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Tue Jun 19, 2012, 11:11 AM


The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome

Research details a number of ways in which the brain actually improves with age. And what's even more interesting is that many of these advanced abilities correlate with key conceptual elements of innovation and creativity. This is particularly true for the human-centered design process -- empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test -- as outlined by the Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as "the d.school" where, in the interest of full disclosure, I have coached a design course called Sustainable Abundance. "There are neuro-circuitry factors that can favor age in terms of innovation," observes Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Center on Aging.

First there is empathy, "the foundation of a human-centered design process." Empathy is critical to design because of the need to understand the people for whom you are designing.
Older people have a greater capacity for empathy because empathy is learned and refined as we age. "How many adolescents do you know with the gift of empathy," asks Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary's College of California and an internationally recognized authority on adult learning. "Not many. It's a developmental stage that lasts through the teen years and into the 20s -- longer for some people." According to Taylor, younger people are more likely to connect with others from their own place of need. A 22-year-old may have an idea, and that idea may be quite brilliant and useful, but more than likely it's all tied up in how that young person feels. "Because of their greater capacity to empathize, older people can have a better sense of the things that may charge up another person's brain and get them excited."


As we age, we are better able to anticipate problems and reason things out than when we were young. Small's research shows that our complex reasoning skills continue to improve as we get older.
But that particular capacity can also serve as a double-edged sword. Albert Einstein famously said that we can't solve problems through the same kind of thinking as when we created them. As we age, yesterday's thinking can form an invisible box that some may resist venturing out of today. "Young people don't try to solve problems with yesterday's solutions because they don't know them," Taylor says. "They have no clue about the places where they shouldn't be treading. And ultimately, they go outside the box because they don't know there is a box." There's a certain fearlessness to ignorance. But balance fearlessness against wisdom -- an equally inchoate and difficult-to-quantify gift -- that can guide the aging brain to greater insights to advance creativity and innovation.


"Take my area as a university professor," Small says. "You go from researching, writing and coming up with new ideas to becoming a manager and department dean, where you're basically writing speeches and managing people and institutions, which does not really bring out a whole lot of creative energy." Nudge your neurons, Taylor suggests. Shake things up. Stay physically active. Keep doing different things. Challenge your assumptions. Become comfortable with ambiguity. Listen to differing points of view and develop the ability to accept differences. Travel. Learn different languages. "You can seek out new environments that support your insights and creativity, but it becomes harder because you are more accustomed to the way things are," Taylor says. "If you have had 30 years of having been in a groove, it becomes really difficult to get out of that groove."


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Reply The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome (Original post)
seabeyond Jun 2012 OP
MerryBlooms Jun 2012 #1
eridani Jun 2012 #2

Response to seabeyond (Original post)

Tue Jun 19, 2012, 12:15 PM

1. I think my brain's stuck menopause purgatory

Insomnia, absent minded, mood swings, panic attacks... I'll be doggone glad when I'm over the hump and officially an old lady.

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Response to MerryBlooms (Reply #1)

Wed Jun 20, 2012, 04:32 AM

2. Eventually that's over, and then you will get to experience what Margaret Mead

--called 'postmenopausal zest.' It's like being 12 again, only without the physical resilience.

The OP has some points--judgment improves a lot with experience, and so does the ability to integrate information. However, I do miss the raw intellectual energy of 40 or so years ago. I probably could not write my PhD thesis today, but I could write a hell of a good review article putting it into a broader context.

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