Aging Superpower Number One

July 08, 2015
Dr. Bill Thomas,


This post initially ran on on July 8, 2015. 

The most powerful voices and communications channels within American culture are primed to deliver a small number of messages about aging and youth. They go like this…

Aging equals Decline
Aging is Bad

Youth equals Growth
Youth is Good

These assertions form the bedrock of any discussion about aging in America–and they are wrong.

Over the next few weeks I will be exploring a few of aging’s most important superpowers.

Yeah, you read that right– superpowers.

The first age-related superpower is gist. It turns out that aging changes us in ways that are both important and, to date, poorly understood. Everyone understands that aging takes things from us, but what few appreciate is that it also endows us with new gifts. Consider, for example, the ability to simultaneously conduct multiple arithmetic calculations in your head. If you set both younger people and older people at this task and measure their speed of calculation, the younger participants will win. These results seem to validate the belief that:

Aging equals Decline
Aging is Bad

But wait! There’s more!

While aging might tarnish our arithmetic agility, it also endows us with a growing capacity to identify the key idea/insight in a story, passage, or conversation, even when this meaning is not readily apparent.

Here is an example of the word “gist” being used correctly…

“Mrs. Kennedy, interpreting the gist of the exchange, signaled to White that Camelot must be kept in the text.”


From how Jackie Kennedy Invented the Camelot Legend After JFK’s Death

James Piereson

November 11, 2013

Catching the gist is a super-power that helps older people understand the world, the society in which they live, their families and themselves in new and vastly more nuanced ways.

Older people? Superpower?


It turns out that if you ask two groups of people (one older and one younger) to capture the gist of a story or situation, the older people significantly outperform the young. Age can, and often does, bring new insights and understandings that the young are hard pressed to match.

So let us then consider the exchange that our humanity is placing on offer to those of us who are aging. You will, no doubt, become aware that you can not and do not manipulate numbers as quickly or as easily as you did when you were younger. This is a change. Some people experience this change as evidence of decline and find that it causes sadness and distress. Others find it to be more of an annoyance and reach for paper and pencil (or a calculator) more quickly than they used but are otherwise unaffected.

The rising power of gist is not like that. The roots of aging’s gist-power plunge deep into one’s personal history. Younger people simply can not keep up– and there is not, nor will there ever be, a pocket “gist calculator.”

So let’s look at change this way. If the world’s best physician came to you with two pills and said, “Take the blue pill and you will continue to be able to do sums in your head but will never develop the ability to understand the ‘story behind the story.’ Or take the red pill and you will be marginally less able to do mental arithmetic but will gain deep new insights into the world in which you live. Now, choose.”

Nearly all of us would choose the red pill.

I have some really excellent news for all of you. The red pill already exists and it is available for free. You might know it by another name– it’s called “aging.”

Want to test your gistability? Allow me to introduce you to musician and Age of Disruption Tour performer Nate Silas Richardson. See if you can get the gist behind his life story.

1 Comment. Leave new

Yes, there is so much we “get” through our maturity, even within dementia, that the supposedly “agile” younger brain cannot.

So often (western ?) society, medicine, science can measure / notice the wrong thing.

I love what can come through in a conversation, when we really, deeply listen, evoking more expression by responding to what is being shared rather than trying to twist the communication to make it go where we think it ‘should.’


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