Does wisdom come with age?

Author: Michelle Hawkins

Socrates

“With age comes wisdom but sometime age comes alone”

Oscar Wilde 

We are more likely to accumulate life experiences with age. However, this experience alone doesn’t develop into wisdom. It is only from reflecting on life experiences and learning from them that we become wise. This is what brings deep inner knowing and an understanding of what it means to be human within the interconnected web of life. 

That said, it appears that the potential to develop wisdom may be greatest in later life and that this is hard-wired. Or, put another way, becoming wise may be our evolutionary destiny as Homo Sapiens or “wise ape”.

Age-related changes in our brains

Neurologist Dilip Jeste argues that the development of wisdom in later life is designed to compensate for other losses of ageing and that age-related changes in our brains create greater potential for developing wisdom in later life.

As we age, we use more complex brain regions as well as both parts of the brain to process information. This allows us create more complex connections between different sources of knowledge and experience. We are also better able to regulate emotions as we get older through our brains becoming more responsive to positive things and less responsive to negative things. Finally, shorter time horizons of life can focus us on more meaningful goals which may nudge us in the direction of wiser decisions.

Discovery of grandparent genes

This creates a huge opportunity to nurture the development of wisdom as we age and, importantly, to find ways of sharing this with younger generations. Once again, it appears that this “passing down of wisdom” may be part of our evolutionary destiny with the discovery of “grandparent genes”. Normally, genes are selected mainly for the benefits they bring prior to having children because this links to the survival of a species. However, the discovery of grandparent genes suggests that the period of old age is important for our survival as a species and most likely through the transmission of wisdom to younger generations. Many studies now show that when grandparents are involved in raising grandchildren, those grandchildren live longer, are happier and produce more children than the previous generation.  

Redefining later life 

Recognising the unique potential for developing wisdom in later life and the importance in sharing this wisdom is critical. It redefines later life as a time for growth rather than as a time of inevitable loss and decline. It also redefines the role of an Elder in society and the huge value they bring not just to younger generations but to the many generations yet to come.

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