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.