The other day I had an appointment with my audiologist. We discussed the fact that my hearing hasn’t changed-my hearing-aides enable me to hear everything. However, I have a lot of trouble with understanding all the words I hear, especially when the person speaking is not facing me, or they have a soft high-pitched voice. This is an especially irksome problem because my wife and one of my stepdaughters have soft voices and my granddaughters, 9 and 7, have pretty high-pitched voices. Anyway, the audiologist was testing some settings on my hearing aide to see if she could improve my acuity. She talked to me facing me and facing away from me. She has a loud, clear voice so I understood her, no sweat. I then explained the situation with my wife and granddaughters. Since my wife was in the waiting room, the doctor called her in and had her read me questions while looking at me and then facing away. The doctor made a point: that one of the reasons I have difficulty with my acuity is that I’m aging and as a result, I don’t process things as quickly as I did when I was younger. And that’s the purpose of this story: she said I process more slowly, she never said I no longer process new things. That’s the gist of what I’m going to discuss in this post: crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence.
Briefly, crystallized intelligence is the ability to use the skills, knowledge, and experience that a person has accumulated during their lifetime. Although crystallized intelligence is closely related to long term memory, it’s a lot broader in that it is essentially a combination of all the things a person knows and remembers applied to daily lives. After the audiologist appointment, my wife and I had a dinner date with some friends in another part of Portland (Oregon). We lived in Portland for almost 30 years before we moved to a town about an hour away. Anyway, I didn’t need a map app to get to where we needed to go. I just “knew” the best way to get there. That’s an example of crystallized intelligence, “knowing” the way without really thinking about it. Over time, crystallized intelligence improves, as our life experiences increase, and we internalize those experiences and expand our personal data base. During the latter years of my work as a union staffer, I had internalized most all aspects of the work so that almost every new situation that I encountered was at least somewhat familiar and related to something I had experienced somewhere along the line. I learned the particulars of the new situation and did whatever was necessary to resolve it effectively (in most cases, I was pretty good at my job).
Fluid intelligence relates to a person’s capacity to think through and process a new situation on the fly. Fluid intelligence is also related to our ability to be creative. Fluid intelligence enables us to quickly assess a new situation, process it and do whatever is necessary to deal with it. Basically, it’s what enables us to react instantaneously to something that confronts us. When you jam on the brakes when a car stops short in front of you, that’s an example of fluid intelligence (assuming you jam it on before you rear end the car in front). When a young would-be rock star writes, and records a song, and posts it on YouTube, this is an example of fluid intelligence: creating something new.
The concepts of crystallized and fluid intelligence were originally developed by Raymond Pattman, a psychologist, and others who took up and expanded upon his work. Their conclusion is that crystallized intelligence continues to grow as we age but fluid intelligence does not. In other words, although older adults may understand what to do in a particular situation based on their past experience, they will be slower to process what’s going on. This is especially true when they experience something they haven’t experienced before. This is pretty much what my audiologist was saying: I process what I hear more slowly than when I was younger and that impacts my ability to understand the words I hear.
Relying on existing knowledge
If the researchers are correct, older adults increasingly must rely on crystallized intelligence. I am not a scientist, I am not a psychologist (and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night), but I know myself and I know other older adults who use their ability to utilize their existing knowledge as a foundation upon which to acquire new skills; to solve new problems, and to be creative. Grandparents who all of a sudden are tasked with raising their grandchildren use their past experience with child rearing as a foundation on which they will have to build the new understandings they will need to raise their grandchildren, while trying to figure out how to do this on a fixed income that was perhaps just enough to support the two of them. People don’t integrate new information or stimuli as quickly as they did, but they do, often because they have to.
Applying life experiences to the learning process
Adults who return to school for whatever reasons can gain and process new information by applying their life skills and experience to the learning process. This takes both crystallized and fluid intelligence. When I did educational and training work during my union career, I used a concept known as worker-centered learning. It’s a conscious attempt to capture union members’ knowledge of their work and works situation as a basis to teach them new skills, either to help them become more involved and more knowledgeable union members and/or more effective in their jobs. When I returned to school after 41 years to study Gerontology in an online program, I relied on my crystallized intelligence as a basis for learning and processing new information (this experience may be the subject of another post).
Finally, one last example and it truly freaked me out. About a year ago I was cleaning up after breakfast. I put a skillet in the sink, did not know it was hot, and touched it. As soon as I began to feel the heat, I immediately moved my hand, and I move it really fast. I was not burned. Once my adrenalin rush had subsided, it occurred to me that after years of moving away from hot items after getting burned, my crystallized intelligence related to hot objects is at a level now that when I even began to feel heat, I moved away before getting burned The new situation, hot skillet, triggered a response before I could think. That’s fluid intelligence (moving away fast) pairing with crystallized intelligence (knowing I could get burned once I began to feel the heat).
– Edward from McMinnville, Oregon, a FAR customer who is finding purpose in this new stage of his life.
Edward writes for FAR and is also a customer. He is 73-year-old, born and raised in and around New York City. After college and a little graduate school, he took Horace Greeley’s advice and went west. Edward lived in several cities throughout California and currently resides in Oregon. He practiced law for a few years as part of a law collective doing what they called “people’s law,” but spent most of his career working as an internal organizer for the unions.
When Edward’s career ended with the unions, he was determined to become an advocate for older adults. He enrolled at Portland Community College studying Gerontology. He learned a lot about aging and how it applied to his own life experiences and my own aging process. Much of Edward’s writing is related to what he learned in his Gerontology studies.
* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Finance of America Reverse (FAR) LLC.