Young Brains, Old Brains

Children have an “executive function” in their minds. They easily compartmentalize their knowledge and have the ability to mentally go there and find it. Adults are not so good at this.

The bench mark for creativity is a two year old child. After that the capacity shrinks.

More children have photographic memories than do adults, and most children lose the ability as they grow.

My own experience seems to bear these findings out.

Learning the Tongan language was a challenge when I served as a missionary on those South Pacific islands. But after awhile it became natural to think and even dream in Tongan. I could switch from Tongan to English easily, and rarely used a word from the wrong language. This I suppose was because I was still young enough to have the remnants of my childhood “executive function.”

Decades later on a mission with my wife Sharon to the Caribbean Islands learning Spanish was another matter. I’m still at it. My brain executive partitions have been replaced by a pile of words from which I have to dig and struggle to determine which language they came from.

Two year old children don’t have to try and think out of the box. They haven’t even built the box yet. To them nothing is incongruous or impossible. When my brother Gordon and I defeated the Japanese and Germans in World War II we were still young enough to fly our parents’ ancient Chevrolet car into battle. We never lost a single aerial dogfight even though we often had a wing or tail shot off, and had to repair it before we hit the ground. “Fix, fix, fix, all fixed captain.”

“Good work, co-pilot.”

As for memory skill, my “old” friend Chris Poulos tells me, “I have a photographic mind, but I ran out of film.” (I have to hurry and use that joke before the digital photography age forgets what film is.)

Organization, creativity, and memory are three powerful brain functions. Being less effective at them than your grandchildren can be a humbling experience.

Does that seem fair to you? We work all our lives to improve our mental abilities, and for our trouble we get worse as we go. Excuse me. I’d like to talk with the manager about this deal.

But before I do something rash, my disorganized, locked-in-the-box, non photographic or photogenic brain incubates a thought, actually more than one.

Could it be that the compartmentalization of children’s knowledge is partly because they lack the ability to entertain subtle nuances at that age? The bad guys in the Roy Rogers cowboy movies I grew up on wore black hats so we had no trouble identifying them. My hero Roy (then and now) always wore a white hat. Nobody wore grey hats.

Uncontrolled creativity has its down side; sometimes literally. I read somewhere that when Sir James Berrie’s play Peter Pan opened on the stage in England, they had to make one hasty addition to the script. In the play Peter teaches the children that if they believe, they can fly. They believed, so the writers had to add the necessity of having fairy dust sprinkled on you. They made that change because creative, believing children were launching themselves out of the balcony. That story may be fictitious, but remembering my own childhood hallucinations it could be true. As adults we may have traded some of our creativity for practical analysis; not a bad idea.

The same line of reasoning may help explain the loss of photographic memory as we grow older. Children see like a camera, taking in every detail and giving all the information equal value. Adults may feel the need to be more discerning. We automatically pick out those parts of a scene or a printed page that are more important to us, and give less attention to other details. Have you noticed that when you buy a “new” car (make that a different car in our case) you see the same car more often in the traffic around you? Same scene, different focus.

And finally, while it would be less embarrassing if you hadn’t forgotten the name of your old girl friend when she popped up unexpectedly at a party, raw unedited permanently engraved memory has its dark side. The late Sidney Harris, one of my favorite newspaper columnists, once observed that considering the grudges, feuds, wars and prolonged hatred in the world, it is obvious that there is much more misery caused by remembering than by forgetting.