When we are young and inexperienced we make huge progress. If feels like we will be making the same kind of progress as we get older. Unfortunately this is not true. Our evalutaion of our future self is typically over-optimistic, and as we mature we need to face the consequences. You may read the articles that inspired me here, here, here, and here.
Future self fallacy
One of the most common fallacies is the assumption that things will continue the way they are. While this may usually be true for short-term decisions and was probably true hundreds of years ago, this assumption simply does not work now.
When we consider ourselves, we may consider our current situation, assume the rate of improvement we made during the last years will continue and get some great results. For example, we take
our current job and salary level, add the experience and promotion we will probably get and the result is encouraging. When we take the stock market, we take the current level and add the gains of the last 3 years. The result for the next 30 years is encouraging. Now, the right analysis of the stock market would include some possibility of a drawdown and correction for buying power. For our own future, we can assume that cheaper foreign experts will arrive at the high-end market, and automation will replace the low-end market, effectively eroding our earning potential.
When we consider our cognitive abilities, we cannot assume that our experience will help us the issues we cannot solve now. Probably the extra experience will be balanced by more things to do, reduced energy and reaction speed, and some things we cannot even anticipate.
It will not be totally wrong to assume that our future self will be similar to our parents the same age. The genetic material is not that different. We can fight aging effects via good habits, specific training, and automation. Good habits will take care of health which is important since the immune system is partially responsible for cognitive wellbeing. Memory training, reading and intellectual work will slow or reverse the memory decline. Automation will replace our degrading reaction speed by excellent robotics and artificial intelligence and will reduce the cognitive load to more rare and demanding tasks.
As we age our cognitive abilities start to degrade. This degradation is often measurable only after the age of 50 and apparent after the age of 70. If you are not 50 years old and experience degradation in your cognitive skills, you probably need to improve your habits and start training your brain. If you are over 50, you need to dedicate some time to your cognitive training or you will feel the aging effects.
We do not really know why cognition degrades with age. There are several hypotheses, here are some of them:
- The degrading immune system can no longer fix all the “malfunctions” in our brain. This is a relatively new theory. It was observed that the same new medicines that enable immune system fight cancer as a side-effect may cure some age-related mental issues.
- The reduction in body metabolism also reduces the brain’s reaction speed. This is probably true. People who practice some specific breath techniques or take medicine that improves the way our body processes oxygen suffer less cognitive degradation. Antioxidants also improve our cognitive aging.
- Fewer new stimuli. As we get older, it is getting increasingly more difficult to get qualitatively new experience. People who learn a new profession at the age of 60 tend to have more passion and vitality than people who enjoy pension.
- Different social status. When we feel needed and respected, we gather our willpower. People who feel they have nothing to offer will suffer reduced functionality in terms of metabolism and immune system. The cognitive functions also decrease.
Whatever the reasons for cognitive degradation, we know that some individuals experience much less degradation than others. This means we can fight cognitive degradation. If we start to acquire good habits when we are 40, we will probably start to enjoy their effect once we get 50 and older. Do invest your resources now to make the life of your future self easier and more satisfying.
We need to run faster to stay in place
This means that once we are 40 and older, we need to do certain things just to maintain our mental wellbeing. It is similar to running a treadmill with ever increasing speed. If we start the exercise when the speed is low we will warm ourselves and have more chance to adapt once the speed goes up.
What habits are helpful? You probably know them. Physical activity, sleep, healthy diet, meditation or equivalent, reading, productive work, creative hobbies, socialization with good people… The list is pretty much endless. Each activity is fun and healthy and socially acceptable, only we will need to prioritize some of them over others.
A very different strategy to achieve similar results is the adoption of technology. The technology changes very fast. Generally, newer technologies take care of our needs better than older technologies, which makes people familiar with new technologies more effective. One of the effects of aging is lower familiarity with new technologies. Quite often at the high end of activities, the classical technologies are almost as good as the new ones. Think of the quality manual lenses for photography. However, the middle and lower range of technology change faster and stronger.
It is possible to adapt new technologies while maintaining unique perspective associated with a great experience. My PhD thesis advisor is a role model for me. He could solve complex differential equations on paper (something I cannot really do), yet he was able to execute sophisticated new software, and he was 65 years old when I met him. He was 80 years old in 2016 and there was a great event in Australia dedicated to his work. I remember that he spent an unproportionate amount of his time learning various computer technologies. It was significantly harder for him than it was to any young person, but his control was just as good as ours.
Reaction speed and intelligence
As we get older, reaction speed is the first indication of our cognitive decline. It happens early than other decline indicators, and it is very easy to measure using ‘Critical flicker fusion’ test or similar techniques. There are indications that slowing down brain is not as effective as fast a brain in solving various problems and learning new information.
Here is a surprising part. The practice of juggling/martial arts, speedreading/memory sports and similar activities has overall larger effect on brain’s reaction speed than cognitive aging. This means, that a young professional will be faster than old professional, but old professional will beat any young amateur.
Stress adds 10 years
And here is another twist. Stress degrades our abilities in a way very similar to aging. We lose focus, our immune system works not as good, we even look old and tired. As a rule of thumb (without any scientific justification) stress adds 10 years to your biological age. Examine yourself when you are tired and stressed. Now remember your indicators. If you do nothing to improve your lifestyle, this is the person you will be 10 years from now.
When we get into the “flow” state, or alternatively after deep and good meditation we feel younger and more energetic, as if we are 10 years younger. Practicing mindfulness it is probably possible to fool the biological clock at least for some time. Some people can react to visual stimuli BEFORE the stimuli was even shown. Does it mean we have a premonition? Not sure. There are some strange studies about the quantum entanglement of neurons in our brains. The brain has more hidden powers than we know.
With age and stress comes decline of cognitive abilities. We can fight and reverse it by good habits and dedicated training. Invest now in your future self.