Old age and wisdom have always been thought to go hand-in-hand, but we all know seniors are quite capable of doing stupid things. At home, we might live with older people with high IQs who struggle to operate a simple, one-button coffee machine. At work, we may have seen brilliant senior partners eagerly participate in meetings who wouldn’t be out of place in a class of toddlers.
Old age and wisdom clearly don’t always go together in the ways we have come to expect. Even beyond our own lives, we have seen old age and wisdom fall apart.
The world has witnessed an abundance of older political leaders, scientists, and entrepreneurs make some headline-grabbing, spectacularly foolish decisions over the past few decades.
Old generals have sent thousands of young soldiers to meaningless deaths on the battlefield. Aging political leaders have uttered some of the most abhorrently dim-witted public statements; older members of the world’s royalties have blundered their way into sordid and embarrassing sex scandals.
None of this lends credence to the age-old notion that ties old age and wisdom together. So much so that scientists have recently taken a keen interest in the subject of old age and wisdom and what the relationship between old age and wisdom really is.
- 1 Do Old Age and Wisdom Really Go Together?
- 2 It’s Okay to Be Older and Still Do Stupid Things from Time to Time
Do Old Age and Wisdom Really Go Together?
The premise of our question is simple. Over the past 100 years, people have successfully more than doubled the life expectancy of the average human being, but has society gained more along the way in terms of wisdom from its seniors?
Does living longer, deeper into old age make older people any wiser than, say, when they were in their 20s or 30s? Is there any demonstrable link between old age and wisdom? Do old age and wisdom necessarily go together?
Below are five facts that scientists have uncovered about old age and wisdom in recent years.
Lifelong Specialization Can Make Older People Experts in Specific Areas of Knowledge
Imagine yourself in a gurney being rolled into a hospital emergency room after a life-threatening injury to your chest. You are gasping for breath. Your heart is racing so fast you worry it is about to explode. You are convinced you are about to die.
Imagine two doctors arguing over how to care for you – one is old with grey, thinning hair and stiff movements, and the other is quick, fast-talking, and young. Who would you trust with your life? Would the relationship between old and age and wisdom matter to you then?
Some research suggests you’re better off with a younger doctor. Earlier research led by psychologist William Hoyer proposes that as adults age, their general problem-solving abilities may indeed seem to gradually decline.
However, despite this decline, older adults tend to exhibit increased proficiency and competence within their chosen fields. Scientists attribute this phenomenon to a behavioural concept called “encapsulation.”
Encapsulation is a cognitive process in which individuals, as they gain experience and expertise, dedicate their information processing resources more toward specific areas of knowledge.
“Some brain areas, including the hippocampus, shrink in size,” says a report published by the Harvard Medical School in 2017. “On the other hand, the branching of dendrites increases, and connections between distant brain areas strengthen.”
In real, everyday life, this may mean that older adults are more inclined to become highly specialized and proficient in their chosen professions, whether they are mechanics, philosophers, or carpenters.
So, while an older doctor may be slower than a younger one in using new technology to treat a patient who is threatened by a heart injury, he is likely to have a more in-depth knowledge of the workings of the heart than his younger contemporaries.
Older People Have a Larger Store of Information in Their Brains
There is a common perception that cognitive abilities, including memory and processing speed, tend to decline in old age. But this doesn’t mean older individuals are less capable overall, says a recent study in Topics in Cognitive Science.
While it’s true that cognitive processing speed may slow down with age, the study suggests that this slowdown isn’t entirely due to a decrease in mental capacity. Instead, it’s also influenced by the sheer volume of information stored in an older person’s brain.
As individuals age, they accumulate a wealth of knowledge and experiences. This accumulation results in a larger store of information in their brains compared to younger individuals.
Naturally, sifting through this vast mental library takes more time than accessing a smaller database, as is the case with younger individuals who have accumulated less information.
So, the speed of cognitive processes might appear slower in older individuals, but that is not necessarily an indicator of reduced cognitive ability. Old age and wisdom do not necessarily mean quick thinking, it seems.
The delay might be attributed to the larger pool of information they have amassed throughout their lives, which takes more time to navigate when retrieving specific details or solving problems.
