Fast talkers of America
Young people talk faster than old people. They can also listen faster. Trust me. I know. I am an old person and most of the peeps that I hang with are old. I notice this. It presents a problem. And an opportunity.
Years ago I read Norman Doidge’s book, “The brain that changes itself.” The book is about brain plasticity. His explanation of the changes in brains of older people changed the trajectory of my life. Brains are adaptable, but they are also lazy. They will try to get away with as little work as the environment and inner drives will allow. Older people are in comfortable ruts (they might call them ‘grooves’, but that’s just a nice name for a rut) so their brains optimize to do the same stuff, with less thinking. Young people are driven to reproduce and that drive has consequences.
The drive to reproduce includes a drive to have sex. To have sex you need a partner—or several. To get a partner you need to make yourself attractive so that partners will choose you, or you need to gain power so you can take what you want. To do either takes both physical and mental work.
People are wired to choose partners who show evidence of good genes so they can pass them to their offspring. It’s not that people know genetics. It’s just the wiring. Physical beauty is evidence of good genes. Evidence of intelligence also points toward good genes, so apart from obvious physical attributes both men and women tend to be attracted to people who show wit, knowledge, creativity, problem-solving ability, or who have wealth and social status, all of which good genes. So people who want to reproduce are driven to make the most of their cognitive resources.
Most old people aren’t into making more babies and even though some still like sex it’s not as central to life as it once was. So the consequent drive to improve one’s mind is gone. Not to say there are no old people who want to improve themselves—or have mindless sex. Some do, I’m sure. But I’m also certain that most don’t.
Most people, Doidge says, spend the first 30 years of their lives driven to learn new things, and the rest of their lives performing that which they have learned and making small additions to their store of knowledge. Why not? At thirty most have found a mate and a career with enough momentum. They continue to learn, but the ratio of new things learned to old things regurgitated leans further toward regurgitation the older one gets.
I’m no longer as motivated to get laid as I once was. Even at 75, I can imagine scoring once in a while if I worked at it—but it would either a lot of effort, a lot of money, or a dramatic reduction in standards. I like what I’ve got, and I don’t see enough potential gain to reward the work or the money. And lowering my standards—which I value—is also a crappy idea.
Since sex is not going to drive me to self-improve I’ve had to find other ways to challenge my lazy brain to cognitive excellence. Doidge’s book made me aware of a lot of lazy cognitive habits that I’d fallen into, and I’ve taken steps to fight them. The “old person’s walk”—feet spread, eyes down, small, shuffling steps—is an easy habit. Old people walk that way for physical reasons—arthritis and loss of flexibility—but also for cognitive reasons. Watching your feet while you walk slowly is less cognitively demanding than walking fast with your head up. With head up, you have to look for unevennesses in the surface, calculate when that thing you saw in front of you will appear underfoot, and then adjust your gait. With head down, and slowly, none of that. Likewise, it’s harder to balance yourself than to shuffle side to side. And so on.
When I listen to online spoken content—say a video on YouTube or a podcast—I crank the speed up. If it’s younger, faster-talking speaker or they have an unfamiliar accent then 1.25x. If it’s an older, slower-talking speaker, then I’m all the way to 2.0x.
When I’m with younger people I focus on keeping up and on talking as fast as I can—because they can take it. When with older people I push as far as my audience will let me.
I am trying to get into the habit of composing text (like this blog post) using Google’s voice typing. It’s hard, and my brain resists it. Fuck you, brain. I’m going to keep working at it.
The lesson that I keep forgetting (thanks, old brain) and re-learning (thanks, whatever) is that discomfort is a feature and not a bug. It might be a sign of something gone wrong, but it might also be a sign of something going right. So the rule is: if it’s uncomfortable, don’t immediately change. See if it’s a good discomfort or bad, and act accordingly.