Childhood is a time of life when learning is more intense than at any other, when children gain the critical knowledge and skills that can help ensure that the human species as a whole remains adaptable.
One big reason children excel in ways that adults usually don’t is because they have a blend of cerebral over- and under-development. While they have an undeveloped prefrontal lobe, they possess an inordinately active occipital cortex (in the back of the brain) and parietal cortex. This enables their beautifully overcharged minds to do everything from see the world in more holistic ways, to adjust and adapt more readily to unforeseen events and new information.
It’s the wellspring for their unique approaches to reasoning, imagining, empathizing. It makes them uninhibited, open to experimentation. These qualities in kids endow them with what one might call ‘attention surplus order,’ qualities which might be of immense help to their older counterparts in charting new strategies for everything from personal growth to problem-solving of many sorts.
What do these exceptional capacities of everyday kids make of us adults? Just different, with different strengths, and weaknesses? One of cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik’s most important points in The Philosophical Baby is that “children and adults are different forms of homo sapiens. They have very different, though equally complex and powerful, minds, brains, and forms of consciousness, designed to serve different evolutionary functions.”
Children shine in their “distinctive capacities for change, especially imagination and learning.” Adults, on the other hand, are stand-outs in “long-term planning, swift and automatic execution, rapid skillful reaction.” This creates an “evolutionary division of labor.” Children and adults need each other’s talents and skills equally if each is to develop to the full.
What if we start looking at adulthood not so much as the end of certain incapacities and deficits, but as the beginning of a new set that differs from those of childhood? What distinctive qualities, virtues, skills do adults lack that children have in abundance, and vice versa? In which developmental areas do children surpass adults, and in which do adults have an edge?
Do adults ‘naturally’ lose their advantage with certain capacities over time, regress even? If so, can this be forestalled, even allayed? Would we want to preempt them if we could, or can some adult deficits be seen as pluses? Among other things, are they opportunities to reach out to and cooperate with those who are younger?
When Alison Gopnik contrasts children and adults, she typically treats adults as a single category. Yet there are often remarkable similarities between children and older adults, who tend to go about questioning and learning and experiencing in more fluid modes than those in middle age.
Those doing cognitive comparisons between older and younger people are starting to distinguish between fluid intelligence, demonstrated by acute short-term memory and analytical ability, and crystallized intelligence, which is all about accumulated stores of knowledge and skills. Such studies indicate that we have the most fluid intelligence when young, making memory itself more fluid, and that the older we get, the more crystallized it becomes.
So, for instance, it might take a senior a longer while to retrieve a word from his memory, but far from an automatic indication that his memory is on the decline, this slower and more deliberative process of word retrieval can be due mainly to the fact that a well-educated person in advancing years will have so many more words stored in his brain to sift through.
While such findings begin to quash long-held notions about the elderly and their diminishing cognitive capacity , I believe that one day we’ll learn that the oldest and youngest have some kindred types of fluidity.
No matter how many times I screw up raising my 8-year-old daughter on any given day, she wakes up the next morning and, even though all is not forgotten, it is forgiven and not dwelt on. When we turn off the lights at night, she also says ‘good night’ to any unpleasantnesses foisted on her by yours truly.
Starting the next morning, I have a new chance to get it right. I know these days will soon end, that her emotional intelligence will become more crystallized like mine, and this will impact her affective dimensions. But for now, she has the fluid emotional intelligence exemplified by seniors, who also more easily brush off hurts and slights. Children and seniors don’t forget, but they typically don’t allow hurts to fester.
In his later years, when he was known as the Old Master, Picasso experienced a phenomenal surge of creativity, which is saying something, given how many extraordinary works he’d already produced. In a way, he went full circle, revisiting the subjects of his earliest years as a painter, but this time around making so much more of them. When he died at age 91, he’d reached yet a new zenith as a painter.
What if we could manage, like Picasso, to cultivate our fluid intelligence our whole life long, so that it doesn’t so much give way to crystallized intelligence, but instead combines with it? This is key to sustaining an artistic dimension throughout all stages of our lives. It can lead to new kinds of creative, intellectual and emotional fluidity – an ever more full yet open heart and mind.