There is another interesting aspect to the results of the study. It suggests that the quality of cognitive thinking may actually increase as individuals age as older people are more likely to consider details.
While younger people were faster in tests of cognitive performance, older people showed “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences,” the study found.
Older People May Be Better at Solving Practical Problems
Old age and wisdom were at the core of the research led by the psychologist Nancy Denney of the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s. Denney and her team tested the problem-solving abilities of people across all age groups in two different scenarios.
In the first problem type, participants engaged in a game involving deductive reasoning. They were shown pictures of common objects and had to deduce, through a series of yes or no questions, which object the examiner was thinking of. The findings showed that the older the participants were, the poorer they did in the test.
The second type of problem involved real-life situations—practical problems that individuals might encounter in their daily lives.
These scenarios required participants to demonstrate problem-solving skills in situations like dealing with a flooded basement, being stranded in a blizzard, or handling a late-arriving child.
Interestingly, the study found that older individuals performed exceptionally well in this aspect of problem-solving. They showed higher levels of self-reliance and were better at recognizing causes and generating effective solutions based on their experiences in everyday living.
While variations of this same test have yielded inconclusive results over the years, there is some evidence to suggest that although older adults might face challenges in certain types of cognitive tasks, they often excel in practical problem-solving skills that draw upon their wealth of life experiences and expertise in everyday situations.
Seniors Are Superior Integrative Thinkers
Researchers compared the abilities of college students and older adults to summarize a retelling of a fable about a wolf and a crane. In the fable, a wolf promises to reward a crane for removing a bone stuck in the wolf’s throat. The crane agrees and puts its head into the wolf’s mouth to dislodge the bone with its beak.
Afterwards, when the crane asks for the promised reward, the wolf replies that the crane’s reward is that it is still alive. Interestingly, both age groups were able to recall the story in detail, but their approaches to summarizing it differed significantly.
The younger college students tended to provide longer and more elaborate summaries, detailing various aspects of the story. On the other hand, the older group – with an average of 74 – presented shorter summaries.
The summaries of the older people were not only to the point but also integrated the moral of the story with observations drawn from their life experiences and real-world knowledge. They were able to connect the moral of the fable with their personal experiences and observations from the real world.
This reflective and integrative thinking is associated with a stage of intellectual development referred to as “post-formal thought.” In many ways, post-formal thought might be the closest to a measurable link between old age and wisdom that researchers have found thus far.
This stage goes beyond formal operational thinking – a characteristic of younger individuals – and involves the ability to consider complex and multifaceted aspects of a situation, incorporating subjective interpretation and real-world wisdom.
Such integrative thinking has broader social and emotional implications. It suggests that senior citizens might excel in leadership roles and are likely to do well in offering inter-generational mentoring services to the youth.
This is especially true in moral or spiritual domains as they can synthesize diverse perspectives and experiences to make informed decisions.
It’s Okay to Be Older and Still Do Stupid Things from Time to Time
While defining wisdom is a problem in and of itself, it seems clear that there is some connection between old age and wisdom. First and foremost is that old age and wisdom come at a cost.
Growing old – with all the inevitable aches, pains, and deteriorations of old age – and carefully thinking things through a greater store of knowledge takes time. It can be also unpleasant.
These days, most of us – young and old, men and women alike – would rather do anything than think. A recent study highlights an intriguing aspect of human behaviour and the modern condition of constant stimulation.
Conducted by psychologists, this research found that when individuals were left alone in a room with no external stimulation, such as a phone, book, or any form of entertainment, many of them preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than sit in silence and engage in quiet contemplation.
But society demands that older people think, be quick, and dispense wisdom or else fall victim to total indifference – or worse, age discrimination. Intelligent older people quickly learn these lessons.
So, next time you find yourself banging your head and asking yourself, ‘How could I have done something so stupid at my age?’ try to remember that you are trapped in the same situation as many millions of other people who have both old age and wisdom.
You don’t have to be wise all the time. It’s all right to make stupid mistakes from time to time, too. What do you think? I think the keyword density is .095