The Wisdom of the Aging Brain (2023)

ONEt the 2010 Cannes Film Festival premiere ofYou will meet a tall dark stranger, director Woody Allen was asked about aging. He responded with his characteristic frank pessimism. "I think it's a bad deal. Getting old doesn't do any good. Now I'm 74. You're not getting smarter, you're not getting wiser... Your back hurts more, you have more indigestion... Getting old is a bad deal. I I would advise you not to do this if you can avoid it.

Despite creaking bones and poor digestion, is this really the only face of aging? Turns out that's not the case. At least for a lucky few, old age might not be Woody-Allenesque; instead, as they age, they become compassionate and wise. yes, wise

The Wisdom of the Aging Brain (1)

While aging reduces activity in certain brain regions, there is tantalizing evidence that this may be offset by changes in brain regions associated with social and supportive behaviors. This shift in brain activity may encourage wisdom in some people, a way of life that moves away from self-centeredness toward emotional equanimity and broader social awareness. Perhaps even in old age we can work towards wisdom.

FFor thousands of years, philosophers and theologians have grappled with the concept of wisdom (the Greek wordPhilosophymeans "love of wisdom"). Centuries before the Greeks arrived on the scene, religious traditions in India and China, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, contemplated wisdom and emphasized regulation of emotions—or emotional balance—as the key to it.

Aristotle divided wisdom into two types. One was omniscient, divine, common wisdom, and the second (more relevant to us mortals) was something calledphronesis, or practical wisdom, which is the ability to judge one's actions and know when and why to act pragmatically. Ideally, such wise actions - whether dealing with emotion regulation or logical reasoning - would balance self-interest with the interests of others and society at large.

Despite humanity's fascination with wisdom, it only became an object of empirical study about four decades ago. Vivian Clayton, who practices geriatric neuropsychology in Orinda, Calif., was a graduate student in the 1970s when she started thinking seriously about operationalizing, or defining and measuring, wisdom. Her study of ancient and modern literature led her to define wisdom as reasonable behavior that often includes social situations—behavior that arises from knowledge imbued with consideration, reflection, and compassion.

Wisdom arises from a balance of activity in brain regions.

In the 1980s, other psychologists entered the picture. In the 1930s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget developed an influential model of cognitive development, the final stages of which endow us with the ability to think abstractly. Piaget considered this stage the pinnacle of cognitive development, the highest form of thinking that can be achieved. But Woody Allen wails aside, is this the height of human skill? Psychologists speculated that there was more: the "more" is the wisdom that comes with life experience and possibly aging.

Questions like these led German psychologist Paul Baltes, along with psychologist Ursula Staudinger, to launch the Berlin Wisdom Project in the 1980s – a pioneering effort to define wisdom. "There was interest in this notion of wisdom [as] an ideal end point in human development," says Staudinger, who is now director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University.

Baltes and Staudinger defined wisdom as “expertise involving deep insight and good judgment about the nature of human beings and the ways and means of planning, living and understanding a good life”.

Intuitively, the ability to be wise seems to grow with age, but his research has shown that getting older isn't enough to make you wiser. Other processes associated with aging can impede the emergence of wisdom. Aging reduces what you balt and

Staudinger called the "mechanics" of the mind - which depends on the biology of the brain, such as the number of neurons, connectivity, metabolism and the speed at which the brain can process new information. The mechanics of the mind peak between the ages of 25 and 30 and then steadily decline.

Many studies have shown that the aging brain slows down. For example, the ability to perform mental operations significantly decreases. So does our capacity for episodic memory and executive function (needed for planning, multitasking, and verbal control, among other things), due to dysfunctions in the medial temporal lobe memory system and frontostriatal networks important for executive function.

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But not all is lost yet. “Thinking and recognizing based on knowledge and experience is something that never fails”, says Staudinger. This ability, which peaks between the ages of 40 and 50 and then remains stable and only declines in later life, can contribute to wisdom as long as we remain mentally active and engaged. Evidence from studies in rhesus macaques supports this observation. These are structures called dendritic spines that project from the dendrite of one neuron to the axon of another neuron. These spikes have a neck and a head. Those with long necks and small heads shrink with age, but the shorter, thicker "mushroom spines," thought to be "sites of long-term memory," do not. This may explain why our ability to learn new things suffers as we age, but skills that rely on lifelong learning (like playing a musical instrument) do not.

