Your (Elder) Brain is Better Than You Think.
Headlines, podcasts, maybe the whispered concerns of loved ones: far too much of what we hear about the aging brain fills us with dread. Memory loss, declines in processing speed, lags in habit acquisition and executive function – we’ve heard it all. It’s impossible to avoid concerning messages about how the brain changes in our later years.
Yet what’s missing from many conversations is insight about what’s awesome about the aging brain for us, as individuals, and for society at large.
That’s where an exemplary elder, Dr. Alison Gopnik comes in. She’s a pioneering psychologist, contributor to the NYTimes, WSJ, and Psychology Today, a TED speaker, prolific author, and current president of the Association for Professional Science. At 67, she’s also a loving grandmother, an inspiration to author Michael Pollan, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a celebrated UC Berkeley professor of both psychology and philosophy.
Alison’s work illuminates, among other things, how the understanding of older – and for that matter, much younger – brains generally reflects the perspective of research scientists in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Their tests and analyses tend to compare other stages of cognitive function with their own, finding them inherently inferior.
In other words, the cognitive capabilities that make research scientists form an unseen baseline or bias. From that perspective, both older and younger brains generally come up short.
What’s NOT seen as these scientists map things like the “Concrete Operational” phase in early childhood development (age 6-12) is what’s lost as the child learns to “think logically about concrete objects.”
What’s also not seen is what’s gained, individually and societally, as older minds prioritize positive emotions, care less about things that don’t matter, get better at resolving interpersonal conflicts, integrate life experience into “crystalline intelligence” that can outperform younger brains’ “fluid intelligence,” and do what most human societies have celebrated about elders all along: imbue rising generations with wisdom, encouragement, and perspective.
As we receive messages about our aging brains, consider challenging assumptions like Alison does, or – heck, like you did so brilliantly as a child, with that early childhood “lantern perspective” of full-on curiosity. Remember that much research on older brains has included subjects with undiagnosed cognitive impairments, resulting in a negative skew in understanding the healthy elder mind.
Consider that several new studies suggest that attention management and knowledge acquisition can actually be stronger in older adults. Human flourishing has many attributes that scientists often neglect and many of those attributes are particularly noticeable in both the elder and the childhood brain.
Ellen Petry Leanse is a leadership and life coach, author, neuroscience educator, and longstanding business innovator whose current work focuses on mental wellness. She speaks globally on the neuroscience of creativity and innovation and leads workshops on neuro-aware business and interpersonal practices.