Field of Science

Nagging conundrums

Celebrating the 150th issue of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, the editor invited twenty-something of the world's leading psychologists to answer the what nagging thing they still don't understand about themselves. Many of them are quite good reads, and one of them, Alison Gopnik, wrote that she does not understand why she would love her children so intensely when they are young, but look forward to see them go when they become adults. I personally don't think that's such a big mystery, but it reminded me of the one nagging thing I still don't understand about myself (yes, there's really only one thing left by now).

Why do I expect that I will be different from everyone else?

When people get older they tend to become more conservative, more scared of strangers, and less interested in learning new things. Set in their ways, people often say. Nobody picks up the banjo when they're forty (not literally), and no one learns a new language when they reach sixty. Why not? Because when you get old you get less flexible and less able to learn new things. Less interested in life? But why? No one can tell me. It's one of those things that are so ingrained in our life experiences that we never question it. I look forward to either disprove that those symptoms must not come with old age, or learn why it is that we end up like that. I fully intend to learn to play banjo when I turn forty, and plan to learn a new completely new language when I am sixty (e.g. Arabic or Mandarin). I don't understand why I shouldn't be able to.


  1. And of course you can, and will. I ran my first Marathon at 40, learned Ancient Greek at 42, and have started to learn to play the Cello a month ago.
    The answer to your conundrum is: Averages are just that. Be the outlier.

  2. Yup, averages are just averages, and somewhere out there, there is some poor soul who has never been flexible, or voluntarily tried anything new in his life. And he needs a counterweight. Go for it.


  3. So, are you saying that all those people who are now using old age as an excuse not to be flexible were in fact never flexible? That the common notion of old people 'being set in their ways' is hogwash?

  4. Not at all! I think there's plenty of room for both; the guy who never tried new things even when young, and the older person who has become very, very conservative in their thoughts and actions, partly (I think) due to years of ingrained habits---a sort of, "I've always done this/done it this way, and it's always worked before, no reason to try something that might not work/might not work as well/might have unexpected side-effects". Plus, the increasing physical effects of aging may make one sensibly cautious of trying to, say, take up gymnastics in their 50s or 60s. That may be a slightly exaggerated example, but I know that I won't be taking any classes on square dancing anytime soon. Not with these knees. And, much as I've enjoyed the painting I picked up in the last few years, I can tell from the increasing inflexibility of my thumbs that I'm going to have to give it up, eventually. Either that, or start painting with a push-broom.
    I imagine that something similar could be at work with respect to more intellectual pursuits, both with ingrained habits of thought and with feeling that your ability to remember and comprehend is going. Happily, not (yet) a problem for me. I expect to have (anecdotal) evidence on this one in years to come. If we're both at this blog in, say, 10 years' time, I'll let you know! :D


  5. Let's talk about this in ten years, then.


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