What changes as we get older? Personal thoughts and observations from my project.
One of the main mechanisms our brain uses to consolidate learning is the strengthening of the synaptic connections between neurons. A set of neurons with strong synaptic connections can impose a strong influence on the global thought pattern (GTP). The more we experience a set of facets that a moment in time is constructed from; the easier we can both recognise and infer similar situations/ experiences.
So an older person is ‘wiser’ because they can quickly recognise the similar well experienced traits/ situations or knowledge and infer their learning into a new problem space… been there… done that.
Younger minds ‘think’ more flexibly because there are no really strong overriding patterns that have been forged through long term exposure/ use; thus more patterns are fired and each has to vie for attention. Loads of ideas… not much sense lol.
Both the young and old versions of the human memory schema have their advantages… but obviously the ideal combination is wisdom with flexibility… so how can we achieve this?
The main problem is that the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ also applies to your neural skill set.
We are the sum of our experiences and knowledge. Everything we learn and experience affects ‘who’ we are and the ‘way’ we think. All the skills we acquire through our lives and the problems we solve are mapped into our connectome and ALL this information is accessed and brought to bare when required. The fact that I can repair clocks/ engines and the techniques I have used are also used when I’m solving neuroscience related problems. Every good theory/ thought I have is comprised from all the facets of the many varied topics mixed together in my brain. When I consider a possible relationship between disparate subjects I’m actually applying a general rule that is comprised of all the different types of relationships I have ever encountered.
As we get older our connectome fine tunes more and more to become expert in our chosen vocational field. We can recognise the common relationship problems a younger person is experiencing because we have seen it so many times before… the price for this wisdom is loss of plasticity/ flexibility; just the process of becoming proficient at life harms our imaginative thinking powers.
Besides learning new skills/ topics it’s very important from a mental perspective to exercise previously learned skills or knowledge frequently. The general purpose rules we constantly apply have been built up through a hierarchical learning process and depend on all the various facets of the skills and knowledge that were present when they where originally consolidated. If enough of the underlying skills/ knowledge is lost/ forgotten then although the general purpose rule still exists it can’t be applied as flexibly as before.
This is where an elderly person can loose mental flexibility; they are wise enough to know the correct answer through experience; but because the original skill set has been lost they lack a deep understanding of how they arrived at the answer… and without this information they can’t consider new/ fresh avenues of thought.
Don’t just lean new topics/ skills… frequently refresh old learning/ knowledge and skills.
I’m off now to break my neck on my sons skateboard lol.