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