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Published on: November 26, 2016
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Timing is everything in life, isn’t it?
In the fall of 2016, the American Presidential race dominated the world’s media. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seemed to be the only topic of conversation in coffee rooms, twitter feeds, and news media. Much of this narrative was clearly divided: Republican versus Democrat, Public versus Private, North versus South, Male versus Female. Interestingly, however, for all of the rebuttals, issues, and challenges people may have with either candidate, there seemed to be a lack of commentary about their relative age in life, about their compared respective ages, or about how age might affect either of them as a candidate or as the President of the United States of America.
This got Women’s Brain Health Initiative thinking: How do our brains age healthily, naturally? Does this differ between men and women over the life course? Especially in an era where both men and women work formally in the workforce into their retirement years, what does this mean for their careers or ability in the workforce?
Dr. Brynn Winegard thinks, writes, and speaks about the intersection of business and brain sciences toward professional and personal achievement. Formally trained in both business (MBA, PhD) and brain sciences (neuroscience, psychology), Dr. Winegard recently spoke to Women’s Brain Health Initiative about the advantages of a healthy aging brain, how the brain ages in the workforce, as well as how this might differ between men and women in the workforce.
Some Functional Advantages of an Aging Brain
When highlighting the advantages of an aging brain, Winegard notes that independent of gender, as we all get older, we get better at emotional intelligence (formally termed ‘EQ’—emotional quotient—an homage to ‘IQ’) and interpersonal insight. While some systems may falter with age, our ‘mirror neuron system’ (MNS) actually becomes more acute as we get older, allowing us to better perceive what someone else might be thinking or feeling—an ability formally termed ‘Theory of Mind’ (effectively, that our ‘theory’ about what someone else’s mind might be perceiving or thinking becomes more acute and more accurate). This ability allows us to better understand others’ perspectives, to predict others’ reactions, and to thoughtfully consider others’ feelings or motivations in any given situation.
Further, because older brains have had a longer time on earth, with more experiences and cognitive learning to prove it, our brains get much better generally at long-term planning; at predicting cause and effect of most things; at being able to project longitudes; as well as seeing the ‘big picture’. Wherever our personalities naturally started out in life, we organically get better
at big-picture, long-term thinking as we age.
Also, while aging itself brings with it some challenges, paradoxically we become more optimistic over our life course. This happens because negative memories decay in accessible memory first, and the brain uses an experimental process of evaluation about the outlook of the future by sampling its past—if the past seems to be ‘rose-coloured’ and well-lived, the human brain then uses this information to predict the future. The brain then (inaccurately) predicts that the future will look much like the (rose-coloured) past, and therefore the outlook is good. This is the route of all nostalgia: while the past wasn’t better, that’s how we remember it! In good news, however, this cognitive inaccuracy serves us well from a coping and mood perspective—wherever we started out on the optimist-pessimist scale in life, we become more optimistic and our outlook is usually brighter as we get older.
All of this is interesting information about the healthy, aging human brain, but Women’s Brain Health Initiative’s question for today’s work—and political!—environment becomes: How does this translate on the job or in the workforce?
The Aging Brain in the Workforce: Some of What We Get Better At
Firstly, Winegard explains, better EQ and a more acute MNS make us much better at predicting what direct reports, suppliers, workers, affiliates, partners, or employees are going to need, feel, say, or expect from us. This in turn helps us become more effective group members, managers, negotiators, arbitrators, mediators, and communicators.
Having more compassion, genuinely understanding multiple perspectives, and better insight into others’ state of mind and thought processes makes us better at managing ourselves, others, and others’ expectations, as well as communicating the right information the right way, which typically leads to better outcomes for everyone from a management perspective. Older brains are typically better than their younger versions at the traits required to be good managers.
Secondly, older, seasoned workers have developed a greater ability to predict longitudes, imagine cause and effect, and think ‘big picture’, and are therefore usually better at strategizing, long-term planning, managing, and leading others. While our younger counterparts tend to be more tactical, more technical, more experimental, more rote, and more innovative, we become better at knowing things tacitly (e.g. how to tie up a shoelace) and having cognitively accessible wisdom.
Overall, much of our cognitive ‘executive functioning’ (pardon the pun) housed in the prefrontal cortex of our brains, gets better as we age, and this typically leads to better outcomes for organizations from a leadership perspective. Older brains are typically better than their younger versions at the traits required to be good leaders.
Thirdly, our experience, decaying negative memories, and cognitive heuristics toward the positive allow our brains to become better at seeing the positives in life, in problems, and at work. The advantage of this from a management perspective is both that we make for more relaxed, more pleasant managers to deal with likely, but we are able to apply this optimism to problem-solving and solution -finding activities with greater ease than our younger selves or our younger counterparts would be able to—we aren’t as burdened by stress associated with having to problem-solve.
From a cognitive perspective, our years of experience and expertise also allow us to generalize our problem-solving with greater ease, deal with ambiguity more readily, and transfer our skills and knowledge to other situations, contexts, or issues. Accordingly, the outlook combined with experience of an older brain typically leads to better outcomes for organizations from a counselling or consulting perspective. Older brains are typically better than their younger versions at the traits required to be good counsellors or consultants.
While this was all fascinating, Women’s Brain Health Initiative was interested in how women and men might differ in terms of their healthy aging brains and what that might mean for their respective management styles, approaches, or relative advantages.
The Aging Brain in the Workforce: Some Gender Differences
Here, Winegard highlights, the plot thickens: women and men do age differently, mostly for biological reasons (e.g. men are theoretically reproductive all their lives, whereas women are not), and this does have an effect on the respective abilities that we retain. The one challenge in the research Winegard highlights is the following: there’s an idiom in social research that holds that there’s typically as much variation within a population (say all aging women) as there is between any two populations (e.g. between aging men and women).
This often makes it hard to draw absolute conclusions from social research on the topic of gender-based differential aging. Nevertheless, women seem to maintain their linguistic ability more readily, while men typically remain more physically capable. While men typically age faster and die younger, women often suffer more chronic diseases but age less rapidly (something termed “The Grandmother Effect”).
From a vocational perspective, it is interesting to note that as women age they become better at processing higher-order social interactions (due in part to that acute MNS and experienced emotional intelligence), and are typically more interested and better able than men to manage complex social situations—which helps them in managing many people interacting, or in understanding and predicting group dynamics. This ability actually helps women be relatively better managers of groups or teams of people wherever they put themselves to work: at home, in associations, or in the workforce.
Interestingly, this isn’t reflected in modern patriarchal, hierarchical organizations—there are typically more men leading most modern organizations. Further, as an example, while women do not remain procreative all their lives, men do, which means men are as distracted by thoughts and imagery of sex at 80 as they would have been at say 50 or 60.
Now add to this the confound that as we age our mutual ability to ward off distraction, concentrate, or stay with a particular thought decreases, and we end up with an interesting premise: while both genders are more easily distracted and find it harder to concentrate, men are more naturally and intrinsically distracted than women, allowing that while most of the C-suite and leadership of modern organizations remains predominantly male, in fact older female brains might be more natural to be there—they are theoretically more interested in and better at formally managing and leading groups of people, as well as less naturally distracted.
While definitive conclusions about gender-based differences are hard to draw, we here at Women’s Brain Health Initiative can take solace in knowing that the healthy, aging, female brain certainly has a valuable place in society and in the workforce: they remain at least as relevant and able as men in the workforce.
What the proper research and proof of this could do for the composition of organizations in the future remains to be seen, but it certainly could mean exciting things for females of all generations in and entering the workforce.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER
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