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Emotional Processing vs. Cognitive Processing in the Aging Adult: Differences & Examples

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  • 0:03 Hero of Our Own Story
  • 1:13 Intellectual Processing
  • 2:58 Emotional Processing
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson explores some of the changes that occur in people as they age. Specifically, we will look at the interaction between the changes in cognition and the changes in emotional processing.

Hero of Our Own Story

I had a professor who would always talk about how teenagers viewed themselves, implicitly, as the hero of their own story. A hero could be temporarily beaten, a hero could be injured, but a hero never dies. This was an easy and neat metaphor to explain adolescent concepts of their own invulnerability. But what happens when a hero ages? We often have the wise old mentor in the stories: see Yoda and Obi Wan from the original Star Wars. But we don't typically see what happens when the hero gets old.

In the occasional story, we do see the hero age. They often become introverted, but more importantly, they have learned to tame their original wild impulses. They have become less emotional, more reserved, and better able to sense situations - think of Arthur of the Round Table, a leader and a wise ruler instead of a rash braggart.

As we age, we process emotions differently. Let's discuss some of the changes that occur both in intellectual processing and emotional processing.

Intellectual Processing

Intelligence has been split into two broad categories. The first is crystallized intelligence, defined as a person's vocabulary and general knowledge. All the stuff you know, your ability to speak and understand language, gradually increases as we age. With rare exception, our crystallized intelligence sticks with us until we are really old. Crystallized intelligence has only been found to decrease following a traumatic brain injury and near death. Opposing this is fluid intelligence, which is defined as the ability to use logic in novel ways. This is the type of intelligence that lets you work through problems that are weird and atypical. Fluid intelligence has been found to diminish after the age of 20 and start dropping after 40.

Part of the reasoning behind this is that the brain continues to undergo changes as it matures. The brain is extremely complex, with many thousands of sub components all working together to make you who you are. If some of these are a little slower than others, this means the system has to work harder just to bring the slower bits up to speed. I recommend looking at our lessons on how the brain changes for more information.

What this means is that as people get older, they have to rely more on their knowledge and experiences over their ability to solve new problems. This makes a certain kind of sense because when you approach a problem you think, 'What is this like? Have I solved this before?' This type of problem solving, of looking back on past experiences instead of trying to figure them out as they come, leads us to how older people process their emotions.

Emotional Processing

As people get older, they rely more on their general knowledge instead of trying to make sense of things as they come. Looking back at how we started this lesson, the individual has learned that they are not the hero of an epic story; that they can die. This realization has come as they have experienced the death of loved ones and learned what it means to be an adult.

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