Henry Kissinger died on November 29, 2023: he turned 100 on May 27. He was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century: but how could his intelligence remain so lucid? Is he a rare exception or a somewhat replicable model? The interview with Giulio Maira, neurosurgeon at Humanitas University in Milan
Henry Kissinger, two-time US Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner, died on November 29, 2023, at the age of 100. He was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century. We are republishing – with minimal changes – the article that appeared in the Corriere in May, which investigated how his brain could have remained so lucid for so long.
At the threshold of 100 years (the exact date is May 27, 2023), a few months ago, Henry Kissinger warned the world about the dangers of artificial intelligence and ChatGPT from the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
His intelligence certainly did not fear comparison: lucid, brilliant, visionary, with his gaze always focused on the present but even more so on the future.
We would all like to cross the finish line of the century with a brain as fit as his or that of the art critic, painter and philosopher Gillo Dorfles, who exhibited his drawings at the Milan Triennale at the age of 106, or that of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who at the age of 103 inaugurated the Auditorium that bears his name in Ravello on the Amalfi coast.
What is inside these minds that remained exceptional until late, very late in life? Nothing (too) different from what each of us has in our skull according to Giulio Maira, neurosurgeon at the Humanitas University of Milan and president of the Atena Onlus Foundation for neuroscience research: Maira, one of the greatest experts on the brain, explains in fact, 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 becomes denser: over the years some trees die, but those that remain can develop and always produce new branches, leaves, flowers.
Remaining in the vegetal 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 inevitable or necessary fate, indeed it can be counteracted.
So what is the secret to a brain that does not age?
First of all, good genetics are needed: DNA does not determine the evolution of the brain but if it negatively conditions our life, because it favors certain diseases or the development of unhealthy habits, it will be difficult for the nervous system to age well.
Should those in the family who have cases of less than brilliant minds in their third age worry?
No, because the cognitive reserve (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 things throughout our existence, is very important. brain connections, new synapses, new networks of neurons to realize our wealth of knowledge. The brain is like a muscle, the more it is used, the better it works: keeping it active every day means ensuring that it remains lively and brilliant. Even for the elderly.
What is the right exercise for the brain-muscle?
Thinking is the fundamental brain activity: thoughts travel through the connections between neurons, the more we practice thinking, the more we are able to learn new things, faster and faster.
Never too late to train your brain?
No because it can always learn, develop, learn thanks to neuroplasticity. To get excited: the brain gets bored, we have to make it think about something that we are passionate about. Only through emotion does what we experience enter our memory, it becomes teaching, it truly develops cognitive abilities: what distinguishes man is that he has overcome the instinct of mere survival 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 does not make the brain ‘grow’.
Children and teenagers should be given fewer cell phones and tablets and more books. Many then do not use their 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 decline with a healthy lifestyle is a personal investment, but also for society: science has given us longevity, which however only makes sense if we reach the finish line with our mind still intact and to do so it is essential not to smoke, avoid drugs, treat illnesses that threaten you such as high blood pressure. Even if all the great old men should thank their mother.
Thank “mom” for “good” genes? Or for something else?
Because the trajectory of our brain, the one that in the third and fourth age can lead us to have a sharp or, on the contrary, a clouded mind, is a ribbon that unrolls from conception onwards: everything that happens to us from when we are in our mother’s womb forward 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 at ninety or one hundred years old depends on what we have experienced and how we have experienced it, on the balance we have known find in adversity. And yes, also by 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 is of much use on its own, just as none of us can do much without the others. Networks, connections are the true secret of the human being: in the brain, where the set of connections between cells creates consciousness, imagination, creativity that makes us extraordinary; as people, because we need others to be happy. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Umberto Eco, Zygmunt Bauman have said it and science has proven 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. every year that passes. Something that artificial intelligence cannot achieve: it processes an enormous amount of data, but does not have the ability to interpret the phenomena as a wise and elderly man with Kissinger’s experience can.
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November 30, 2023 (modified November 30, 2023 | 09:07)
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