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The Hidden Power of the Experienced Mind

As we age, our brains are better able to see the big picture and the heart of the matter too

by Rick Bowers

Well-Being
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In a futuristic lab in the Human Neuroscience Institute at Cornell University, professor Valerie Reyna is peering into a window to the human brain. Reyna is reading a 3-D computer screen flashing color-coded images of the neural activities of a healthy middle-aged man. The subject is on the other side of an expansive window, lying in a state-of-the-art MRI. As he responds to a battery of questions, the MRI measures minute changes of blood flow in his brain and sends the color-coded images to Reyna’s computer. By observing the colorful images on her screen, she can gauge how his brain assesses, calibrates, chooses and reacts to situations ranging from mundane everyday choices to complex moral judgments. Reyna can measure the man’s capacity for gist.

The brain is a complex, exquisitely efficient information-processing system, designed to organize behavior rapidly in the interest of survival.

Lois Holzman, director of the East Side Institute

What Is Gist?

A new generation of neuroscientists, psychologists and behavioral scientists is unraveling the hidden powers of the experienced mind. Their research shows that as we get older our brain health actually improves in some areas. We tend to get better at seeing the big picture and zeroing in on the simple and meaningful core of things—their gist, or essence.

Our recall may slow but at the same time the brain’s gist capacity blossoms.

Dr. Valerie Reyna, Director of the Human Neuroscience Institute at Cornell University. Source: Mark Vorreuter, College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. ,

Younger people confront problems through calculation, but this blossoming allows us to rely less on calculation and more on impressionistic “gist thinking.” Reyna, the professor of human development and psychology at Cornell and a leader in research into the neuroscience of decision-making, says we don’t abandon calculation, we just get better and better at zooming to the heart of the matter—at seeing the full landscape, making connections between related matters, getting to the core of issues, sizing up situations, narrowing the options, and making informed decisions. 

This fascinating research undercuts long-held scientific perspectives and popular myths about the “aging brain”—perspectives and myths that are becoming as anachronistic as they are misleading. Until recently neuroscience has tended to lead us into believing that mental abilities inevitably degenerate as we age, making us slower, more forgetful, and less effective thinkers in midlife and beyond. In the old view, our cognitive processes wither, our brain cells die, our thought processes wane, and our decision-making becomes slow and muddled.

Gist researchers are finding that, to the contrary, a lifetime of experience enhances effective decision-making. At the decisive moment, gist thinkers are more adept at putting the pieces together and pointing to the best path forward.

“The physical ability to size up a situation and the experience to make a judgment increases from [ages] 40 to 65,” says Barbara Strauch, a leading researcher at the Stanford Center on Longevity and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain. "We think we're sort of the smartest in college or in graduate school, but when we do the tests we find that's not true in many areas, including inductive reasoning. We are better than we were in our 20s. And that, to me, is amazing." In fact, "there is a whole host of areas where they find we improve in middle age over our 20-something selves."

"We are better at getting the gist of arguments," she says. "We are better at recognizing categories. And we're much better at sizing up situations. We're better at things like making financial decisions, which reaches a peak in our 60s. Social expertise—in other words, judging whether someone's a crook or not a crook—improves and peaks in middle age."

How Gist Works

The growing body of this new research suggests that our capacity for gist grows over a lifetime and can peak as late as our 70s.  A blend of stored memories from a lifetime of experience combined with chemical changes that prompt complex neural networking accounts for this ever-increasing capacity for gist thinking. By middle age the experienced brain contains more information, relies on more complex circuitry, and packs a stronger cocktail of neurological chemicals than that of a much younger brain. As a result, people with experience can often cut through clutter, focus on what matters, and frame up choices without the excessive deliberation and calculation used by younger counterparts. Or, as Lois Holzman, Ph.D., of the East Side Institute describes the fully developed brain: “It’s a complex, exquisitely efficient information-processing system, designed to organize behavior rapidly in the interests of survival.”

“We flexibly memorize our experiences,” explains Michael Mack, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “This allows us to use these memories for different kinds of decisions.”

Of course, some aspects of cognition do slow down with time. Ask the typical 65-year-old about memory recall and you’ll likely hear a story about the most recent “senior moment.” A forgotten name or missed appointment that just seemed to vanish from the mind. While our capacity for rapid recall may slow down, much of this is accounted for by the sheer volume of facts stored in the older brain. Sifting through a lifetime of experience takes time so the brain tends to narrow its search to the core—or the gist—of a given memory. Michael Ramscar, working at University of Tübingen in Germany, found that this volume of information accounts for the difference in retrieval speed. Writing in The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons add: “It is mostly the details in the memory that change over time, not the meaning. Memory for the gist of something—for the main idea—is much better than memory for specific details.”

The physical ability to size up a situation and the experience to make a judgment increases from [ages] 40 to 65.

Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

This variant of a MRI scan shows nerve fibers transmitting signals between brain regions. Science Photo Library/Getty ,

Who Has Gist?

We’re all aware of people who seem to have a special knack for getting to the heart of the matter and making the smart choice. We admire their ability to cut to the chase, separate the wheat from the chaff, connect the dots, and make the important decisions. Their insights come in a flash, their assessments are spot-on, and their decisions prove to be right more often than not. Consider the CEO who weighs the disparate views of a divided executive team, assesses dozens of possible courses of action, and makes the decision that ultimately saves the company. Or the major league baseball manager who sizes up a situation in the bottom of the ninth, considers dozens of possible moves, and flashes the sign that sets up the game-winning play. Or the emergency medical technician who arrives at an accident scene, examines a severely injured person, and applies the treatment that keeps the patient breathing all the way to the emergency room. 

