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Curiosity killed the cat? Hardly

Posted in Aging, Health, and Women's issues

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He didn’t get killed, but he sure looks curious

It took me a long time to accept that failure was a good thing. Maybe not the massive, knocking you off your feet type of failures, (although, few and far between, those have their value too), but the little failures we encounter in the course of our every day activities. Failures force us to correct our course, change our approach and find different solutions. Above all, they push us out of our comfort zone.

Comfort zones and routines don’t help our brain cells. Literally. Challenging ourselves keeps us sharp. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association:

“Consistent mental challenge by novel stimuli increases production and interconnectivity of neurons and nerve growth factor, as well as prevents loss of connections and cell death.”

The problem is that, as we age, trying new things and seeking challenges becomes increasingly difficult. Think of some elderly relative who will resist your invitation to a new restaurant, preferring the same old digs, or of all the people deeply set in their ways who become more and more unbending as time goes by. Maybe that is us and we don’t even know.

Learning new skills gets harder the older we get, no doubt – plus, our memory banks  get cramped with all the knowledge accumulated during our lifetime – but some people embrace new opportunities no matter their age, while others resist veering an inch off course early on. Why? I am convinced curiosity plays a large role. People who are instinctively curious are more prone to poke their noses into new ventures, big and small.  In a 1996 study published in Psychology and Aging, more than 1,000 older adults aged 60 to 86 were carefully observed over a five-year period, and researchers found that those who were rated as being more curious at the beginning of the study were more likely to be alive at its conclusion, even after taking into account age, whether they smoked, the presence of cancer or cardiovascular disease, and so on.

Old booksApparently, education also plays a part. Dr. Marilyn Albert, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Harvard and director of gerontology research at Massachusetts General Hospital, in an interview to the Chicago Tribune, stated that “The more levels of education you have, the more likely you are to engage in mentally stimulating activities, and that’s actually good for your brain”.

So,  should we all learn how to solve Sudoku puzzles and unravel the Sunday New York Times crossword to ensure mental longevity? In my very unscientific opinion, I think all we need is to stay curious and not worry about failures. One of the best assets of getting old is that we have finally shed the need to project an image of perfection and absolute competence. I, for one, am much more comfortable saying “I don’t know” and then research the question, whether in life or in the workplace. Not having all the answers, in the age of smart phones and tablets, can be quite fun.

My mother tackling the New York Times
My mother tackling the New York Times

My mother, my personal source of wisdom, once again provides the perfect example. She started reading books in earnest at age 72. Until then, it was newspapers and magazines but, finding herself with more time on her hands and sick of the stupidity of Italian tv, she picked  up a book a friend gave her. And never looked back. She doesn’t quite discriminate in her tastes: history, romance, crime, biographies – she will give anything a try. As long as it’s a good story, she will keep on reading.

That very first book was “The Silk Road” by Alessandro Baricco. An unlikely choice, I thought. When I asked her what she thought of it, her critique, simple in her words but to the point, was spot on. And then she added: “Sometimes he takes a bit too long to get there”. I couldn’t have said it better myself about a sweet and elegant book with not much of a plot. And my mother, at heart, is an intensely curious person and the living example that an inquisitive and curious mind keeps your brain in shape.

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13 Comments

  1. Good to know my curiosity and desire to try new things have such wonderful benefits! 🙂

    July 15, 2013
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  2. Fear of making mistakes, or the Devil You Don’t Know, is so common and I see it more and more among friends as we age. I’m sure some of them were always more risk averse that I ever was to start with — but it worries me for their sake, and for mine, since we all (hopefully) have a lot more time left on earth. I don’t want my 40s to look exactly like my 60s!
    I always learn more from mistakes than from successes, presumably because I analyze the causes more. I hope I never get too terrified to make them.

    July 15, 2013
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    • I hope that this trend I am experiencing, of caring less and less as I get older (of others’ opinions, of looking foolish) stays on course as time goes by. In my case, sweeping changes took place between my 40s and 50s. Hope we keep on riding the wave of change for a long time to come!

      July 15, 2013
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  3. Great post and a timely warning ~ I try to stay abreast of everything technology-wise but twitter is where I draw the line x I hate the thought of getting old but I am finding my self confidence is growing as I no longer care what people think of me! As I write this I am sitting alone on the terrace of a nice hotel in Cornwall where I am on holiday. I have my wine and my laptop and am surrounded by couples and a tour group but I could not care less ~ years ago I would never have done this!

    July 15, 2013
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    • Isn’t it amazing that, as women, we have been conditioned to think that being alone in public places is odd? Good for you – I love that image of you with your laptop and a glass of wine. And I have seen your photos from Cornwall – am a tad jealous!

      July 15, 2013
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      • I must admit it feels rather liberating to actually not give a damn what other people think!

        July 19, 2013
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  4. silvia
    silvia

    That’s a fantastic example on how with age she’ s becoming a bit more like you and you like her. I don’t think it’s simply a coincidence that she picked up books nor that food is being having such a relevance in your adulthood.
    Besides curiosity for both of you is your middle name

    July 15, 2013
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  5. Marisa Antonini
    Marisa Antonini

    I coul not agree more, my mother last year at age 90 dediced to take on painting and much to my surprise she is very good. She then proceeded to paint scarves. They are beautiful! She them makes calanders out of her paintigs.
    Unbelivable but true!

    July 15, 2013
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    • That sounds absolutely fantastic! Love these stories

      July 15, 2013
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  6. I think about this issue a lot, and, I too, look to my mother… in horror. She’s lived in the same village all her life, and she’s unable to function outside of her environment. Last summer, during my annual visit, we went to a shopping centre, and she took ages and ages to come out of the bathroom.
    Why?
    She had been unable to locate the bins for disposing of the paper towels. Expecting to see the usual rubbish containers on the floor, her brain did not compute that the holes in the counter top next to the wash basins were meant for paper towel disposal.
    She’s only 60.
    I have hundreds such stories 🙁

    July 14, 2013
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    • That must be so hard to watch. I am sorry. It’s extremely hard to motivate older people if the mindset was not there to begin with. I suppose it’s a lesson for you on how to be – but still hard to watch

      July 15, 2013
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