ELDER MUSIC: Patsy Cline
Good OLD Rock and Roll

Is It Wisdom or Neurobiology?

category_bug_journal2.gif Contrary to what I wrote last week about the pain of letting go of many books, I'm not as disturbed these few days later as on Thursday when I sent them on to new lives. Undoubtedly, part of this acceptance is the money I will save on shipping costs when I move, but there is more to it.

Relatedly, I have noticed for several years, maybe a decade, that there are fewer must-haves in my life. There was a time – a long time – when no matter the condition of my bank account, it was impossible for me to resist $250-$300 Bally shoes when I passed the shop on Madison Avenue in New York twice a month or so.

Come spring and fall, I spent lavishly on new work clothes – suits, silk blouses, suede this and that and, of course, more new shoes – whether I needed them or not.

There was also, in those years, an irresistible urge to see the latest movies (in first run), read the newest books (in hardback), buy the latest updates of software and the two computer games I played (as soon as they were issued) and then congratulate myself on how au courant I was.

Nowadays, I don't do these things and I don't miss them for a second. When I do indulge – usually it's a new hardback book – I weigh the spending decision not only against the bank balance but consider, too, what upcoming necessary spending might be on the horizon and hold off if homeowners insurance, property tax or dental work is due soon.

As with selling my books, a lot of this is the result of severely reduced financial circumstances in retirement. But the important point is that when I decide against making a given purchase, I don't feel deprived as I did in my younger adult years. The negative emotional charge that ate at me then when I deprived myself of something doesn't exist anymore.

Other negative circumstances that arise in the normal course of living that produce sadness, anger, resentment, grief, etc. - have not disappeared, but I am better capable of feeling them and continuing on with daily life rather than becoming paralyzed for days or weeks as happened in my younger and mid-years.

There is the inclination to pat myself on the back, take a bow, preen a bit at the wisdom I've gained in my old age. But there was a niggling thought in the back of my mind that I had read something about this phenomenon. And sure enough - recent brain studies show a positivity bias in elders.

“...younger and older participants were asked to rate the emotional content of standardized images as positive, neutral or negative, while their brain activity was monitored with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine...

“The older participants rated the images as less negative than the younger participants. The fMRI scans helped researchers observe this reaction in the senior participants. The scans showed increased interactions between the amygdala, a brain region involved in emotion detection, and the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved in emotion control.

“According to Dr. Dolcos, 'These findings indicate that emotional control improves with aging, and that it's the increased interaction between these two brain regions [the amygdala, a brain region involved in emotion detection, and the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved in emotion control] that allows healthy seniors to control their emotional response so that they are less affected by upsetting situations.'"

So much for preening.

Another brain study found one answer to why some elders are more susceptible to fraud and swindles than younger people:

“...because they experience disproportionate changes in certain areas of the anterior portion of the frontal lobes...Damage to this subregion — due to stroke, tumors or other injuries — can cause dramatic changes in personality and higher-order abilities: reasoning, judgment, decision-making and emotional processing...

“[O]lder adults who make poor decisions are not simply 'demented,' but rather display relatively localized abnormalities in regions of the prefrontal cortex known previously to be important for judgment and making complex decisions.

Another set of brain researchers are studying the neurobiology of wisdom which they define as

“...such attributes as empathy, compassion or altruism, emotional stability, self-understanding, and pro-social attitudes, including a tolerance for others' values.

"'Defining wisdom is rather subjective, though there are many similarities in definition across time and cultures,' said [Dilip V.] Jeste, who is the Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and chief of geriatric psychiatry at UC San Diego.

"'However, our research suggests that there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom's most universal traits. But questions remain: is wisdom universal, or culturally based? Is it uniquely human, related to age? Is it dependent on experience or can wisdom be taught?'"

The researchers are investigating wisdom's connection to a balance between more primitive brain regions (the limbic system) and the newest ones (pre-frontal cortex.)

Study of the brain, our most complex organ, is difficult and still in its infancy. Little by little, however, researchers are gaining insights and some are spending more time in recent years trying to tease out the changes that happen as we get older.

What they have discovered so far leads me to believe that, unfortunately, I can't take personal credit for my improved attitudes and behavior. Judgment, perspective, emotional stability and even wisdom in old age may turn out to be normal neurological growth.

It doesn't matter – I'll take it any way I can get it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson: Maudie May


Ronni, along the lines of what we think about what we do and how it affects us comes this article in the Boston Globe "G" section today:



I'm with you Ronni -- I don't care the source, but I sure like not being buffeted by the emotional storms.

Steve's article cited above is a great warning about adopting negative stereotypes: apparently they not only color the judgment of the holders, but bounce back on them ...

