Life Askew

By Julia Galosy

Can’t Teach an Old Dog . . .

Old Dog


Let’s start with an understanding of what we mean by Intelligence before we go on. Intelligence encompasses many related mental competencies, such as the capacities to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and learn.1 As current Third Agers we were taught that creativity and intelligence are capabilities for younger people and these decline with age. However, research over the last decades has proven that the study of intelligence is more complicated and actually some aspects increase with age.

Fluid vs. Crystallized Intelligence1

One avenue of current research is focusing on two types of intelligence, one that increases with age--crystallized—and one that seems to peak at younger ages—fluid.2 Crystallized intelligence relies on the accumulation of knowledge and experience that you can bring to bear to a new problem-solving situation. I use a variety of metaphors in my classes on Leading Organization Change because my adult learners have such a breadth of experience that they will instantly grasp and apply the key lessons from their lives to this new skill.

The ability to use vocabulary and numbers improves with age. And the depth and breadth of adults’ experiences adds significantly to this type of intelligence. Contrast the level of difficulty experienced by a young person and an older person in describing a complex emotional perspective. The older person will be deeper, more precise, and clearer than the younger person. His vocabulary will be robust and his description more vivid and discerning.

An added benefit of crystallized intelligence is that it provides the problem-solver with a vast array of tools to bring to bear on the problem, not even necessarily within the knowledge realm of the problem itself. The sheer breadth of knowledge and experience accumulated in a life time can be activated from any direction to address the problem at hand.

Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve problems in unfamiliar domains using general reasoning methods. It does not rely on long-term memory nor on experience. We use this type of intelligence in a more abstract way to look for inter-relationships, patterns, evaluative aspects, and the like. Fluid intelligence declines with age.

The good news is that while crystallized intelligence cannot be trained, fluid intelligence can be. The key is to challenge the way adults characteristically use their brains to force the mind into a different way of experiencing the world. If an adult is a logical problem solver, he/she should take up art or a physical activity. Older adults need to tackle completely new subjects that they have never studied. They need to learn an instrument, attend concerts, go to museums. The most important aspect is to get out of the normal comfort zone. The underlying theory is that these new activities stimulate different parts of the brain and add these to the problem solving pantheon of all Third Agers.

1Carroll, J.B. (1993). Human cognitive abilities: A survey of factor-analytic studies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

2Cattell, R. B. (1963). Theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence: A critical experiment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 54(1), 1-22.

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