As we age, we slow down mentally and have trouble keeping up with younger minds, right? Well, new research suggests it’s time we retire this understanding of the aging brain.
Being a senior citizen in 2015 has got to be a disorienting experience. Whether we’re talking about touch-screens, Apple watches, self-driving cars, or “the cloud.” technology’s accelerating march presents a dizzying array of new names and concepts to keep up with.
Traditionally, of course, the elderly have been considered the wisest members of society—a source of timeless truth worthy of respect and, in many cultures, reverence. I say “traditionally,” but America in 2015 is anything but traditional: From assisted living facilities and nursing homes to gated retirement communities, American society segregates the elderly from the mainstream.
But new research suggests that cutting ourselves off from those in their golden years deprives us of something older minds are uniquely equipped to give.
For years, cognitive scientists had a simple timeline for how the brain grows and ages: starting in infancy, our gray matter puts on a fireworks show of new synapses, taking shape, learning, and becoming ever sharper and more efficient. And then we turn 25, and our brains begin a long and steady decline toward senility.
But according to a just-published paper by Laura Germine of Harvard and Joshua Hartshorne at M.I.T., this model is oversimplified. Their work shows that so-called “fluid intelligence,” that is, the ability to learn, react, and adapt, does indeed diminish over the years. But “crystallized intelligence”—or the ability to recognize established patterns, use language, and recall faces—peaks much later.
More surprising still, those in their 50s and beyond showed a pronounced increase in what’s called “social judgment,” or the ability to read people and discern their minds. In one test, participants were asked to judge a stranger’s mood based only on their eyes. The result? Older subjects far surpassed their younger counterparts.
And that’s not all. Last year a team of German scientists published research suggesting that the mental “slow down” we see in older minds has little to do with aging. Modeling the brain’s circuitry in a computer, they clocked how quickly it retrieved data. Then they uploaded vast amounts of new data and ran the test again. Not surprisingly, they wound up with a smarter computer that took more time to “remember” facts.
“The picture that emerges from these findings,” writes Benedict Carey in The New York Times, “is of an older brain that moves more slowly than its younger self, but is just as accurate in many areas and more adept at reading others’ moods—on top of being more knowledgeable. That’s a handy combination…”
Indeed. But as my colleague, Shane Morris, pointed out at the BreakPoint Blog, it also confirms what Christians have long taught about the value and—dare I say it—wisdom of the elderly. When Proverbs calls gray hair “a crown of glory,” it’s not trying to make old fuddy-duddies feel better. And when the Lord sent bears to scarf down youngsters making fun of Elisha’s bald head, it wasn’t to soothe the old prophet’s hurt feelings.
Our God takes very seriously the respect due those who’ve earned a lifetime of understanding. Younger people need them around, not only to give sage advice and accurate social judgment, but to put the brakes on youthful haste and to remind us of eternity.
The elderly may not have the quickest minds or understand the latest gadgets, but they do have something young minds sorely need: it’s called wisdom.
— by Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org). Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.