What they have discovered so far leads me to believe that, unfortunately, I can't take personal credit for my improved attitudes and behavior. Judgment, perspective, emotional stability and even wisdom in old age may turn out to be normal neurological growth.

It doesn't matter – I'll take it any way I can get it.

Spoken like a woman truly on the other side of menopause. ;)

While wisdom may be the natural outcome of healthy aging, there do seem to be plenty of unwise elders out there, so I think you can take a certain amount of credit for your wisdom!

Do neurological changes change your mind, or does your mind create neurological change?

I've been weeding through my books, too. Some of them go back to college. It hurts at times, but I need the space and I figure that now that I'm done with them, someone else can read them and that that beats sitting unused on my shelves.

Ronni, you stated that your emotional growth may come from normal neurological growth.

I think mine may be the opposite. It may come from the aging of my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. According to the article in 'Scientific Blogging' that part of the brain plays a role in sustaining attention.

I have found in the last few years that I have great difficulty in reading long articles or studying instructions. My attention span is now very limited and I begin to feel tension building if I have to absorb too much in one gulp.

So is the wisdom I may have acquired just mental laziness due to a short attention span? I just don't have the mental energy to get upset over trifles now. As a result, I seem to be more serene about things that used to upset me. People perceive that calmness in the face of turmoil as wisdom.

Other possibilities suggest themselves.
Perhaps Time's Winged Chariot carries with it a growing awareness that things and worries should be let go of sooner rather than later, later now being much sooner than was true before.

At the same time I see evidence, in myself and others, that small grievances and frustrations still hold sway all too often. Slipping mastery, mental and physical, does not always lead to philosophical acceptance. Would that it did.

Online used book stores help me get rid of books since I know I can probably buy a reasonably priced replacement if I really need it. Years ago, this was not the case when I would go from one old book store to another, just hoping I would find a particular book that was out of print.

Your letting go, not only of books, but of a need for the very latest in "new, new" things really resonated with me. Young people would be appalled at not "keeping up with" appearances, fads, celebrities, fashions, etc., but as we now know, these things are mostly boring and short-lived, replaced in six months with an entirely new and equally boring set of trends. When someone young takes the time to lecture me earnestly on the vast importance of Facebook or the iPhone, it's all I can do not to laugh out loud.

This may be why advertisers hate us.

I think I observe the same tendencies in myself as I age: I don't need so much stuff (already have too many things), am less bothered by small things, am unable to sustain anger for more that a minute or two. But, on the other hand, I am quicker to tear up in a sentimental way over really small things like songs or poetry. I can't quite fit these things into the same package.

Darlene, maybe it's not a brain-fault that our attention span has grown shorter. It could be that at this stage we simply don't want to waste our time on anything that doesn't really interest us. We don't feel the need to finish a so-so book or a dense article. If I don't like something now I can drop it and go on to something else.

Ronni, you ought to preen a bit. Not all elders have gained in wisdom.

I don't crave the latest fads anymore, either. I purposely quit jumping to the next level of technology when the present one will do. It saves a lot of money, time and anxiety.

When I'm tempted to buy a new hardcover book or article of clothing, I ask myself, would I rather have this item or the money it costs? Then my brain-calculator can go to work and decide.

Good luck culling your books, Ronni. Your shelves will fill up soon enough! I TRY to donate one for every one I buy.

Maybe those of us who are of the cerebral type need to cultivate more right brained activities as a way to help concentration. I just started working with clay and am surprised at how much this activity engages me.

I agree with Annie that there are plenty of old people who show no evidence of wisdom at all, so you definitely should take some credit for yours!

I'm also reminded of one of my uncle's favorite observations about life that I may have shared with you in the past: "Too soon oldt und too late schmart!"

I agree with you Ronni. It is much easier to let go of "stuff" now that I am old. I am so glad the aquiring stage of my life has "gone with the wind"

Good luck as you continue preparing for your move.

I do love your attitude! Thanks for the theoretical basis to my smiles.

Darlene and Ronni...OYE!!! My brain seems to be retired - too. It just seems that I can focus when I am really interested etc. I love what Cynthia said - wisdom is wasted on the young. The other one is Man plans and God laughs.

Cynthia and Marian - I just checked out your blogs...I am so enthralled with the brilliance of your people, Ronni. My goodness everyone is so erudite in this sphere of communication. OMG - I wish I had the time and energy to read all of their input. WOW!!!

What you discuss here is so difficult to get many family members and friends of individuals who have experienced medical issues impacting their brains to understand. Subtle slight personality effects can occur, but loved ones all too often have great difficulty accepting that explanation and instead blame the person as deliberately changing therefore they should change back to the way they used to be.

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