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Navigating The Many Dangers of Experience

As with “expert,” the root of expe­ri­ence is “experiri,” a Latin word mean­ing “to try out.” Peo­ple with a lot of expe­ri­ence should be will­ing to try new things, as their knowl­edge should pro­vide more con­text and points of view, enable more explo­ration of an issue, and min­i­mize risk with deci­sions. How­ev­er, high­ly expe­ri­enced peo­ple tend to fall into the habits of the past. Once we have accu­mu­lat­ed a valu­able base of knowl­edge, expe­ri­ence pro­vides a use­ful short­cut for deci­sion mak­ing. Rely­ing on expe­ri­ence is very fast and very effi­cient, but it is also poten­tial­ly very dan­ger­ous. Oper­at­ing with the least effort pos­si­ble, the brain retrieves what­ev­er quick­ly seems to fit. We apply past pat­terns to the future. Rather than call upon its amaz­ing cre­ativ­i­ty, too often the brain works as noth­ing but a huge stor­age bin of prece­dents.

Because “close is good enough” as our brain fills in the blanks, we need not think afresh. We need not exam­ine new data or eval­u­ate new cir­cum­stances. This is the main prob­lem with elder­ly peo­ple. No mat­ter what cir­cum­stance con­fronts them today, they have seen, heard, and dealt with so many sit­u­a­tions in their lives that they are bound to have faced some­thing sim­i­lar before. Senior cit­i­zens have too much expe­ri­ence. The com­ment sounds iron­ic, but expe­ri­ence can be a detri­ment when it leads to an auto­mat­ed response to new sit­u­a­tions. It is easy in deal­ing with fam­i­ly prob­lems to reach back for a solu­tion that may have suit­ed the 1950s or 1970s but may not be appro­pri­ate for today. This is often the start of an elder’s sto­ry that begins, “When I was a young man …” or “Back when I was work­ing at the …” Such sto­ries can be the method by which wis­dom is passed down, but more often they are a stereo­typed response that may cause the audi­ence (adult chil­dren or teenage grand­chil­dren) to roll their eyes. The sto­ry comes out in almost every sit­u­a­tion no mat­ter how remote­ly relat­ed to today’s con­cern.

This kind of reflex­ive response is part of the human pre­dis­po­si­tion to learn ear­ly and quick­ly and then fall into a habit­u­al man­ner of thought. This behav­ior is con­sis­tent with ear­li­er, sim­pler, and often more dan­ger­ous times. In the mod­ern world, when change rather than sta­bil­i­ty is the order of the day, reliance on expe­ri­ence comes with a cost. Even the best of us strug­gle through­out our lives with the habit­u­a­tion of expe­ri­ence. We strug­gle to unlearn things that were use­ful before but con­strain­ing now.

For some of us, emo­tion­al or phys­i­cal trau­ma occurs so ear­ly that we can be locked into a lim­it­ed pat­tern of behav­ior that can stunt our emo­tion­al growth or make us total­ly dys­func­tion­al. The under­ly­ing theme is the speed with which humans descend into auto­matic­i­ty.  Pre­cise­ly because of its speed, and because it oper­ates in a mode that is basi­cal­ly atten­tion free, auto­matic­i­ty cre­ates predica­ments when what we face are not every­day deci­sions, but new sit­u­a­tions and impor­tant changes in our lives. The ques­tion we must con­tin­u­al­ly con­front is whether, in a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, the brain draws upon expe­ri­ence because it sum­mons up valu­able learn­ing or because the brain finds that pulling a quick answer from the data bank is eas­i­er than apply­ing fresh delib­er­a­tion.

Habit, says psy­chol­o­gist William James, is the fly?wheel of soci­ety, its most pre­cious con­ser­v­a­tive agent. It holds the min­er in his dark­ness and the fish­er­man at his nets in the win­ter. Habit pro­tects the priv­i­leged from upris­ings by the unfor­tu­nate and wealthy coun­tries from inva­sion by the sur­round­ing poor. So bound by habit are we, he says, that we con­stant­ly fight the bat­tle of life upon the lines imposed by (our per­son­al) tra­di­tion and rou­tine; that is, by our expe­ri­ence. Rather than hav­ing expe­ri­ence inform our choic­es, too often expe­ri­ence defines our choic­es. Rather than giv­ing us more mean­ing­ful data to thought­ful­ly weigh, expe­ri­ence caus­es us to default to an old solu­tion for a new sit­u­a­tion. Expe­ri­ence is the best teacher, unless we give it too much heed. Unlearn­ing old habits is the real key to learn­ing!

For senior cit­i­zens this prob­lem is par­tic­u­lar­ly vex­ing. The num­ber one con­cern of the elder­ly is to use their brains in a way that is con­struc­tive and effort­ful, that cre­ates a chal­lenge. Expe­ri­ence can halt the devel­op­ment of brain­width. Using prece­dents is good for many deci­sions in life, but it is not so good for our cog­ni­tive sus­te­nance. The dan­ger of expe­ri­ence is not mere­ly that it can betray us into the wrong answer. The greater jeop­ardy is that too great a reliance on expe­ri­ence will cause the brain to stop thinking—to stop doing work. When expe­ri­ence fore­clos­es sig­nif­i­cant men­tal effort, brain­width nar­rows and cog­ni­tive decline sets in. For any­one, at any age.

–> Please vis­it us next Tues­day, August 21st, to read the fol­low-up arti­cle: Think Fresh — When Is a Ham­mer Not a Ham­mer?

Excerpt from the book, Max­i­mum Brain­pow­er: Chal­leng­ing the Brain for Health and Wis­dom, by Shlo­mo Breznitz and Collins Hem­ing­way. Copy­right © 2012 by Shlo­mo Breznitz & Collins Hem­ing­way. Reprint­ed by arrange­ment with Bal­lan­tine Books, an imprint of The Ran­dom House Pub­lish­ing Group, a divi­sion of Ran­dom House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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