Does Grandma Really Know Best?

A New Study Investigates an Old Adage

Thursday, April 15, 2010

(flickr user pedrosimoes7 (cc:by))

Does older always mean wiser? Researchers at the University of Michigan investigated whether older people are more likely than the young to accept differences in value systems, deal with uncertainty and accept change. The conclusion? If you define wisdom by those principles, age actually does contribute to wisdom.

We talk with author Stephen S. Hall about his new book, "Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience," and about what this new study shows. And we also chat with two members of the "Young at Heart Chorus." Pat Ervin and Andy Walsh are both octogenarians and say that since retirement, they have found it easier to look back on their experiences and glean lessons from them.

Carolyn, a listener, writes on Facebook:

"Wisdom does not automatically come with age, but must be cultivated. I think I *am* wiser, calmer and more balanced than I was in my 20's, but then again I thought I was pretty wise back then!"


Pat Ervin, Stephen Hall and Andy Walsh

Produced by:

Jen Poyant

Comments [18]

Fran Stern from New York, NY

Let's not confuse wisdom with perspective. Older people certainly have greater perspective than younger people. We've seen more over our decades than younger people. It's more of a "Been there, done that" than an "OMG!!!" Also, irrespective of the studies, I find it hard to believe that older people are more tolerant than young people. I deal with/work with older and young people daily and find young people to be much more open and accepting than older people. Older and younger people can learn a lot from each other.

Apr. 16 2010 01:44 PM
Raymond Crandall from Providence, Rhode Island

I want to apologize, I did not realize new comments show up at the top of the page. Most sites operate with methodologies similar to "early bird gets the worm," and I was looking at the bottom only.. Which was naive, ahaha.

Apr. 15 2010 10:52 AM
Raymond Crandall from Providence, Rhode Island

If you were to look at a cross section of the cortical layers in the brain, you will notice how wiser, older human brains have more layers of glial cells (the more clustered areas) present. Being able to adapt to new things, questioning your surroundings, and researching anything you do not understand can make anyone a wise person, regardless of age. Older people have a better opportunity to be wiser than the young. Hope that was brief enough.

Apr. 15 2010 10:16 AM
Raymond Crandall from Providence, Rhode Island

I never thought NPR would censor people. Please instruct me in the steps to follow so others may see what I have to say.
Contact me by email, please. If nothing happens I will be writing about this.


Apr. 15 2010 10:12 AM
Raymond Crandall from Providence, Rhode Island.

Look at pictures of the cortical layers in the brain.

"Technological Darwinism" could state that if an older person is willing to learn about something new then they will not "shut down" as you put it.

Read up on neurological ethology. It can teach you a lot about the world. Wiser people will usually always be older, but young people are capable of providing new insights the older generation may not have had an opportunity to encounter.

I am twenty-one, and a high school graduate; but I am proof it is possible to provide something useful, and capable of being intelligent without a fancy label.

However, I still believe older people have had more *opportunity* to know more than a younger person, and it is completely dependent on how well a person uses their time to learn about the world. You must question everything, including your own intentions and how they benefit the whole. It's the nash equilibrium all over again, but this time maybe people will understand it and living behind it and not doing what the political parties or large companies which exist above the law are doing. Anything with power over someone's reliance is an exploit, and this includes Religion.

Back to the cortical layers, look at the glial cells, the darker areas, those are the generalizations, or beliefs people "are wise from" the lighter, less clustered dots in the vertical cross section pictured on the right are observations a person collects through their sensory-receptors (sight, touch, etc.)

Just use you time as well as you can, because no one really knows what happens when the lights go out.

Apr. 15 2010 09:58 AM
JP from augusta, ga

My grandfather is 80 this month and he is still sharp as ever. He read my college biology book when we went camping and proceeded to explain the new facets of biology from when he was in college. He's a physician and still on top of his game there. Also, he started running triathlon when he was in his late 70s.

