A slower brain may be a wiser brain.
New research proves that wisdom develops with aging, and that wisdom is the result of the brain slowing down and the resulting decrease in impulsivity.
“Older people are less likely to respond thoughtlessly to negative emotional stimuli because their brains have slowed down compared to younger people. This, in fact is what we call wisdom,” said Professor Dilip Jeste of the University of California, San Diego, who led the research study.
While there it may be common wisdom that it is difficult for older people to learn new skills — e.g., “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” — that appears to be a misconception. Prior research has made clear that even after brain damage, for instance, after a stroke, the brain has an amazing ability to regenerate lost function. After damage to one part of the brain, other areas of the brain are able to compensate by learning new functions. This ability is known as neuroplasticity, and appears to carry on throughout life.
Jeste studied a series of 3,000 San Diego residents between the ages of 60 and 100. Over a period of three months, the study participants were proven to be able to learn a new skill such as juggling, and their ability to learn was confirmed by characteristic brain changes seen on MRI scans. A significant change was seen in the area of the brain that involves perceptual anticipation.
Professor Jeste commented, “Probably the most exciting breakthrough in the last decade has been the finding that neuroplasticity, the ability to generate neurons and synapses, continues throughout an individual’s life. MRI scans have also identified the four regions of the brain that contribute to wisdom (the amygdala and the left prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), with older people demonstrating a higher level of activity between these regions than younger people.”
“The elderly brain is less dopamine-dependent, making people less impulsive and controlled by emotion,” Jeste found.
Dopamine is a substance that has many functions in the body. While not all of the effects of dopamine in the brain are fully understood, dopamine is believed to be involved in not only the ‘reward’ aspect of learning, but also as a sort of ‘wanting,’ and ‘feel good’ substance. By being less reliant on immediate gratification, an older person can take time to more carefully consider actions, making wiser decisions.
Jeste concludes from his results that although older people may lose some physical abilities, they should gain confidence from the knowledge that they can become sharper and develop new skills with age.
Professor Jeste’s findings were presented at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress in Edinburgh.