December 26, 2013

The Neuroscience of Aging

Jim Bower, a neuroscientist, recently explained to me why this is: Our brains actually change with age. Young people are not so much fearless as incapable of realistic evaluation of risk. We need these people to fight wars and start families. Nobody in their right mind would charge a well-fortified bunker. No woman would get pregnant if she could anticipate the physical pain of childbirth, the effort in child rearing, or the heartache of eventual separation.

As we age we have more experiences to catalog and we cannot possibly keep track of all the details, so we begin to look for general patterns; rules we can use to explain the world and guide our behavior. In short, wisdom is a coping mechanism.

But, there's nothing that guarantees we draw correct conclusions. For example, hypothesizing we are discriminated against merely because of our age can help us explain our failures. Or it could be that we see patterns where none exists, and therefore it is rational for people who want to get things done to avoid hiring people with faulty world views. Perhaps thinking we are being discriminated against is a symptom of the reason people don't want to hire us. False wisdom can be worse than no wisdom at all because it gets in the way of doing what we are told to do by people who know what they are doing.

Being Wrong Is the Best Policy

Even scientists trained in uncovering objective truths have pet theories, and they are likely to see confirming data and ignore disconfirming evidence. I am no exception. However, I have discovered that when choosing between two alternative explanations for my failure, rather than take the time to determine which is objectively correct, it is often wiser to choose the theory that says I am most at fault. Although it feels worse, when I am at fault I have more control.

For example, if the problem is that I am being discriminated against because of my age, then I cannot fix that problem without changing the minds of billions. But if my failures are my fault, then all I have to do is change my own mind. This is one of those general rules I have come up with in my old age, even though I cannot remember the specifics of how I came by it. Maybe I read it in an article like this one.

An Unwise Woman with a Problem

A while ago I was talking to a woman who was about my age. She had not had a job in years. She said, "I cannot get a job because of age discrimination. Nobody values wise problem solvers."

I said, "Really? I don't find that. Wise problem solvers are very rare; I don't know many of them, and they all seem fully employed, regardless of how old they are." She asked for my advice and I suggested that we role-play an interview.

Me: Are you a wise problem solver?

She: Yes.

Me: Say something wise?

She: What do you mean?

Me: Say something that a wise person would say; the kind of thing Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, or Margaret Meade might utter.

She: (after a long pause) I cannot think of anything. But I am good at solving problems.

Me: OK. You have a problem. You have been unemployed for a few years. Why have you not solved that problem?

She started to repeat that people did not value wise problem solvers, but then stopped herself. Instead she asked me what she should do.