In recent years researchers have looked at positive, healthy aspects of the aging mind instead of just looking at pathology or what makes us sick in the mind. The cultivation of wisdom turns out to be a key to brains aging in a healthy manner. The old adage “use it or lose it” becomes a central maxim.
People are living longer than ever before. This can be a mixed blessing. Many uncomfortable changes occur in aging, but change can be good. One of the most positive changes is in (what scientists call) crystalline and fluid intelligence … or what is commonly called wisdom. Living longer allows us more time to gain some level of insight into what makes this crazy, mixed up world tick. As we get older, we should be getting wiser.
Not everyone who lives a long time becomes wise. Monsignor Charles Fahey commented that “ You don’t really see a lot of wisdom in many older adults today.” I would have to agree with the Monsignor. When you look at how the average older adult spends 60 hours a week watching television … that’s a full-time job! Is that really why people worked hard all their lives … saving their money for their retirement? No wonder wisdom seems to be in short supply these days. The Chinese have a saying – “to find the meaning of life, you must look for a meaning in your life.” To find culture and wisdom, we must go out into the world and look for it.
In order to study any subject, we first must look at what others have said about the subject. If the subject is life itself, then we must study culture – the repository of all of our best ideas about life. In 1873, the English poet Matthew Arnold defined culture as ” acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson felt that wisdom is to be found in the works of culture. “Raphael paints wisdom; Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it … Wisdom is like electricity. There is no permanently wise man, but men capable of wisdom, who, being put into certain company, or other favorable conditions, become wise for a short time”. Through books, art, music, and culture, we come into the company of the best of ourselves, whereas television seems to only acquaint us with the worst. As Dale Carnegie once said “any damn fool can criticize, condemn and complain .. and most fools do”
Wisdom is often found by poets and mystics, in quiet contemplation of nature as Thoreau found on Walden Pond. As to the works of man, our predecessors here in Colorado showed some wisdom in building some of the finest cultural facilities in the country. Public libraries, art museums, theaters, grand scale parks and a myriad of cultural events abound. The wisdom to be found in the treasures contained in these facilities will only be found by those who seek them out. One age-old bit of wisdom handed down for thousands of years … “seek and ye shall find”.
The science of anthropology teaches us that one way to gain insight into the human condition is to study different cultures with an eye for what unifies us in our common experiences. We seem to look mostly at what separates us from other people. If our wisdom is true, then it should cut across cultural differences.
A good resource for the study of wisdom is “From Aging to Sage-ing” by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, In his book, he shows that if folks really take a good look at themselves and their lives, they will see their accomplishments in a new and meaningful light.
In a grand rounds lecture at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. A former head of the American Geriatric Society, Walter Boritz gave an outline of how wisdom may arise in the brain based upon research being conducted at Harvard. The brain organizes itself in increasingly complex way’s based upon the amount of mental and physical demands placed upon it. A newborn’s brain, like that of an animal, has few connections, it operates almost exclusively on instinct. As the brain is stimulated with mentally challenging tasks, it grows in complexity and acquires knowledge. However, to grow to the level of complexity that people call wisdom, the brain must be at its optimal level of physical health as well. That physical fitness and mental fitness go hand in hand. The ancient Greeks said “a strong mind lives in a strong body”, there is indeed some wisdom in that. Modern science is finding that increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain provided by exercise may be essential for wisdom to arise. This would explain why sometimes the fit, the old farmer may show more wisdom than the absent-minded, sedentary professor.
People are happier, healthier and less of a burden to society if they go out into the world and “acquaint ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and … thus with the history of the human spirit.” Wisdom and insight into life require living life, not watching others live it. If we are not growing as we get older, then we are just growing older.
To see a really wonderful video on wisdom and lifelong learning watch this TED talk by Wolford college president Bernie Dunlap.