The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome
By Amanda Enayati, Special to CNN
updated 11:11 AM EDT, Tue June 19, 2012
You can seek out new environments that support your insights and creativity, experts say.
Research details a number of ways in which the brain actually improves with age
Older people have a greater capacity for empathy because empathy is learned
An aging brain can better tease out patterns and see the big picture
We are better able to anticipate problems and reason things out
Editor’s note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.
(CNN) — Google “the aging brain” and you will find a largely sobering landscape of cognitive deterioration.
(“Funny,” said the dashing older gentleman I tried to interview for this piece. “I don’t remember being absent-minded.”)
But turn the kaleidoscope of our knowledge about the aging brain and a far more interesting picture emerges.
The prevailing wisdom is that creative endeavors are good for helping to slow the decline of our mental capabilities. But what if, in fact, the aging brain is more capable than its younger counterpart at creativity and innovation?
It’s a compelling proposition in our society, where more and more seniors are looking for jobs and going back to work (the number of working seniors has more than doubled since 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics); where ageism is rampant in many areas (particularly hiring); and where innovation is, for the most part, considered a young person’s domain.
Bad news from the psych labs
A large body of research about aging tells us that as we cross the threshold into middle age, neural connections that receive, process and transmit information can weaken from age and disuse. It may take us longer to learn new information. We often can’t think as sharply or as quickly. Our reaction times may be slower.
Researchers also tell us that older people have a harder time multitasking. We can become more forgetful, resulting in those tip-of-the-tongue moments where familiar words, names and concepts lie just out of reach. An older person is more easily distracted and more prone to daydreaming and errors.
Disconcerting, yes, but also an incomplete picture.
In his book, “Major Issues in Cognitive Aging,” Timothy A. Salthouse, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the University of Virginia, writes, “Although there is no shortage of opinions about cognitive aging, it sometimes seems that relatively few of the claims are based on well-established empirical evidence … assertions about cognitive aging may be influenced as much by the authors’ preconceptions and attitudes as by systematic evaluations of empirical research.”
Salthouse goes on to make two more significant observations about cognitive aging: Discoveries of decline in the laboratory do not necessarily correlate to success out in the real world, and there is often considerable variation among different people of the same age.
Place these findings alongside research about the power of suggestion (both deliberate and otherwise) and how response expectancies — the ways in which we anticipate a specific outcome — drive subsequent thoughts and behaviors that will actually help to bring that outcome to fruition. And suddenly you have a whole new narrative about the possibilities of healthy aging.
As Ron, one of our readers, pointed out in a Facebook message following this story of a few weeks ago, A creative life is a healthy life: “Want REAL innovation? Bring in the seniors.”
Like a fine wine
Research details a number of ways in which the brain actually improves with age. And what’s even more interesting is that many of these advanced abilities correlate with key conceptual elements of innovation and creativity.
This is particularly true for the human-centered design process — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test — as outlined by the Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as “the d.school” where, in the interest of full disclosure, I have coached a design course called Sustainable Abundance.
“There are neuro-circuitry factors that can favor age in terms of innovation,” observes Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Center on Aging.
First there is empathy, “the foundation of a human-centered design process.” Empathy is critical to design because of the need to understand the people for whom you are designing.
Older people have a greater capacity for empathy because empathy is learned and refined as we age.
“How many adolescents do you know with the gift of empathy,” asks Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California and an internationally recognized authority on adult learning. “Not many. It’s a developmental stage that lasts through the teen years and into the 20s — longer for some people.”
According to Taylor, younger people are more likely to connect with others from their own place of need. A 22-year-old may have an idea, and that idea may be quite brilliant and useful, but more than likely it’s all tied up in how that young person feels.
“Because of their greater capacity to empathize, older people can have a better sense of the things that may charge up another person’s brain and get them excited.”
Older people are also highly capable when it comes to the “define” aspect of human-centered design — that is, the unpacking and synthesizing of empathy findings into compelling needs and insights.
An aging brain can better tease out patterns and see the big picture, Small says.
Whereas younger people may have better short-term and get-to-the-point-quickly memory, older folks have had a greater variety of experiences and are better able to build a wider image out of a lot of different parts of memory. They can make more connections because they have more things that have happened to them.
Put another way by design legend Steve Jobs when he spoke to Wired in the 1990s: “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
Of course, seniors “can sometimes lose those dots,” Taylor jokes. “But only temporarily, because remember: We absolutely never reach the full capacity of our brain.”
As we get older, so much more is stored in our brain; it’s like having overfull drawers. And those things you can’t quite recall? They haven’t disappeared. They’re just tucked away in the folds of your neurons. You can’t necessarily find everything in it, but it’s all still there.
As we age, we are better able to anticipate problems and reason things out than when we were young. Small’s research shows that our complex reasoning skills continue to improve as we get older.
But that particular capacity can also serve as a double-edged sword.
Albert Einstein famously said that we can’t solve problems through the same kind of thinking as when we created them. As we age, yesterday’s thinking can form an invisible box that some may resist venturing out of today.
“Young people don’t try to solve problems with yesterday’s solutions because they don’t know them,” Taylor says. “They have no clue about the places where they shouldn’t be treading. And ultimately, they go outside the box because they don’t know there is a box.”
There’s a certain fearlessness to ignorance. But balance fearlessness against wisdom — an equally inchoate and difficult-to-quantify gift — that can guide the aging brain to greater insights to advance creativity and innovation.
Small also emphasizes the importance of mindfulness. “As I get older, I think more in terms of what is meaningful in my life right now, rather than what can I do to make things better in the future,” Small says.
Maybe it’s because you realize that the future is briefer, so you tend to live more in the present. That contributes to creativity. You are able to notice more about yourself and others in your environment, leading to new ideas that can be incredibly useful.
Believing in your power
So is the future bright for the older would-be innovator?
Absolutely, says Taylor, the picture is rosy. But as with any rose, there are thorns.
Debra Dunn, an associate professor at the d.school. was a senior executive at Hewlett-Packard for 22 years.
Steeped in Silicon Valley culture, Dunn says: “Some of the most wonderfully innovative engineers I have known were older-timers.”
Ultimately, though, Dunn believes that older people’s perceptions of their own ability to contribute become powerful predictors of what they can and cannot achieve.
“What you think, you become,” she quotes Buddha.
Small agrees. “The older brain is quite resilient and can be stimulated to innovate, create and contribute in extraordinary ways. We need incentives to encourage older people to continue to be creative because I think … what they have to offer is tremendous.”
The decline in creativity can also result from people’s capabilities not being challenged.
“Take my area as a university professor,” Small says. “You go from researching, writing and coming up with new ideas to becoming a manager and department dean, where you’re basically writing speeches and managing people and institutions, which does not really bring out a whole lot of creative energy.”
Nudge your neurons, Taylor suggests. Shake things up. Stay physically active. Keep doing different things. Challenge your assumptions. Become comfortable with ambiguity. Listen to differing points of view and develop the ability to accept differences. Travel. Learn different languages.
“You can seek out new environments that support your insights and creativity, but it becomes harder because you are more accustomed to the way things are,” Taylor says. “If you have had 30 years of having been in a groove, it becomes really difficult to get out of that groove.”
As I was attempting to complete this story, I glanced through the reams of jaw-dropping research I simply could not fit in. The true picture of healthy, productive aging is so much more interesting and complex than any of us can begin to imagine.
What’s the secret to longevity?
What’s the secret to innovation?
You might have to ask the old folks.