Is this wisdom?

This morning, the most e-mailed story on NYTimes.com is Sara Reistad-Long’s “Older Brain May Really Be a Wiser Brain,” which argues that so-called “senior moments” are not a sign of deterioration, but rather the marker of a mature brain’s command of a wider array of information, and a better sense of what’s important. You can just see people of a certain age forwarding the article to each other, or twenty-something children forwarding it affectionately to their parents.

I don’t doubt at all that there mental benefits from age and long experience, but there is something odd about the way this phenomenon is described:

But for most aging adults, the authors say, much of what occurs is a gradually widening focus of attention that makes it more difficult to latch onto just one fact, like a name or a telephone number. Although that can be frustrating, it is often useful.

“It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard whose work was cited in the book. “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.”

We’ll pass over the fact that this may be the first time “wisdom” has ever been defined as “possessing lots of information” (honestly, what happened to concentration and reflection?), and also note this:

In a 2003 study at Harvard, Dr. Carson and other researchers tested students’ ability to tune out irrelevant information when exposed to a barrage of stimuli. The more creative the students were thought to be, determined by a questionnaire on past achievements, the more trouble they had ignoring the unwanted data. A reduced ability to filter and set priorities, the scientists concluded, could contribute to original thinking.

The scientists go on to posit a link between this inability to ignore excess data and wisdom. That’s all fine, and as someone who’s easily–ooh, shiny! what?–distracted (just ask a student) I’m glad to have it recognized as a virtue.

But it is striking to think that if these minds were teenaged, rather than older, we’d probably be calling their “distractability” a sign of ADD, and deploring the effects of growing up in a hyperlinked culture. There is a certain kind of psychological argument that I just find terribly unconvincing, no matter how dressed up in the trappings of science and statistics. Even in this article, “wisdom” gets so many different definitions that it’s hard to understand exactly what’s being claimed. Actually, I think the *reason* this style of argument is unconvincing is that it pretends to be scientific.

And, snarkiness about psychologists aside, I would be interested in seeing a debate between these pro-distraction authors and the authors of the well-known study that describes the distractions of multitasking as worse than marijuana. Maybe that’s a 2008-era shortcut to wisdom: some pot and ten windows open in Adium, plus, of course, Twitter.

Update (June 17):  Hey, I got one right: Here’s William Saletan speculating on ADHD as an evolutionary advantage. (Via Andrew Sullivan.)

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5 Responses to Is this wisdom?

  1. Alex says:

    Lest we forget the ever present cell phone!

  2. jbj says:

    You realize, Alex, that if distractability is now a criterion for wisdom, that you may be the Wisest Man in America?

  3. I’ve heard multitasking jokingly referred to as “multi-slacking” — i.e. you’re not doing any task particularly well and all the activity is just to look busy and to avoid more important tasks that need to be done.

  4. Alex says:

    I’ll be taking my place at the peak of a mountain (provided that it is wifi and 3g enabled).

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