After Baltes' death in 2006, Staudinger distinguished between so-called general and personal wisdom. She found that while common wisdom - the ability to make wise decisions about others - remains more or less stable throughout life, it is much more difficult to be wise about your own life. Personal wisdom is not easy.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the story of King Solomon of Israel, whom Christians and Jews hold up as a model of wisdom. When two women came to him with a baby, each claiming the baby was his, Solomon suggested cutting the baby in half. When a woman cried out that the baby should be spared and given to the other woman, Solomon identified her as the real mother. Solomon displayed common wisdom. "At the same time, Solomon was leading a completely mindless private life," says Staudinger.

There may be a specific wisdom neurocircuitry.

Igor Grossmann, who studies wisdom at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, believes that being able to handle one's life wisely has a lot to do with one's sense of self. “There's this idea in Western culture that the self is some sort of independent entity, that everyone has a very defined, independently defined idea of ​​who he or she can be,” says Grossmann.

And this often makes a person vulnerable. “What you find is that when you put people in a situation where they're threatened, people aren't very good at engaging in any form of wise argument. They want to defend themselves quickly,” says Grossmann.

Grossmann's cross-cultural studies have shown that in cultures where the self is seen as more interdependent and more dependent on relationships with other people – such as Japan – people are less threatened by perceived dangers to themselves and are better able to engage in meaningful reasoning. wise.

But studies show that even for those of us who are easily offended, it's possible to improve our ability to reason reasonably by putting some distance between ourselves and, well, ourselves. Clinical psychologists call this process decentering: you take the view of an observer of something that is happening, rather than a participant.

Grossmann says that releasing the hold of the self can help with wise thinking, even as we age. One way to de-center with age is to live interdependently, surrounded by people so as not to feel alone and threatened.

"Age isn't necessarily a time when everything falls apart," says Grossmann. “Many of these types of processes are flexible and trainable.” For example, through meditation. "A lot of meditative practices involve this kind of third-person perspective, where you detach from the immediate self and become the observer," says Grossman.

There is a lot of evidence that meditation induces neurobiological changes. Sara Lazar's laboratory at Harvard Medical School in Boston has shown that even eight weeks of meditation can increase gray matter density in regions of the brain associated with executive function, working memory and – important from a wisdom perspective – empathy, compassion and connection with yourself. - detachment. In another study, her team showed that certain regions of the prefrontal cortex were just as thick in 40- to 50-year-old meditators as they were in 20- to 30-year-old meditators and controls.

TThe brain's prefrontal cortex is of particular interest to Dilip Jeste, former president of the American Psychiatric Association and director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California, San Diego. He speculates that it may be part of a network of brain regions responsible for wisdom.

To understand wisdom and its possible neurobiological underpinnings, Jeste and his colleagues took a multipronged approach. The first was an extensive literature review to find out what researchers mean by wisdom. Second, they assembled a panel of experts and asked their opinion on a list of features. (Jeste considers wisdom a personality trait; not everyone does.) The experts responded anonymously, labeling each trait as necessary for wisdom, intelligence, or spirituality—a trait can belong to one, two, all three, or none of them. The average panel response was then sent to each expert and the process was repeated. "It was clear that experts saw these three as slightly overlapping but largely independent concepts," says Jeste. For example: "Wise people are smart, but smart people aren't necessarily wise."

The researchers went even further. They asked palliative care patients nearing the end of their lives what they thought about wisdom. Finally, they address a problem that confounds wisdom research: cultural specificity. With the help of a medical anthropologist and special software, Jeste analyzedO Bhagavad Gita, a spiritual treatise considered the philosophical cornerstone of Hinduism, dating to the last few centuries BC. “We looked at wisdom and its synonyms like prudence and antonyms like stupidity and madness”, says Jeste. “We wanted to find out how often these words were used and, more importantly, in what context in theGita.“

Your analysis was insightful. "What was really striking and surprising was that the components of wisdom seen in different ways are surprisingly similar," says Jeste.

The team identified six components of wisdom: having pragmatic knowledge about life; emotional regulation; prosocial behavior that would bring out compassion, altruism, and empathy; know your strengths and limitations; Determination; and, finally, accept the uncertainty.

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What was most impressive was the consistency over time. “Why has the concept of wisdom changed since millennia BC? have not changed? says Jeste "To me, that suggested it should be biologically based. If it was biologically based, then where would it be based? Obviously in the brain, but where in the brain?"

Jeste's team returned to literature. They looked at brain imaging, genetics, neurochemistry, and neuropathology studies that targeted these individual components of wisdom and their opposites; For example, the opposite of emotion regulation is impulsivity, and the opposite of prosocial behavior can be found in the actions of antisocial personalities.

Case reports of patients with brain damage due to injury or stroke have been instructive. Jeste remembers reading the published case of a bright young soldier in his twenties, competent, well-adjusted and happily married. One day, the jeep he was traveling in ran over a land mine. The resulting brain injury changed his personality. He would divorce and remarry - three times. He could barely hold down a job as a newspaper courier. The damage to his brain was located in the prefrontal cortex.

