Older, yes. Wiser... Maybe?

If there’s one thing you hear with increasing frequency as the years pass it’s the phrase “older and wiser”. And, I don’t know about you, but while I’ve got the former in spades, I’m still waiting on the latter attribute.

Does older really mean wiser? I certainly know a few people for whom that is true… And others for whom it is most definitely not the case.

But older is wiser! It’s what we’ve been taught to believe. It’s what civilisation is built upon. It’s why owls, usually wearing glasses, are the clever birds (hang on, how do we know they’re old, these wise owls? Is it the glasses?).

There have been studies in which participants are asked to nominate people they consider wise, and the average age for those suggested hovers between 55 and 60.

See, older = wiser.  People like  Gandhi, Confucius, Socrates, Queen Elizabeth and the Pope: these are the (older) public figures who inspire confidence. 

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From the time we’re born, we learn stuff; and we learn a lot more stuff at the beginning of life than at the end, but the theory seems to be that this later stuff is deeper, more profound and important than, say, learning how to crawl down stairs without landing on your face, or how to navigate a foreign city.

A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concurs that different skills mature at different periods in our lives. Processing speed, for example, which is how fast we absorb and rejig numbers, names and facts, peaks around age 18, then “drops off a cliff,” according to study author Joshua Hartshorne.

The size of our working memory, or how much data we can remember and manipulate at one time, is at its prime in our mid-20s then plateaus around age 35.

It’s here that data processing steps aside and emotional intelligence kicks in. The study found the ability to determine people’s emotional states from just a photo of their eyes peaked around age 40 and didn’t decline until our 60s.

One could argue that this form of intelligence, being able to gauge people’s emotional states with very little information, is true wisdom, but I put it down to experience. There are, maybe a hundred human emotions? I’ve looked into plenty more sets of eyes than that, in just about every normal human state.

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One beautiful finding from the Massachusetts study is that our vocabularies continue to grow, peaking in our 70s (and every one knows that throwing in a big word here and there makes you seem wise).

“Given the way we’ve chosen to define intelligence, people are getting smarter,” says Dr Hartshorne.

So there you have it: older is wiser. Only I don’t really feel that wise. In fact, the older I get the more I feel I don’t know, and the more I realise I will never know.

Do you believe that the older we get, the wiser we get? Or is this just a consolation prize for the lines on our faces?