Mental Boxes

I have often wondered why us old codgers have such difficulty picking up new ideas, new technologies, and new paradigms. Maybe it’s an over-generalization, but I know it applies to me. I entered grad school when I was 42 and quickly learned that my mind wasn’t as nimble as it had been 20 years earlier.

Steven Pinker, in his book “Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” may have provided an answer. According to him, one of the newer theories of how the mind works and learns is that from birth through our teenage years, we absorb information like a sponge and build models of how the world works in various parts of our brain. Sometime around the age of twenty, we stop building new models and work with the ones we have. We see and understand the world using those models, and we become increasingly reluctant to change them.

That works well for a decade or so. By our mid-fifties to sixties, the new technologies and ideas of our youth will have been discarded or become mature technologies and accepted dogma. New ideas, new technologies, new paradigms of understanding the world will be developed, even as we continue to cling to our old ones. Unless we are willing to challenge our old models in the light of new discoveries and developments, the world will pass us by. We will be emigres from the past to the present, old codgers clustering together uneasily in a new and foreign world, like Kodak in the era of digital photography.

Sure, some things are and will remain constant. The value of honesty, integrity, love, courage, hard work, and persistence will not change. Most other things will. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond describes civilizations that collapsed because their people were unable or unwilling to change to meet new challenges. I’d rather not see my grandchildren join that parade, and I sure as hell don’t want to be leading it. The only way to avoid that is to continually question what you thought you knew of the world.


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