At age 60 Ray Anderson had a gist moment of epic proportion. At the time Anderson was the founder and chair of Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet. A staffer had asked him about the company’s environmental policy, and he realized it didn’t exist. Pouring his passion into the task of creating one, he had a remarkable series of insights and decisions that reduced carbon emissions by 60 percent, slashed energy and water use, and scaled back the amount of waste products sent to landfills. At the same time, profits rose. 

 

As we get older we also tend to get better at seeing the big picture and zeroing in on the simple and meaningful core of things—their gist, or essence.

Anderson’s accomplishment was heralded by the nonprofit organization Encore, which awarded him its $100,000 Purpose Prize in 2007. Encore had launched the prize program two years earlier because it was seeing so many people acting on significant new ideas at midlife and beyond. The goal, Encore says, is “to showcase the value of experience and disprove notions that innovation is the sole province of the young. It’s for those with the passion to make change and the experience to know how to do it.”

Anderson toured the country giving speeches urging audiences of executives to follow his lead, appeared in two movies, and published two books about his green approach to business. He worked as a powerful environmental advocate until his death in 2011. In retrospect, his capacity for gist fueled his legacy. Today major firms—including Wal-Mart and Boeing—come to Interface for advice on improving their environmental practices.

In point of fact we’re all using the same basic decision-making process in our everyday lives. We may not be company transformers, big-league game changers or medical lifesavers, but we’re constantly culling through complexity, weighing options, framing possibilities, and making important choices. We’re all relying on our capacity for gist thinking. And our gist thinking can improve our lives, enhance our careers, and make a difference in the world. 

Tom Stites, formerly an editor for the New York Times, began experiencing gist moments in his 60s as he worked on a complex challenge: How to harness the power of the Internet to offset the cultural losses stemming from the decline of local newspapers. After a series of aha moments, Stites launched the Banyan Project, a pioneering initiative to publish community journalism online. 

“Could my mind have produced the gist moments the Banyan concept needed if I were in my 40s?” Stites wondered. “There’s no way to know, but I just checked in with my gist, and its response is ‘Not a chance.’ ”

Gist: Social Implications

Collectively, society constantly reinforces the message that aging brings pronounced intellectual decline. One result is a chronic undervaluing of experienced, battle-tested minds at a time when our culture, economy and politics are in deep need of gist clarity. 

One study at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, put the point in focus. Participants of different ages were asked to read stories about group conflicts and predict the outcomes. Across the board, people with more life experience demonstrated higher level thought processes and better outcomes. People in the 60-to-90 age group scored higher in tests of wisdom-based problem-solving than did those 25 to 40.

Transparent view of a synapse reveals internal structures. Science Picture Co/Getty ,

Professor Igor Grossmann, who published the 2010 study, wrote that social reasoning improves with age. He advised assigning “older individuals key social roles involving legal decisions, counseling and intergroup negotiations.” In study after study the value of the older worker—with the capacity for gist—is emphasized.    

As a result, the importance of gist thinking has huge implications for business leaders faced with the challenges of attracting, retaining and engaging the best talent for their organizations. At the same time, recent economic downturns have led companies to force out their most experience hands. In a desperate crusade to save money, firms have made a gloomy tradition of laying off older, more expensive workers in favor of younger, cheaper employees.

Jacquelyn James of Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work says older workers “often bring unique skills and outlooks no one else can offer, and discriminating against these workers not only hurts them, it hurts the entire company.”

“Hiring managers who look at the resume of a 50+ worker and see a risk or a burden should look again,” James wrote in The Huffington Post. “Older workers don't need your pity. Firms that pass on the opportunity to hire them do."

 

At the decisive moment, gist thinkers are more adept at putting the pieces together and pointing to the best path forward.

Computer artwork of a brain in side view, with the brain’s neural network represented by lines and flashes. Science Photo Library/Getty,

Yet we should not equate gist with any one age group. Researchers, wondering how gist might have implications across the age spectrum, are designing exercises that may strengthen the brain’s capacity for seeing the big picture and weighing long-term rewards earlier in life. This suggests the possibility that training may be able to hasten the advent of gist thinking in younger people—giving some an edge over people that remained wrapped up in what Reyna of Cornell calls “verbatim thinking.”

An early effort applies gist findings in ways that can help young people find alternatives to risky decision-making. Reyna jokes that teens who make risky decisions based on simple and immediate gratification suffer from a condition she calls “juvenile dementia.” She recently received a federal grant for research on how to build capacity for gist thinking in adolescents. The premise is that it “facilitates recognition of danger and protects against unhealthy risk-taking that comes with hasty and limited decision-making.” Through exercises designed to strengthen the brain’s capacity for seeing the big picture and weighing long-term rewards, Reyna hopes the young people will develop “more streamlined, efficient and interconnected neural networks”—and perhaps less smoking and drinking, and fewer traffic fatalities and unwanted pregnancies.  

It turns out that gist is for a lifetime.  

Artwork of a neural network: Science Photo Library/Getty