When I was a child, I would float in the ocean while my mind wandered to far off lands. I am not so different now. I often quiet myself in meditation-like trances, in the shower with water soothing sore places, or on slow walks under low skies. It seems that my mind touches down wherever it chooses, and when it returns, it comes with the solution to a problem that I had posed. To this day, I am amazed by the magic, which has grown richer with age.
When I am with friends, we talk about our aging brains. We can’t do math as well, we lament. We have trouble learning new languages, especially the technical languages that our children and grandchildren absorb with breakfast. Our memory isn’t as good. We can’t find words or remember names. We are absent minded. How often do we walk into a room to find something only to find that we don’t remember why we had come?
We worry about our decaying and betraying minds with foreboding and fear, as though we are already in a steady and soon-to-be debilitating decline. In contemporary America, fear of Alzheimer’s disease seems second only to fear of cancer in its reach. The big C and the big A. Even when the fear of dementia is out of consciousness, it seems to be lurking nearby. We’ve watched our parents fall to it. We’ve seen friends falter. We wonder when our time will come.
But most of every day I don’t feel that way. I learn every day and I revel in the play of my mind. I trust my mind. When faced with a problem or an opportunity, there are so many reservoirs of knowledge and experience to draw upon, so many cognitive and emotional templates that I didn’t have when I was young. I feel less constrained by conventional ideas. Why worry about convention at this point in life? Freedom and creativity are far more alluring.
There is a name that the pioneer of psychometric researcher, Raymond Cattell, has given to the type of intelligence that wanes in old age: “fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge. It’s the ability to analyze problems that you’ve never seen before, to identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and to extrapolate from these patterns by using logic. This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving. It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.
Cattell has also given a name to the type of intelligence that most guides me at seventy four: Crystallized intelligence, which is acquired through experience and education. It shows up in verbal skills, inductive reasoning, and judgment. While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on “a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity and culture.”
Richard E. Nisbett, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Michigan, has long argued that “when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people,” he argues, “make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.” Despite a decline in fluid intelligence, complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age. The brain’s most powerful tool is its “ability to quickly scan a vast storehouse of templates for relevant information and past experience to come up with a novel solution to a problem. In this context, the mature brain is especially well equipped, which is probably why we still associate wisdom with age.”
Modern society has virtually jettisoned the idea of wisdom, preferring knowledge and the rapid advance of technological skills. But I am entranced by the idea of wisdom and consider it the great gift of healthy aging. If you strip from wisdom its mystical side, it can be defined as the quality of having experience, knowledge, perspective, confidence, and good judgment.
By perspective, I mean the capacity to see events and ideas from a bird’s eye view. We see and recognize patterns of action and thought in ourselves and in others. “Oh,” we might say, “I’ve tried that approach before and it never works” or “It only works when combined with kindness or firmness.” Or with certain kinds of people. We might note an idea keeps intruding or dominating our thinking but know from long experience that it is more a habit of mind than real problem solving or creative thinking. Through experience—and reflection—we know the mental and social territory that we dwell in; we know its travails, its traps, its challenges. And we know the way through the thickets to open spaces.
By perspective, I also mean calm. A frequent advantage of age is the quieting that comes with experience. The anxious, internal chatter that clouds the thinking of so many younger people, tends to dissipate. The intensity dims, too. This is both loss and gain. The gain is that you see even difficult or dangerous situations without panic or impetuousness or competitive urges. The idea is to solve a problem not to be the best. In old age, the focus is less on you, more on solutions.
Let me illustrate my point by observing its opposite. Take a look at Donald Trump’s failure of wisdom. He lacks knowledge, perspective, and judgment. His intellectual style has bogged down in adolescence. He is self centered. He needs to ‘win’ at all costs, even if winning leads to failure, which it often does. Most of us, to our great advantage, grow out of this phase
We build our confidence not out of bravado but experience. You have traveled many pathways in your life, sometimes with success, sometimes not, but you have come to know the territory. You know it so well that, even when you diverge from your regular pathways, you are pretty sure you can find your way to safety. The confidence we feel is more realistic, more solid. We are clearer and more forthright about both our strengths and our limitations. We don’t need to hope and pretend as much.
I have the good fortune to have many former students, now leaders of nonprofit organizations, who come for advice. The pleasure that I take in sharing what I’ve learned over the years is hard to express. The acuity and confidence I feel when helping to advance their careers and their lives is a gift that I have given to myself as much as to them. It is the gift of giving and it is the gift of play. I love thinking with others.
I am hardly unique in having knowledge and experience to share. There are vast amounts of untapped wisdom among my peers, needing only to be recognized and utilized, if only our culture will grant aging intelligence its imprimatur.