Nautilus

The Wisdom of the Aging Brain

At the 2010 Cannes Film Festival premiere of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, director Woody Allen was asked about aging. He replied with his characteristic, straight-faced pessimism. “I find it a lousy deal. There is no advantage in getting older. I’m 74 now. You don’t get smarter, you don’t get wiser ... Your back hurts more, you get more indigestion ... It’s a bad business, getting old. I’d advise you not to do it if you can avoid it.”

Creaking bones and bad digestion notwithstanding, is that really the only face of aging? Turns out, it’s not. At least for the fortunate few, old age may not be Woody Allenesque; instead old age is when they become compassionate and wise. Yes, wise.

SPLIT WISDOM: Legend has it that King Solomon had the wisdom to settle complex debates, like a child’s parentage, but had a rather unwise private life.Dea / A. Dagli Orti

While aging diminishes activity in certain brain regions, there’s tantalizing evidence this may be compensated by changes in brain regions associated with supportive and social behavior. This shift in brain activity may foster wisdom in some people, a way of being that moves one away from self-centeredness toward emotional equanimity and wider social consciousness. We may even be able to work toward wisdom in old age.


For millennia, philosophers and theologians have been preoccupied with the notion of wisdom (the Greek word philosophia means “love of wisdom”). Centuries before the Greeks got into the act, the religious traditions of India and China, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, were thinking about wisdom, emphasizing the regulation of emotion—or emotional balance—as key to it.

Aristotle delineated wisdom into two types. One was the general, god-like, all-knowing wisdom, and the second (more pertinent to us mere mortals) was something called phronesis, or practical wisdom, which is the ability to be discerning about one’s actions, knowing when and why to act in

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus6 min read
The Math Trick Behind MP3s, JPEGs, and Homer Simpson’s Face
Over a decade ago, I was sitting in a college math physics course and my professor spelt out an idea that kind of blew my mind. I think it isn’t a stretch to say that this is one of the most widely applicable mathematical discoveries, with applicatio
Nautilus11 min read
Learning Chess at 40: What I learned trying to keep up with my 4-year-old daughter at the royal game.
My 4-year-old daughter and I were deep into a game of checkers one day about three years ago when her eye drifted to a nearby table. There, a black and white board bristled with far more interesting figures, like horses and castles. “What’s that?” sh
Nautilus9 min read
Can We Revive Empathy in Our Selfish World?: An experiment shows how to rebuild human compassion.
You wake up on a bus, surrounded by all your remaining possessions. A few fellow passengers slump on pale blue seats around you, their heads resting against the windows. You turn and see a father holding his son. Almost everyone is asleep. But one ma