Do we really get wiser with age?

Development of Wisdom

Maybe these youngsters don't need to hang on every word he says.
Maybe these youngsters don't need to hang on every word he says.
Andersen Ross/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The Berlin Wisdom Project, the group more interested in the intellectual and measurable components of wisdom, found in several studies that older people just aren't wiser [source: Hall]. Rather, there was a plateau of optimal wisdom performance that seemed to occur in middle and old age; a separate study suggested that wisdom starts to decline at age 75 [source: Hall]. These studies seem to account for the fading memories and decline in cognitive function that we sometimes associate with the elderly.

But when you add emotional factors back into the mix, the elderly seem to have a better shot at attaining wisdom. In a wisdom test that evaluated cognitive factors as well as emotional factors, a 67-year-old mother of seven who grew up poor and never finished high school scored well above average on the wisdom scale [source: Hall]. This seems to suggest that some sort of positive nature and emotional resiliency acquired with age and experience accounts for the development of wisdom.

Take, for example, a 2008 study, in which researchers from the University of Alberta and Duke University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to peer inside the brains of people faced with an emotionally challenging image. The study group consisted of older and younger participants, and the older participants were more likely to view the images as less negative than their younger counterparts. In the older participants, brain scans revealed interaction between the parts of the brain that deal with emotion (the amygdala) and with emotion control (the anterior cingulate cortex) [source: University of Alberta].

Researchers believe that the older subjects' ability to control their emotional response and remain more positive in the face of an emotional challenge is a trait that comes with age. Interestingly, moral reasoning, which involves the same sort of balancing of emotions, has been linked with wisdom; those who exhibit higher levels of moral reasoning exhibit higher levels of wisdom-related performances [source: Staudinger].

That's not to say that younger people don't also exhibit wisdom, but they may not be able to contextualize it in the same way. In one study, people of all ages were asked about times they had exhibited wisdom and how it related to a lesson learned and some change in life. Adolescents were able to tell a story that involved wisdom, but they weren't able to link it to the bigger picture. Slightly older adults were able to find the lesson learned and glimpse the bigger picture, but only the older people could find the consequences or directions taken that the wisdom-related experience inspired [source: Bluck, Gluck]. For example, a teacher was able to point to a choice regarding classroom discipline that led to a new teaching philosophy, while young people's examples of handling conflicts with parents didn't relate to any larger life experiences, perhaps because they simply haven't had enough experiences yet.

It may be that people of all ages can be wise, but when a person's view of time changes, so too does wisdom. For example, a young person may exhibit wisdom in picking out a career, but that person does so with the sense of limitless future ahead of them. On the other hand, an elderly person, knowing that time is more limited, will exhibit a different kind of wisdom in making a decision, because he or she knows that time is ticking [source: Gluck et al.].

In the introduction, we mentioned Erik Erikson, whose life cycle approach kick-started this wisdom phenomenon. In the 1980s, Erikson updated his life cycle with the knowledge that had come to him in reaching the age of 87. Erikson decided that the lesson learned at each of the stages before that 8th cycle in some way added to the wisdom potential of old age [source: Goleman]. If an infant developed the sense of trust and hope, then he or she would become more likely to realize the value of interdependence. Realizing that may help one understand a sense of greater good that would be needed to achieve wisdom. With strong values like empathy, resilience and humility developed at each cycle, then the person had a better chance of beating down death with integrity.

That means it's never too early to start working toward wisdom; some articles that might boost yours can be found below.

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  • Bluck, Susan and Judith Gluck. "Making Things Better and Learning a Lesson: Experiencing Wisdom Across the Lifespan." Journal of Personality. June 2004.
  • "Erik Erikson, 91, Psychoanalyst Who Reshaped Views of Human Growth, Dies." New York Times. May 13, 1994. (Oct. 6, 2008)
  • Gluck, Judith, Susan Bluck, Jacqueline Baron, Dan P. McAdams. "The wisdom of experience: Autobiographical narratives across adulthood." International Journal of Behavioral Development. 2005.
  • Goleman, Daniel. "Erikson, In His Own Old Age, Expands His View of Life." New York Times. June 14, 1988. (Oct. 6, 2008),%20age&st=cse
  • Hall, Stephen S. "The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis." New York Times. May 6, 2007. (Oct. 9, 2008)
  • Pasupathi, M. and U.M. Staudinger. "Do advanced moral reasoners also show wisdom? Linking moral reasoning and wisdom-related knowledge and judgment." International Journal of Behavioral Development. 2001.
  • Staudinger, Ursula M. "Older and Wiser? Integrating Results on the Relationship between Age and Wisdom-related Performance." International Journal of Behavioral Development. 1999.
  • Staudinger, Ursula M., Anna G. Maciel, Jacqui Smith and Paul B. Baltes. "What Predicts Wisdom-Related Performance? A First Look at Personality, Intelligence, and Facilitative Experiential Contexts." European Journal of Personality. 1998.
  • Sternberg, Robert J. "Older But Not Wiser? The Relationship Between Age and Wisdom." Ageing International. Winter 2005.
  • Takahashi, Masami and Willis F. Overton. "Wisdom: A culturally inclusive developmental perspective." International Journal of Behavioral Development. 2002.
  • University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. "Wisdom Comes With Age, At Least When It Comes to Emotions." ScienceDaily. June 16, 2008. (Oct. 6, 2008)
  • http://www.sciencedaily.comĀ­ /releases/2008/06/080612185428.htm