Growing Up, Growing Older, Growing Wise

No one can stay a child forever, and we all grow older. However, growing wise isn’t a given, but it is our birthright and potential. Embracing this is especially relevant right now to anyone 55+ years of age.

  • Knowledge – facts, information and skills acquired through experience or education; theoretical or practical understanding.
  • Wisdom –  the state of having or showing experience, knowledge and good judgment; showing keen mental discernment; characterized by ready insight and understanding. 

Last week I attended a Creative Project Workshop at UNCA’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). The engaging speaker, Carl Nordgren, entrepreneur, author and Duke University Professor, captivated me with his presentation style from the first few minutes. While most of his career has been developing younger adults, Nordgren has recently begun focusing his writing and workshops (Becoming a Creative Genius-Again) on older adults, because he’s been fascinated by research that indicates how vast our potential is to grow wise. 

Nordgren translated several key neurological studies on the aging brain into lay terms for workshop participants. The bottom line, we don’t lose our capacity for creativity as we get older; it changes and literally deepens. As I said in the first paragraph it’s not a given that we arrive there, but… 

You're wired to grow wise. Here's how.
You’re wired to grow wise.

Nature Sets Us Up To Grow Wise

  • Divergent Thinking – The ability to see lots of possible solutions and sort them into various categories. This is fundamental to creativity. Per Steve Jobs, “Creativity is simply connecting the dots. If you want to maximize your creativity, immerse yourself in dots” Per Sharon Willen, “A person who has been around the sun more than 55 times has surely dipped into lots and lots of dot pools.”
  • Neuroplasticity – When one portion of a human brain is incapacitated for any reason, other brain cells adapt; our brains fire to become what we need them to be. Per Sharon Willen, “If you lose it, you can still use it.”
  • Right Brain/Left Brain – The neuromyth that the functional areas for language and creativity are performed within opposite hemispheres of our brains is questionable. “The most current understanding of creativity is far broader and involves multiple brain functions and structures, as well as different neurotransmitters.” Studies now suggest that the ability to generate creative ideas is characterized by increased functional connectivity. This means creativity is not limited to right hemisphere functions and may not be related to “active” skill sets at all, but rather to what the brain does when it is not focused on anything in particular. Carl Nordgren, “Studies show that older adults are more likely to use both hemispheres of the brain while doing cognitive tasks.” Per Sharon Willen, “If I can’t find the word for it, I’ll make up a new one or draw a picture of what I want to express.”

Two Types Of Intelligence

  • Fluid Intelligence – the ability to see patterns; associations made in the brain’s grey matter. Peaks around age 35.
  • Crystal Intelligence – the ability to mine what’s already there; to dip back in and find new uses. “Myelin” (the brain’s white matter) insulates nerve cell axons to increase the speed at which information (encoded as an electrical signal) travels from one nerve cell body to another. There is mounting evidence that White Matter change plays an important and previously neglected role in learning and plasticity throughout life. Crystal Intelligence peaks at around age 55, consistent with the fourth myelination, that associated with the frontal cortex.

Let Me Repeat That

The ability to mine what’s already there and find new uses is most prepared for action at age 55. Can we agree, then, this is as good a biological explanation for wisdom as we’re going to get? As we grow wise, we’ve got the experience, the stored knowledge, the capacity to relate and correlate and, thus, generate something new.

What Shall We Generate?

In the best-selling book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari posits, “Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights….We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but we aren’t much happier.” 

Retrain Your Mind

Those of us now over age 55 had the intention to manifest “The Age of Aquarius” when we were in our 20’s. Today we face personal and global challenges we couldn’t imagine at that time. Whether you are dwelling on how to age in your home as a solo adult or how to make a difference in the social, political, and/or environmental status quo of the twenty-first century, it’s time to renew your intention. Take action on this today. Put your wiser mind behind your earlier commitment to leave the world a better place. Carl Norgren offers links to generative resources and research on his website. Per Sharon Willen, “Now is the best day of the rest of your life.”

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