My husband Thom grew up in a very religious household. A questioner by nature, he struggled to grasp what he was told without constantly asking for evidence. But one thing he heard stood out as absolutely true. Without a doubt, he knew deep in his heart and soul that the most prized possession on Earth, more precious than gold or jewels, had to be wisdom. The certainty of that awareness never wavered. As it turns out, new research appears to confirm that obtaining wisdom just might be central to what leads to a happy and healthy long life—in other words, a key to positive aging. And it’s likely that treasure is something all of us would like to experience in the years to come.
Whenever I am offered a new book to review I accept it with openminded skepticism. But when a new book combines both brain science and positive aging, how could I not be interested? Timeless—Nature’s Formula For Health And Longevity by Louis Cozolino does just that. Even better, it taught me how and why the pursuit of wisdom plays a major role in creating a life of health and well-being as we age.
According to author Louis Cozolino, most brain studies perpetuate ageism to all of our detriment. Instead of recognizing that the brain continues to change, adapt and grow throughout our entire lifetime, most brain study focuses almost exclusively on the young—and implies it is all downhill from there. Yet Cozolino says, “That our brains change throughout life makes sense; that all of the changes (as we age) are negative make no sense.”
Cozolino proposes, “What if, just like during adolescence, the brain goes through a series of modifications that prepare us for the challenges and responsibilities of each stage of life?” And in fact, what if those changes and adaptations are what set us up perfectly for becoming wise elders with a vital contribution to our communities, our world, and future generations?
One of Cozolino’s more interesting ideas is that our brains are not solitary mechanical objects in our individual bodies. He proposes that our brains are actually social organs deeply interconnected through our history, our relationships, and our environment. We did not become who we are today (regardless of our age) by ourselves alone but have instead evolved and adapted along with our environment and communities.
If that is true, then as we age within this social interconnected context, we have “a number of advantages when it comes to being wise.” Our “slower pace, broader perspective and years of experience” allow us to bring much more to any situation. We are also, “better equipped to integrate emotion, intellect, and intuition.” While our culture’s obsession with youth usually makes it seem that the young have all the advantages, this ignores the enormous contributions that elders have to offer the whole.
Cozolino points out several ways older brains have the advantage over younger brains:
- Young brain: Fast processing speed vs. Older brain: integrated and pragmatic problem-solving. Cozolino says, “…while younger pilots have the ability to react more quickly to emergency situations, older, more experienced pilots have the wisdom to avoid them in the first place.”
- Young brain: Can easily remember numbers, names, and facts. Vs Older Brain: Improved emotional and relational abilities.
- Young brain: Better explicit memory. Older Brain: Better implicit memory.
- Young brain: jumps to fast and singular conclusions. Older brain: understands that things are usually more complex than what meets the eye and is more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
- Young brain: quick reflexes. Older brain: poised for reflection, contemplation, and integration.
- Young brain: looks for danger and what’s wrong. Older brain: recognizes the positive and finds it easier to forget the bad.
- Young brain: greater executive function and attention. Older brain: higher emotional stability, enhanced social judgment and empathy, and sustained attachment.
- Young brain: thinks it will live forever and often without consequences. Older brain: aware of mortality and the need for an inner life. According to Cozolino, “As we inevitably wrinkle and lose some of our energy, people with identities based on beauty and physical prowess are faced with having to discover new ways of valuing themselves. At a certain point in life, you have to jump off of your body and onto your spirit for the last act of life’s journey.”
- Young brain: talks about itself and what it wants. Older Brain: In contrast, Cozolino states, “Wise elders are storytellers.” He says, “As we age, the maturation of our brains maximizes our storytelling abilities, and we are driven to implant new thoughts, feelings and narratives into young minds, just as, earlier in life, we were driven to pass on our genes.”
But let’s get back to wisdom. Cozolino makes the case that wisdom is a blending of “intellectual and emotional intelligence in ways that focus on our common humanity.” Think of anyone you consider wise. People like Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Helen Keller weren’t just smart, they also cared deeply about others and causes bigger than themselves. Cozolino goes on to say, “Social science research suggests that wisdom coalesces from a complex pattern of personality variables, life experience and inner growth. They (those who are wise) tend to have a rich internal life, good social skills and remain open to new experiences. People with wisdom are capable of sustaining their focus on a problem, as they consider its multiple dimensions along with their personal responsibility in the matter at hand.”
So, is wisdom guaranteed as we grow older? Unfortunately, no. Just read the newspaper or watch television. As Cozolino writes, “Greater age seems to be associated with wisdom only for those with higher levels of emotional development, moral reasoning and investment in other people.” The good news is that when we reach for wisdom our bodies and our brains benefit. He continues with, “…since wisdom reflects an integration of brain functioning, it should also correlate with better physical and mental health, mature psychological defenses, and life satisfaction.” In other words, seeking wisdom is good for our body, our mind, and our happiness.
Cozolino makes an excellent case for the value of becoming wise when he quotes a Native American elder. The elder begins by saying a big problem in the world today is that “the adults look to their children for answers while the elders are ignored and put in old folks’ homes.” But then he wonders, how then will children learn who they are, and what is really important? He goes on to say, “If all they see is television and movies, they will behave like bandits and cartoon animals.” And as elders, those without younger listeners to absorb their wisdom, will “become sad, lost and wither away.”
Instead, this Native American Elder recommends that the young and old both nurture each other within their tribe. He recommends:
“Each day, you must do something that strengthens your spirit and deepens your wisdom. This is how when you become old, you will have value to your tribe. This is your retirement plan. Right from the beginning of life, guide your thoughts, pick your friends, and choose your words wisely. Think of how to become a benefit to yourself and others when you are an old one. Make yourself a tree heavy with fruit and you will always find others gathered around you. These people will be your life’s riches.”
Just remember, such wisdom demands an agile brain that embraces flexibility, adaptation and constant challenge. It also requires an awareness of our connections and the ongoing need to communicate to thrive and survive. In fact, in terms of our brain, the worst thing we can tell ourselves is that we’ve earned the right to zone out, just focus on ourselves, and do whatever we want just to be safe and comfortable.
There is plenty more in this book about things we can do to enhance our longevity, but in my opinion, the messages that promote the idea that our brains have evolved to suit our longevity in community through wisdom is a powerful one. This message is important for those of us growing older as well as younger generations who will benefit from the wisdom that we embody. And let’s not forget that in certain circles, wisdom is considered more valuable than all the gold or jewels in the world. I don’t know if I’ll ever be considered wise, but I believe it would be a SMART intention for all of us as we face the days to come.
Okay, your turn. Is acquiring wisdom something you see as valuable? Why? And who are your role models? Please share in the comments below.