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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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