The other day, I came across a very interesting read on the magazine section of the BBC site – by the way, a very underrated source of information which regularly shares fascinating stuff.
It addressed the issue of people seemingly getting more offensive and prejudiced as they age. We’ve all experienced this, either around older relatives or just randomers. Some older people just say things the rest of us wouldn’t dream of saying, often regarding marginalised groups like gays or ethnic minorities.
So far, there are two mainstream explanations to this phenomenon. The first one kind of goes like this: ‘Well old people don’t give a shit what you think, they’ve lived their lives. Anyway they’ve got more important things to worry about, like death‘ Explanation one, they just don’t care.
The second explanation is more substantial and widely accepted. Today’s older generation were brought up in a very different culture, less liberal and less understanding of individualism. The moral values they were passed on from the earliest stages of education were different, and to this day still shape their outlook on current issues. Hence, they tend to be more prejudiced.
There is an alternative, scientific proposition. According to William Von Hippels’ research, the front lobes are the first areas of the brain which develop during childhood, and also the first to deteriorate with old age.
Atrophy of the frontal lobes does not reduce intelligence, but it does degrade brain areas responsible for inhibiting inappropriate thoughts. This is why older adults have greater difficulty finding the word they’re looking for, and why there is a greater likelihood of them voicing ideas they would have previously suppressed. Finally, it’s also why kids too say things most sound adults would otherwise regard as inappropriate or offensive.
Of course if this is all true, there is a more interesting question to be asked: what then defines our personality? Does the weakening of the frontal lobes make us more honest and exhibits our true colours, or should we consider the cognitive ability to suppress offensive rhetoric as part of personality itself?