10 Ways You Get Smarter as You Get Older
"Studies of the way adults perceive time suggest that we become increasingly aware that our years on this Earth are limited," notes Michael Marsiske, PhD, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida and an expert on aging. "This awareness helps explain the choices that older adults tend to make: to spend time with a smaller, tighter circle of friends and family, to pay more attention to good news than to bad news, and to seek out positive encounters and avoid negative ones."
7. You're always adding to your knowledge and abilities.
There are some kinds of information we learn and never forget. Take vocabulary: Studies show that we keep adding new words to our repertoire as we age, giving us ever richer and more subtle ways to express ourselves. Job-related knowledge also continues to accumulate, meaning we keep getting better and better at what we do.
8. You can see the big picture.
As we age, we're better able to take the measure of a situation. An experiment published in the journal Neuron in 2005 provided a very literal demonstration of this ability: Psychologist Allison Sekuler, PhD, of McMaster University in Canada, presented younger and older subjects with computer screens showing moving images of varying shapes and shades. When the shapes were small and gray, younger people were able to point them out more quickly. But when they were large and high contrast, older individuals performed the task faster. Sekuler notes that young brains seem to be better at focusing on details to the exclusion of their surroundings, and more mature brains are able to take in the whole scene.
9. You gain control of your emotions.
While young people ride a roller coaster of happiness and sadness, excitement and disappointment, older adults are able to maintain a more even keel. In a study published in 2009, psychologist Vasiliki Orgeta, PhD, evaluated younger and older adults and concluded that older adults (between ages 61 and 81) had more clarity about their feelings, made better use of strategies to regulate their emotions, and had a higher degree of control over their emotional impulses.
10. You become an instant expert, even in new situations.
As the brain encounters new experiences, it develops schemas—mental frameworks that allow us to recognize and respond to similar circumstances when we come upon them again. By midlife we've accumulated a stockpile of schemas that help give us our bearings even in novel situations. We just know what to do—and this sense of effortless mastery flows from the reservoir of experience we've built up over time. In fact, we have a name for this ability to draw on deep knowledge of the past while accommodating what comes up in the present: It's called wisdom.
Annie Murphy Paul's latest book is Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives (Free Press).
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