Unlocking the Wisdom of the Brain


We all know that age brings about the decline of certain brain functions such as memory recall and reaction time. What might be less known is that studies show that people become more satisfied with themselves and their lives as they get older. Eurobarometer and Gallup conducted a study called “America’s General Social Survey” and found that overall people become steadily happier after middle age, somewhere around 46 years old. Perhaps this is because we get wiser with age. What is wisdom and how do we acquire it?

Definitions of wisdom vary according to individuals’ culture and worldview. What may seem wise to one person may seem foolish to another. Yet most cultures acknowledge that while some individuals demonstrate natural wisdom even in their youth, for the most part it is a trait that increases with age. The individuals who are deemed wise are usually those who are considerate of others, regulate their own behaviors well within the context of society, and make decisions that result in positive outcomes. Thus, the simplest definition of wisdom might be that it is expert knowledge of how life works. Older people have had time to benefit from the mistakes, successes and accumulated knowledge that inform them about the way the world works. Perhaps this is why, in spite of better reflexes and reaction time, drivers under age 25 are much more likely than older drivers to get into fatal car accidents.

Even before researchers knew much about the neurological roots of wisdom, psychologists noted that the brain did seem to improve in this way. Jean Piaget, who was one of the first to outline human intellectual development, noted that although most adults over 16 are in the formal operational stage with full ability to think rationally, certain aspects improve with time. In early adulthood, he wrote, people often lack the maturity, cognitive complexity, and abstract thinking skills needed to make good decisions. Any parent of a teen would probably agree.

The root of this maturity may be emotional intelligence, which confers the ability to perceive, understand and regulate emotion in the self and others. Generally, emotional intelligence increases with age and has been widely identified as a hallmark of mature self-image and personal development. While it’s normal for teenagers to have occasional emotional meltdowns, older adults who exhibit similar behavior go against the grain of society’s norms. Fortunately, their brains usually help them keep their cool. Researchers attribute improvements in this area to the anterior cingulate cortex, which the brain uses to detect conflicts when making decisions. Stanford University researchers discovered that activity in this part of the brain correlates with how we balance short-term and long-term rewards, an important aspect of wise living. Combined with the emotion centers, researchers call this the “wisdom network” of the brain, and damage to any part of this network has been found to result in poorer social decision-making.

Gene D. Cohen, author of “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life,” believes that improved decision-making as we age is the result of improved “crystalline thinking.” This cognitive ability allows older brains to cope more effectively with complex, undefined problems that don’t have clear yes/no or right/wrong answers. Thus, it is probably appropriate that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are usually older — 55 years old on average. Cohen believes that this attribute increases with people’s ability to access both sides of the brain more equally, which brain scans show happens more frequently after the age of 40. Cohen also argues that this same ability increases creativity, which he contends is largely untapped in older populations due to ageist bias in our culture.

In “Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Grows Older,” Elkhonon Goldberg defines wisdom as the brain’s ability to recognize patterns and paradigms and to make decisions accordingly. This ability, he notes, improves with experience and does not seem to be negatively affected by memory loss or other age-related declines. The older brain is slower, Goldberg admits, but more efficient because, as we age, the fatty insulation around nerve fibers increases, essentially hard wiring our brains to perform familiar tasks easily.

But what about that cantankerous old guy down the street who yells at kids who step on his lawn and goes on and on about the world going to hell in a hand basket? Most would agree that not all older people are fonts of wisdom. This may be because the very brain attributes that lead to wisdom may work against us under the right circumstances. The fatty insulation that makes decision-making more efficient can also hard-wire negative habits into the brain. Thus, a young person who never employs enough self-awareness to curtail negative behaviors might become even more entrenched in that behavior as an older adult. Also, expression of wisdom does ultimately depend on general brain health — an older adult with dementia will not be able to benefit fully from the wisdom gained over the course of a lifetime.

One group of researchers concluded that wisdom is actually fostered over the lifespan and is dependent on intergenerational interaction to truly flourish. A study conducted at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health assessed a community-based project called the Experience Corps. The project utilized older adults as guides to elementary school kids who were struggling due to unmet social and academic needs. They found that both groups benefited enormously from the interaction. Kids learned self-regulation and improved academically, and older adults improved cognitively in ways that normally decline with age. The older adults also avoided what has been called “the tomb of experience” — the tendency to get caught in a narrow view of life — by interacting with a generation far removed from their own. It’s no surprise that grandparents and grandchildren tend to have joyful, rich relationships.

Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development include his “theory of generativity,” which states that true maturity is marked by a wish to contribute positively to future generations and that truly wise older people seek out ways to communicate their wisdom to them. In the final analysis, wisdom could be seen as a group effort, not something someone attains by themselves.

Even some very small children are deemed to have wisdom, and many show a natural proclivity for empathy and a capacity to care for others. However, University of Notre Dame professor Darcia Narvaez, who researches the development of morality and wisdom in children, says that children who demonstrate such wisdom, as well as the ability to regulate their own behaviors, have rich, loving social networks with lots of playmates and caring adults. Yet, children overall seem to be worse off in this department than they were 50 years ago, as educators report more aggressive and even violent behavior, and college students now score lower than ever on psychological tests measuring empathy and compassion. One can only wonder what kind of older adults these young people will become — and how wise they will be — if these behaviors become entrenched in their brains.

Famed science-fiction author Isaac Asimov once said, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” So, perhaps the more important question for those interested in the brain is not how does the brain give rise to wisdom, but how do we give rise to it in one another?

This article was originally published in Brain World Magazine’s Winter 2014 issue.

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