June 6, 2004    Psychology

Why So Many Old People Are Stupid

In Japan, seniority is a big deal. If someone is even a few years older, you are supposed to address him respectfully. That never jibed with me when I was living in Japan. Do we automatically become respectable as we get older? I didn’t think so, but whenever I mentioned this to adults, they would always tell me that I would understand it someday when I too am older. Well, I’m older now (37), and I can tell you that so far I haven’t been proven wrong. I am beginning to be convinced that those adults were full of it.

Have you ever wondered why so many seniors are stupid? Have you ever wondered why most people cannot relate to their parents when describing what they do in their lives? People often say, “But my parents would never understand that.” This becomes especially problematic when the topic is highly cultural like art, philosophy, and science. If you think about it logically, why should this be the case? If your father is 60 years old and if you are 30, you would think he would be twice as wise and knowledgeable as you are, but this is rarely the case. Even if I am not qualified to judge people older than I am, I can tell you that among the people of my own age, some of them are already getting dumber than they were before.

The most common explanation is that, as you get older, it becomes harder to learn new things. Well, nice excuse. Even though it is very rare, I do meet septuagenarians who are literally twice as wise and knowledgeable as I am. They are usually people who pursue something other than their jobs.

It appears that while some people progressively become wiser and more knowledgeable, the vast majority of others become progressively dumber. The gap between them must be huge. For those who kept improving themselves, the rest of the people of their own age must appear completely foreign to them, like talking to teenagers. So, why does this happen? And, when does this start happening? I think it starts happening in our 30s. Why it happens is a more complicated story.

In our 20s, we are all idealistic. There is nothing wrong with idealism, except that, in our 20s, we are idealistic and naive at the same time. In other words, our heads are running far ahead of our emotions. We can deal well with logical problems in our lives, but more complex emotional problems are beyond our abilities. This starts to flip in our 30s. As we start to lose our logical abilities, our emotions continue to mature, but the problem is that emotional maturity devoid of logical intelligence is no better than having a big head and a small heart. On top of losing logical abilities, we also lose physical abilities too; so the odds are against us. Furthermore, if you have a problem with substance abuse like alcoholism, it would hinder even your emotional maturity. So, all three components start to deteriorate. If you keep going in that direction for 30 years, the result is an utterly dumb, boring senior citizen.

In order to prevent this from happening, we must make a conscious effort to keep our minds and bodies in best shape possible. Our emotions will keep on maturing as long as we face our lives courageously. Even though our logical and physical abilities are diminishing, as we become wiser, we become much more efficient in learning. We no longer make obvious mistakes, and nothing we learn is entirely new. Our knowledge from other areas can expedite our learning process. These advantages can easily make up for the disadvantages, and it becomes possible to actually be twice as wise and knowledgeable as a 30 year old when we turn 60.

When I was in 7th grade, my math teacher answered an obvious but difficult question: Why do we have to study advanced math, if we are never going to use it in our adult lives? He said it’s because the same parts of our brains used for math can be used for many other things in life. With this short explanation, he utterly convinced me the importance of studying math, and of any other subjects for that matter.

The same logic still applies in our old age. Any connections in our brains left unused will eventually fall apart. Seemingly unrelated and irrelevant subjects like calculus could reinforce these unused connections. The science shows that the connections we frequently use can stay strong all our lives, and the aspects of our intelligence that use those parts of our brains could stay razor-sharp even in our old age.

But all this still does not explain why some choose to improve themselves while others let it all go down hill. I actually have no answer for that. All I can tell you is that, in our 30s, we all seem to come to some conclusions about what life is. Having reached our physical and logical heights of our lives in our late 20s, we can now see the entire mountain in perspective. We can even see the other side of that mountain (senior homes in Florida). This understanding of life is unspeakable and different for everyone. Some then decide that life is about comfort. They strive only to have a good life, eat good food, travel to exotic places, have happy relationships, live in comfortable houses, etc.. They maintain only the parts of their brains that are necessary to improve their comfort levels, that is, the skills required for their jobs.

Others decide that there is more to life than being comfortable. They realize that a higher understanding of life is always possible, that there is in fact more to that mountain than what we see in perspective. The meaning of life, for these people, becomes sheer curiosity about life. I already see people around me taking these two separate paths. The longer the time passes, the more difficult it becomes to relate to those who took the other path, but we meet more new people along the way, who happen to come across your path from entirely different directions.

Now I see why those adults insisted that older people are respectable. Being concerned only with comfort, they just gave me an answer that would make them more comfortable.