Further evidence has come from a neurodegenerative disorder called behavioral frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), in which damage is again more or less limited to the prefrontal cortex. People suffering from bvFTD often start making bad decisions, show lack of insight, become impulsive, passionate, and sometimes antisocial. "If you look at the symptoms, they're the opposite of wisdom," says Jeste.

In a recent retrospective study of 2,397 patients examined at the Center for Memory and Aging at the University of California, researchers found that those diagnosed with bvFTD were much more likely to engage in criminal behavior than patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD). 🇧🇷 “Common manifestations of criminal behavior in the bvFTD group were theft, traffic violations, sexual advances, trespassing, and public urination, in contrast to those in the AD group, who committed frequent traffic violations, often related to cognitive impairment,” the researchers wrote.

To Jeste and colleagues, the evidence was compelling. "Based on all of this, we proposed that there is a neurological wisdom circuit," says Jeste. This circuit included the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for rationality, discipline, and self-preservation), the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (associated with "gentle, social, and emotional behaviors necessary for the survival of the species"), the anterior cingulate (the conflicts between parts of the prefrontal cortex) and the striatum with the amygdala (part of the reward circuit).

When we're young, we like it when our jokes are bizarre.

According to Jeste, wisdom arises from a balance of activity in these brain regions. “In a way, wisdom is balance. If you are too prosocial, if you give everything for others, you will not survive. But of course, if you don't give anything to others, the species will not survive. You have to be in balance.”

Despite such evidence, Jeste is cautious. “It would be reckless of us to say that this is the caseaNeurocircuitry of wisdom,” he says. "We don't know that. It's a hypothesis. Empirical research can show that it's completely wrong and something else is right. It's good."

And what does this have to do with age? Jeste points out that aging is associated with a change in brain activity. For example, there is something called Hemispheric Asymmetry Reduction in Older Adults (HAROLD) - a phenomenon where half of the prefrontal cortex that is less active in youth (half depends on the individual) shows increased activation in old age, which increases overall activity in the prefrontal cortex. There is also a shift in activity with age from the occipital lobes, which are associated with sensory processing, to the prefrontal cortex (the so-called posterior-anterior shift with aging).

None of this is meant to suggest that older people are smarter by default. "Wisdom and aging are not synonymous," says Jeste. “You see young people who are very wise for their age and you see old people who are very reckless. However, you are more likely to get smarter as you age.

But why? Jeste always asked himself the same question. As we age, we develop illnesses, diseases and disabilities. “If we are to live with disability for a long time without contributing to the species, it doesn't make sense unless there is some improvement with age to compensate,” says Jeste. "The idea is that this is wisdom."

Another association of age with wisdom comes from the study of humor. Turns out, when we're young, we like our jokes when they're bizarre and inappropriate. As we get older, we find jokes funnier when they not only have inappropriate jokes but also have a general context. "You can make a loose connection between that and maybe wisdom if you think of wisdom as being more interested in how things fit together and less interested in what's bizarre or different," says neuropsychologist Hiram Brownell at Boston College.

Staudinger fears that we risk diluting the essence of wisdom by looking too far. Of course, there are things we get better at as we age, but she thinks it has more to do with living an adjusted and balanced life. It is known that seniors are better able to focus on positive emotions and avoid negative emotions - something that can be considered wise. However, according to Staudinger, this tells us that as we age, we become more socially competent and balanced – but not necessarily wiser.

Wisdom, says Staudinger, includes being able to handle negative emotions and "really holding on to negative emotionality just long enough to learn from it and not get rid of it or avoid it altogether." Often, she adds, "we have to put ourselves in really uncomfortable conditions" if we want to grow rather than adapt.

Staudinger and her colleagues have conducted more than 1,200 "wisdom interviews" with people ages 12 to 95 since the 1980s. She believes that less than 1% of respondents demonstrated the level of insight and judgment her team defines as necessary for wisdom – the ability to tolerate and learn from negative emotions, a propensity to think about immediate needs, to think about the next generation, and about common good. "Very few people develop the capacity to transcend their body, to transcend themselves," says Staudinger.

While it is clear that our definition of wisdom makes it more or less likely that we will reach this exalted state as we age, it is also clear that those who live a wise life benefit not only themselves but also humanity itself.

Anil Ananthaswamy, an award-winning journalist, is guest editor for the science writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author ofthe limit of physics,Named UK Book of the Year 2010world of physicseThe man who wasn't therenominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Writing.

The Wisdom of the Aging Brain (4)

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