Apr. 15 2010 09:57 AM
Peter from Manhattan

I'm always interested to see how older people use or don't use computers. My mother and her sister, both in their late 80s, use their computers for e-mail. But my dad, who died at 86 a few years ago, never really learned to be comfortable with computers. Could it be that women are better with technology later in life than men?

Apr. 15 2010 09:56 AM
Peter from Manhattan

I'm always interested to see how older people use or don't use computers. My mother and her sister, both in their late 80s, use their computers for e-mail. But my dad, who died at 86 a few years ago, never really learned to be comfortable with computers. Could it be that women are better with technology later in life than men?

Apr. 15 2010 09:55 AM
Trey Greene from Detroit, of course.

You *gotta* use Walt Kowalski's "Get off my lawn." as portrayed by Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino!"

Apr. 15 2010 09:06 AM
larry the junkman from Brooklyn, New York

as we get older, the wise get wiser and the fool gets fooler. However, in my case, the wise and the fool are on a see-saw, busting their fingers as they come down

Apr. 15 2010 08:45 AM
Suzanne Hilgert from Olivia, Mn

Just knowing stuff doesn't make a person wise and living longer doesn't automatically make a person know more. Learning about yourself and challenging yourself to grow everyday is wisdom growth. Gaining wisdom also means cultivating empathy, understanding, kindness and patience.

Apr. 15 2010 08:38 AM
Tony Shute from Chicago

One of my favorite philosophers, Richard Pryor, once said, "You don't get to be old being a fool!" That said, wisdom is something that spans the age spectrum in different degrees.

Apr. 15 2010 08:33 AM
Warren from Anthem, Arizona

I was prematurely salt and pepperish at 45, and because of my graying mane I became a magnet for friends and colleagues asking my opinion. So now 20 years later wisdom is exponential; I think my answers to questions today have more forethought, and my brain's hard drive still has lots of room. On my bucket list is doing a column using the pseudonym "Dear Abbie."

Apr. 15 2010 01:27 AM
Evelyn C. from WA state

Favorite quotes as I get older: "Old enough to know better...too old to care." "Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill every time." "I'm not 60. I'm 18 with 42 years experience." ;^D

Apr. 14 2010 08:34 PM
Lois Albrecht from Bayfield, Wisconsin

Great topic. I definitely feel I am wiser at 50+ than I was in early adulthood. You almost can't help it (although I agree with Carolyn that wisdom doesn't come automatically with age.) After multiple careers, l now have the wonderful job of coaching others to find their calling in the Second half of life. Still learning and growing myself along the way.

Apr. 14 2010 06:33 PM
Barbara Atkins from Goodyear, AZ

No other wonder in the world is as beautiful as Aging. It brings with it Wisdom – a fulcrum of pillars that rest on the foundation of practiced core values through life. I believe the beginning of wisdom starts somewhere in the late 40s and increases with maturity. It is a guidepost for the intuitive mind and an acknowledgement of self. At age 74 and in my second half of life, it has offered some powerful life changing strategies that have produced astounding results for a meaningful and purposeful life.
Barbara Atkins, Author of ‘70 is the New 40- Bonus Years Here We Come’

Apr. 14 2010 05:51 PM
Howard Stone from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

I regularly ask for help from family, friends and professional life coaches. I'm 74. In my younger years I was afraid to look like a vulnerable weakling by asking for what I needed.

Am I a wiser, more fulfilled and happy guy at this later stage. You bet!

Ask and y'all shall receive.

Apr. 14 2010 04:08 PM
Karma Kitaj from Boston area

Wisdom involves flexibility, sensitive listening, ability to convey thoughts/ feelings to people of all sorts, and willingness to be generative. I had few of those qualities in my youth.
I host a local TV show called "Alivelihood: New Careers As We Age," where I invite guests who have left their mid-years' career and started something new to tell their stories. They are inspirational and speak to the wisdom that they've acquired as they age. See my channel (Karma Kitaj) on YouTube for short clips.

Apr. 14 2010 03:58 PM

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