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What gets better as you get older #2: being a connoisseur

People mock wine experts less than they used to. More wine is being drunk, for sure, but also the general level of connoisseurship has gone up. More and more people know what good wine tastes like. The notion of being an ordinary person with connoisseur level knowledge is no longer incongruous. We sWe see connoisseurship levels rising in lots of areas: cookery, gardening, natural history.

Becoming a connoisseur takes time, for sure, but also patience. Moreover it is something that just keeps getting better the older you get.

It is also something that keeps aging brains healthy. When we become interested in something we form circuits of neurons, but for these to become permanent we need to focus and concentrate on what we are experiencing. It needs to be important to us; once it is, brain plasticity and neural growth happens, and keeps happening what ever age we are.

The outdated notion that the brain stops growing is SO utterly wrong and yet also somehow comforting, it provides lots of people with the excuse that an old dog cannot, and should not, be attempting new tricks. In fact in research that started with old rats rather than old dogs, it's been conclusively shown that neural growth continues whenever there are learning challenges that we care about. But without connoisseurship we quickly level off and cease to care that much about our initial object of interest. We find one wine ‘we like’, and simply switch off.

As we get habituated to something we require fewer neurons to recognise that which is familiar. Our circuits rationalise and microglia hoover up unused connections. The result is we have a less rich and more abstract experience. Which is less memorable. Habitually doing something without wanting to appreciate its subtleties, or improve at it, results in connective decay, as we ‘switch off’.

The Biblical injunction that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well is backed up by neuroscience. Habits that have no connoisseurship potential dull and blunt our minds over time.

The effect of having a connoisseur mindset is very useful. Once you see yourself as mastering the subtleties of one area of activity you can transfer them to another.

If you’re an expert wine taster you can transfer this skill to being a better cook—that seems quite obvious. But what about being a better judge of antique furniture or birdsong?

When we become greatly interested in something, when we build connoisseur skills we sharpen our ability to discern small differences. This discernment skill can be accessed by analogous thinking- a by product of greater distribution of any mental event. By using analogous translations of grades of subtlety from the original connoisseurship we can transfer its use to a new area of interest.

Without becoming precious (I can’t help remembering the Roald Dahl story about the fraudulent wine expert) connoisseurship in whatever interests us is something to cherish as you get older; it also provides a reason for younger people to see an obvious value in aging.

Indeed when someone is held up as being ‘young at heart’ they are often demonstrating something that is merely human: learning something new.

Dr Stanley Karansky, at ninety years old, describes himself as a lifelong self-educator. But rather than dabble, each new interest becomes an engaging passion. In an interview with Dr Norman Doidge he says, “I became interested in astronomy five years ago and became an amateur astronomer. I bought a telescope because we were living in Arizona at the time and the viewing conditions were so good… I’m willing to put pretty intense concentration and attention into something that interests me at the moment. Then after I feel I’ve gotten to a higher level at it, I don’t pay quite as much attention to that activity and I start sending tentacles to something else.”[1]

This powerful focussed learning pays dividends in health. Though Dr Karansky has had two heart attacks, one at 65 and another at 83, he completely recovered. His parents who did not share his proclivities for learning died young- his mother in her 40s and his father in his 60s.

Connoisseurship- whether of the serial kind or simply sticking to one area and ever increasing the levels of subtlety- seems natural to me; it’s healthier for the brain and it is one more area of human activity that gets better with age.


[1] Norman S. Doidge “The brain that changes itself”. Penguin 2008

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