from a zoologist’s point of view, people after middle age are investing in the brains of their children. Biologists call this intergenerational investment phenomenon “parental investment.” The complexity of human parental investment is far more than that of other animals. Natural selection requires us to stop giving birth and focus on caring for offspring. At this time, a stage of life called “middle age” appears.

The investment that middle-aged people give to future generations can be roughly divided into two categories. The first category is various materials including food. Chimpanzees can find their own food by the age of 5. But humans, at least until their teens, can’t fully do that. Because the system by which humans obtain food is very complex, this is a special feature of humans.

The second type of investment that middle-aged people make for future generations is knowledge. When a child’s brain develops to a certain stage, food is not enough, but information is also needed—knowing who is the natural enemy and who is the ally, where there is food, and where there is danger. How do humans get information? There are two main ways, one is written in the genes, and the other is to learn from the elders. At this time, middle-aged people can come in handy. All parts of the body of middle-aged people are declining, but there is one thing that is missing, and that is the brain. The brains of middle-aged people are not worse than those of young people, and they have reached their peak state. Studies have found that the cognitive ability of the human brain reaches its peak around the age of 40, and will not change for more than 20 years, until it begins to decline in old age.

All functions of middle-aged people are aging, so is the brain not aging? The middle-aged brain ages, too, but it also switches to a less energy-intensive way of operating, Bainbridge said.

The human brain is constantly playing, balancing, and compromising in evolution. For example, the brain’s ability to receive sensory information becomes weaker, but the cognitive ability to process information becomes stronger, such as language, mathematics, and reasoning abilities become stronger. A loss of sensory information poses little threat to human evolution. Human beings live in groups. During a hunt, the information that can only be obtained by keen senses and strong physical ability, such as paying attention to the footsteps of the prey and hunting the prey, can be left to young people. Whether the hunt can be successful depends mainly on Relying on the experience, technology and planning of middle-aged people.

Humans evolved the life stage of middle age to help future generations develop more successful brains. Middle age is not a period of decline, but a period of transformation in the division of labor-switching physical advantages to brain advantages. All the crises a middle-aged person feels are actually the price paid to keep the brain in peak condition.

From this we can say:

First, in an era when cognitive ability is becoming more and more important, middle-aged people have nothing to complain about. Instead, this is the stage in our life that can create the most value. The so-called midlife crisis is actually midlife slack.

Second, if a person doesn’t want to make progress so much, he should go with nature and take on the responsibilities that middle age should bear. Invest in the brains of your children, or the next generation of human beings in general. Helping young people more can be regarded as fulfilling the obligation of us middle-aged people.

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