Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. ~Mark Twain
According to a new study at Duke University, older brains are better at filtering out negative memories than younger brains. When presented with neutral, positive and negative images, participants on the older side of the spectrum (which in the study was defined as older than 55) remembered significantly fewer negative images than young and middle-aged participants (20-39 and 40-55 years old, respectively).
Which brings up the question – is this merely a consequence of getting older, or an adaptive change? It seems implausible that it’s just about getting older, since the older participants recalled roughly the same number of positive images as the other groups. If age were the cause, we should see a decrease in memory across the board. But the significant difference was squarely in the negative image category, suggesting an adaptive change to serve a purpose (or purposes) in the older mind. From the USA Today article:
The brain scans showed that young adults have stronger connections between the emotional and memory-storing parts of the brain as they viewed the negative photos; emotion promotes better memory, Cabeza (neuroscientist at Duke Univeristy) says. When the elderly viewed the unpleasant images, they had a much stronger link between the emotional part of the brain and the frontal cortex, which does more abstract thinking. It’s as though their brains dilute the emotional punch of an unpleasant view, which makes it less likely to be remembered, Cabeza says. “There’s a difference in how older adults process emotions. They may be suppressing negative emotions to maintain emotional well-being,” he suggests.
What’s interesting to me about this is, first, the results fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which has it that people typically become grumpier, more cynical and certainly not more positive with age. To the extreme contrary, it seems that the older brain adjusts in a remarkable way to become more positive in its outlook. It’s as if the older brain rewires to short circuit negativity, drain some of its energy, resulting in less emotional impact and consequently less memory impact.
Second, the study results remind me of the words of Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness, the philosopher’s attempt (successful in my opinion) to connect with a broader audience late in his life. His intention was to communicate in brief, palatable form the causes of unhappiness and happiness, and distill the collected wisdom of his many years into a message directing his readers to the latter. Russell, possessing a decidedly older brain (and an estimable one at that) would, I think, immediately relate to the results of this study. From the first chapter of the book:
In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired, and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire – such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other – as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself – no doubt justly – a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.
It’s the “Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies” sentiment that resonates most. I think only with the adaptive ability of decreasing emphasis on the negative and diluting the memories of feeling badly about oneself could Russell come to this conclusion. This may be one of the gold nuggets at the heart of wisdom-with-age — that an adaptive brain finds a way to maneuver beyond some of its inherent pitfalls to reach a sense of well-being and fulfillment that dwelling on bad memories just can’t provide.