The bright side of my aging brain

Updated to Life on May 3, 2023.

I am getting forgetful.

I’ll be on a run listening to a tune I’ve heard dozens of times but can’t come up with the artist’s name (it was Joe Walsh). Or I’ll greet a friend I haven’t seen for a while with the wrong name (very embarrassing.) Maybe the most entertaining is knowing I need to do something in another room only to arrive completely clueless as to why I am there.

Until recently, I worried about my synapses. Those millions (billions?) of connections I used to rely on to come up with the right name at a party, remember favorite lessons from a book, or allow me to navigate a 60-minute speech without notes. These days, it’s pretty obvious those connections are misfiring – sometimes not firing at all.

Maybe I should have slept more in my 20’s, drank less red wine in my 30’s, or found a better meditation app. The good news is I don’t worry anymore. In fact, I discovered my new secret weapon. If you are anywhere near my vintage, you have it as well.

It’s called crystallized intelligence. 

Fluid Intelligence

In the 1960’s British psychologist, Raymond Cattell theorized that we have two distinct types of intelligence – fluid and crystallized – and they vary in abundance as we age. 

Fluid intelligence is the magical ability to pull ideas out of thin air, connect them with other ideas and invent something the world has never seen. Think of Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Van Morrison, and Bob Marley who did their most creative work in their 20’s. 

Cattell defined fluid intelligence as the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems. In our early years, we are filling the shelves in our vast mental library with experiences, facts, names, and knowledge. Our librarian skips through the shelves picking out the perfect bit of knowledge from the perfect resource at just the right time. We are imaginative, resourceful, and a whiz at murder mysteries.

And then it all starts to change.

Crystallized intelligence

Somewhere in your thirties or forties, you slide out of fluid intelligence and into what Cattell coined as crystallized intelligence. Whereas fluid intelligence was raw smarts, crystallized is wisdom. It is our ability to connect seemingly random stars of thought from life experiences and learnings and pull them into a new constellation. 

As we age, our new thinking skills can equip us for creative endeavors we didn’t have the resources or patience to pursue when younger. Think of Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, Raymond Chandler, and Annie Proulx who all debuted as best-selling authors later in life. Crystallized intelligence is what Hemingway might have meant by “Sometimes I write better than I can.” 

“The development trend toward abstract thinking is one of the compensatory mechanisms of aging that mitigates the decline of our sensory systems.” writes neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in Successful Aging. Your library has gotten bigger – all your collections are still there, but now the librarian gets a little overwhelmed and doesn’t move as fast. 

I don’t care

When I got into the speaking business all the top speakers had slide decks. I spend many hours reworking mine thinking it would make the next presentation just a little better.

That all changed one day at an event I was to speak at when the projector failed to start. I had to present ‘naked.” I loved it. 

Instead of being anchored to a rigid outline dictated by slides, I could free-flow, intuitively moving from topic to topic. I no longer had to rely on my memory—I put my trust in me. Some bits were left out; some new ones were added – I didn’t care. My full attention was on the experience I was having with the audience instead of the accuracy of my memory.

Taking the leap

Whether you like it or not, your software is set to auto-update and the gap between fluid and crystallized intelligence is opening up. Your choice is when you decide to take the leap. 

The trick, as we age, Arthur Brooks wrote in his excellent book Strength to Strength is to “Devote the back half of your life to serving others with your wisdom. Get old sharing the things you believe are most important. Excellence is always its own reward, and this is how you can be most excellent as you age.”

What comes next

I don’t know what comes next (maybe AI will save us) but I am learning to embrace this new phase. I might not get names right, or remember shopping lists, but I know I can trust my librarian to find what I need when the time is right. 

After all, as the saying goes, “knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in the fruit salad.”

Illustration adapted from Strength to Strength
Photo by Tim Swaan on Unsplash