In an alternative universe, at the first signs of midlife change, you’d be taken aside by a community elder and offered space. Space to rest, space for creation, space for your wisdom to come forth and nourish the community. You would be given space and a place – to build your throne.
Instead, here you are, running into the supermarket and gazing at the space over the fruits and vegetables, hoping for inspiration.
You remember that there were five things you needed to buy.
You remember five, but what the five things were is currently a mystery.
You look in the direction of the other aisles in the supermarket. No answers.
In your mind, you imagine yourself in your kitchen, and hope that at least one of the items will suddenly reappear in your memory.
Instead, what does appear is that your daughter has a dentist appointment at 5pm and you’ve just dropped her off at athletics practice instead. You grab your phone. The calendar reminder popped up but your phone had been on silent since that meeting at work.
On your phone, you see there are three missed calls from your daughter (who should right now be on her way to the dentist, but isn’t), and there’s a message from your boss asking about the email you promised to send before you left the office.
You definitely wrote the email.
You open your email and scan the sent items. Nothing.
Over to drafts. The email is there, unsent. You send it. And then call your daughter who tells you that there is no athletics practice today because the coach is away, which is why you made the dentist appointment on this particular day, to begin with.
You run to your car. You can just make the dentist appointment.
As you’re driving, you strike the green-light jackpot and relax; four of the five items you need from the supermarket appear in your mind out of nowhere. What was the fifth? That will no doubt come too.
You pick up your daughter and listen to her complain about the time wasted and how she hates the dentist. In the background, your phone is pinging with incoming messages. It must be school related. No other group gets hyperactive so quickly. The fifth item that you need comes through. Sprinkles! Sprinkles for the cupcakes you’re supposed to make for the school party, which is taking place tomorrow.
It’s going to be a late night.
If you’re not yet familiar with the term mental load, you’ve no doubt experienced the concept. It’s modern and almost a given in today’s life, especially among women who tend to carry a disproportionate amount of mental load – from home, family, parents, school, work - endless details!
Mental load can cause stress and spike our cortisol levels, which in turn impairs our ability to create new memories and recall existing ones.
When you live under the burden of mental load, feel its weight and add memory loss to the load, you’re unlikely to remember your PIN number when you absolutely must withdraw some cash.
But even if you feel that you have your levels of stress under control, it’s possible to experience brain fog as perimenopause and menopause set in. Perhaps you misplace the cup of coffee you made a minute ago, or find your reading glasses in the fridge. Perhaps your favourite song from the 80s comes on the radio but you can’t remember the name of the singer; or in the middle of a conversation you forget the word for that thing, you know, THAT thing!
The disappearance of details happens in part because your midlife brain is changing; it’s pushing you to management level.
In the alternative universe, your move to management level would be the obvious next step in your life cycle (and your throne would await you), but in this universe you have to search for clues. But the clues are there.
You’re no longer afraid of what other people think of you.
You’ve learned "energy suckers" don't actually suck your energy.
You know it’s time to do it YOUR way.
More often, the big picture comes into focus.
These are all signs that your brain is preparing you for a new leadership role.
So yes, details can be blurry – and it would be nice to be able to read a menu in a romantically lit restaurant (can’t they turn the lights on, already?) – but it appears we are designed to step up and welcome bigger picture vision.
Barbara Strauch explains: “Among other things, middle-aged people are better at inductive reasoning (which allows them to make broad generalizations from specific observations) and at problem solving. They tend to be more in control and are often in a better position to influence what happens in their lives.” Strauch is the author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.
Bruce Yankner, a Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and neurology, says, “The middle-aged brain has learned from experience, as well as from social connections, which also helps to strengthen cognitive function.”
Researchers have discovered more myelin in midlife brains than in the brains of people in their 20s and 30s, and it's good news!
Myelin is a fatty substance that accumulates around brain cells and helps create the conditions for faster transmission of information – it creates a broadband infrastructure where once there was dial-up (I know you still remember dial-up!). In parts of the brain where management-style higher level thinking happens, the amount of myelin continues to increase through midlife into our 60s, therefore enhancing our ability to think as managers need to.
This means that despite what we may fear, brain fog at midlife doesn’t equal downhill from now on!
Just as in the middle of a night sweat and panic attack, your body is still brilliant (as I have argued here and here); even when you leave the house in your slippers, you are more experienced and better equipped to navigate life!
Call it having been around, call it knowing stuff, call it wisdom – it’s yours by design.
And with all that brain power being channeled into bringing forth your wisdom, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about the disappearing details. In addition to understanding the only source of stress (what a relief!) and eating healthier, there are apps and computer games that you can play to improve your memory . . . while embracing your wiser woman and sitting on your throne.
THE WISER WOMAN in you is not forgotten! Find out how you can discover her here.