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Crystallized Intelligence

It stands to reason that the intellect of youth and the intellect of age are different. The human brain is an organ of the body that, like the arms, lungs, and legs, is stronger in one’s younger years. It is funny and sad at the same time to see a 45 or 50-year-old man trying to play basketball full court with the younger guys. And although the current world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand, is 40 years old, he, too, is considered past his prime. The highest rated chess player in the world, based on tournament results, is Magnus Carlsen, and Magnus is only 19. A professional chess player in his forties is much like a professional baseball player or a professional golfer in his forties: He may still play very well on a given day, but his overall performance is slowly in decline.

Are we surprised that many if not most of the world-changing discoveries in science and mathematics were made by young people? Einstein was 26 when he published his paper on the special theory of relativity. Isaac Newton was 22 when his discovery of the generalized binomial theorem led to the creation of calculus. In poetry, the same often holds true. John Keats composed his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to Autumn” before turning 24. Arthur Rimbaud wrote “Le Bateau ivre” at 17. Jesus, another great poet, died at 33. I sometimes wonder what his thinking would have been had he lived another 33 years.

José Raúl Capablanca, the world champion of chess in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, wrote an interesting description of himself for The New York Times in 1927 (when he was soon to be 39 years old). He compares himself as an older player to himself as a young challenger in 1911. Using the royal “we,” he writes: “At San Sebastian in 1911, our first international encounter, we did not have much confidence of carrying the chief prize, but we had plenty of ambition . . . . Today we have plenty of confidence . . . but most of our ambition is gone. Then we were practically ignorant of our opponents’ qualities, but we had a tremendous capacity for work. Today we know our opponents thoroughly, but alas! our capacity for work is not the same. Then we were very nervous and upset. Today we are cool and collected and nothing short of an earthquake can ruffle us. We have more experience but less power.” Capablanca lost his title that year to a younger man and never regained it.

Most of us older folk can relate to what Capablanca said about himself. His analysis becomes only more germane as one moves into the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies. We perceive that the raw intelligence of youth (the power) has been replaced by the crystallized intelligence of age (the experience). What are the characteristics of crystallized intelligence and how is it, in some ways perhaps, complementary to the raw intelligence of youth?

I believe crystallized intelligence presents at least three qualities: self-knowledge, perspective, and clarity.

Self-knowledge: The older we become, the more self-aware we generally become. We come to know who we really are, what our strengths and weaknesses truly are. We are less likely to deceive ourselves with flights of fancy. As we grow older, we become more curious about our grandparents, our parents, and the family tree in general. The senior intellect is more retrospective, more interested in making sense of the life it has lived and the self it has experienced.

Perspective: Cumulative thought and experience teaches us that intelligence and wisdom often do not cohabitate. The older mind tends to be more realistic and wary. It has learned that beauty and character do not always inhabit the same package, that de-accumulation may triumph over accumulation, and that many things represent a waste of both time and money. As the poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) once wrote:

When I can look Life in the eyes,
Grown calm and very coldly wise,
Life will have given me the Truth,
And taken in exchange--my youth.

Clarity: The term “crystallized” suggests hard yet clear. The older mind, while not as agile or quick, has a sharper sense of what it knows and doesn’t know. It may not be as powerful, but it is more settled. It often prefers non-fiction to fiction, and finds that passages of text (in, say, the Bible or the Declaration of Independence or a novel) deemed obscure in youth take on new meaning with age. Stendhal famously said that one could not fully appreciate his novel, La Chartreuse de Parme, until one had passed 40.

The reason baseball managers, basketball coaches, and head football coaches are rarely in their thirties is because the coach, while no longer able to perform spectacularly the sport he coaches, has nevertheless the insight, perspective, and perspicuity to tell young players how best to achieve excellence in the sport. In that sense, age can say, “Do as I say, even if I personally cannot do it myself.” No doubt, some young players resent this, but in time, as we know, they will come to appreciate its validity.

Crystallized should not imply fossilized. Older minds, to be sure, must keep on taking in information, keep on processing experience, and keep on refining ideas. The old and the young must work in tandem for society to be at its best. A church, for example, without at least three generations among its membership, remains incomplete and lacking. “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait” (If youth but knew, if age but could) is a French proverb that still holds true. In short, age with its perspective and clarity can be of great service to youth with its power and acuity.

Comments (1)


We got to hear Zane's song 'Trite but True' and loved it! He told us to find your blog and leave a comment.
So, here goes. I'm enjoying reading your blog, especially this post; it sheds some light on what I've been noticing lately.

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