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Cognitive Development in Adults

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  • 0:01 Middle Adulthood
  • 1:32 Executive Functioning
  • 3:43 Wisdom
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

As people age, they discover that their thought processes change. Though some cognitive abilities decrease in middle age, some increase. In this lesson, we'll look at how executive functioning and wisdom increase in middle age.

Middle Adulthood

Robert is 50. Recently, he got a big promotion, but it came with some new responsibilities. Now, he has to figure out how to juggle many new things and how to deal with the many different personalities of his employees.

Robert is in middle adulthood, also sometimes called middle age, which is the time of life between about age 40 and age 65. During this time, people tend to be at the height of their careers. Those that have families are seeing their children grow up and move out of the house. They notice signs of aging in themselves, too, as they become less fit and more frail and age takes its toll.

Cognitive, or thinking processes, also change in middle adulthood. Many people, Robert included, notice that their memory is not as sharp as it was in their 20s or 30s. They also don't process things and react to the world as quickly as they used to. For example, when Robert was younger, his coworker might shout 'Head's up' and toss him a pen or something. Robert's reflexes were quick enough that he was always able to catch the pen.

But lately, he's found that he's just a second or two too slow. The pen falls more often than he catches it because he's just not as fast at reacting to things. It's not all bad, though. Let's look at two elements of cognition that grow stronger in middle adulthood: executive functioning and wisdom.

Executive Functioning

Though Robert is not as fast as he used to be, he's better at other things, like strategizing and time management. Executive functioning involves linking past experience with current activity. Things like planning, organization, strategizing and time management all fall under the umbrella of executive functioning.

As people enter middle age, they become better and better at executive functioning. This makes sense if you think about it. If executive functioning involves linking past experience with current activity, you're probably going to be better at it if you have a lot of past experience! And someone, like Robert, is more likely to have more experience when they are older than when they are 20 and just starting out.

It's a good thing that executive functioning is highest in middle age, too, because most people at this time in their lives face their most complex problems and responsibilities. At work, Robert and others like him are reaching the highest point in their careers, which requires them to solve more complex issues than ever before.

Take Robert's situation: after his latest promotion, he's very high up in his company. But as a result of being so high up, he has to balance a long-term, big-picture view of where the company is going with a focused, short-term plan for what needs to be accomplished on a day-to-day basis. This requires all of his executive functioning powers!

Likewise, at home, things are more complex than before, too. Robert has two teenage children, and they come with their own set of social challenges. They argue with him and act out, and Robert always feels like he's walking a tightrope in order not to anger one or the other.

Luckily for Robert, part of what makes executive functioning so strong in middle adulthood is the ability to understand complex situations. As people age, they have the experience and world knowledge to comprehend complicated problems and situations that they might encounter at work or home. That allows them to excel when before they might have struggled.

Wisdom

When he was younger, Robert reacted to everything that happened. If he got stuck in a traffic jam, he'd get frustrated and tense. When someone at work shot down his ideas, he would take it personally and feel very angry and hurt.

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