This is the key refrain of my life recently. As someone who has always valued being right, I am heavily invested in knowing things. It took me years (a lifetime, if I am totally honest) to admit that there are things I don’t know. I am getting better at that and find that admitting to not knowing actually frees me to up to learn new things!

Of course, knowing something doesn’t mean I understand it. Here is where things start to get muddy (spoiler alert – it is going to get muddier). For example, I know about the law of gravity, but I don’t understand it. I know there are rules of etiquette and grammar, but most of them remain habitual rather than understood. I know how to get to my local grocery store, but I don’t understand why that route was laid down that way.

I Don’t Know – It Just Feels Right

As a psychologist, I am very familiar with feelings. Here again, though, I don’t know that I truly understand them. They seem to vary from individual to individual, to have differing levels of intensity, come and go unpredictably, and for many folks, be absolutely debilitating. And, for those among us who rely heavily on feelings to make decisions, I have too frequently seen the effects of disappointment and disillusionment that come from finding out that feeling has been wrong.

Understanding something requires that I spend time thinking about and considering other points of view. I may become aware that I understand something because it “feels right”, or it “sounds right” or “it makes sense”, but those are merely pathways to an awareness. They are not, in and of themselves, understanding.

Your Own Algorithm for Searching

Here is where education and critical thinking come into play. When I am taught facts, figures, and fantasy, I increase the data set I can draw from. I can put all that accumulated stuff into my personal life-experience hopper and decide whether I agree, disagree, or am neutral with what I have just learned. This is called having an informed opinion!

Critical thinking gives me a template to use to test out whether those facts, figures, and fantasy hold up under scrutiny. This is essential if I want to use my informed opinions to make decisions that will impact myself and others.

I Don’t Understand Aging

I know all about aging, but I still don’t understand it. A friend of mine who is in her mid-80’s has had to deal with incredibly intense emotional changes over her lifetime that have left her psychologically exhausted and physically spent. On the other hand, another friend also in her late 80s, continues to thrive, living independently, teaching, and discovering new things about herself every day. They are both older women in their 80’s. How are they alike? How are they different? What is the explanation for this?

I am pretty good at using my education and critical thinking when it comes to different aspects of aging. I have lots of informed opinions about health insurance, what kinds of brain exercises are going to keep your synapses snapping, why feeling useful and knowing your self-worth is an important aspect of well-being and self-acceptance as you age. I know all that. And, with each passing day, I realize just how much I have left to learn.

The Shelf-life of Old Theories

The theories I was taught back in the day don’t begin to address what we still don’t know about growing old. What we think we know about aging has focused primarily on what goes wrong with us as we get older. Scientists went about this by using the tools they had available. And they looked at older people where they could find them.

Let me explain this another way. We used a small, limited sample to observe aging. The sample was located in healthcare facilities. We looked at this sample using paper and pencil tests, chart notes, and basic measures of health: reports of illness, injury, and falls. Out of this sample, those who were observing, who were themselves not ill or injured or experiencing separation from family and friends, came to the conclusion that aging was an irreversible downward spiral into pain and suffering. That became the theory. That became how we talked, thought about, and researched what it meant to grow old.

What’s That I See?

There are parallels to this in researching Alzheimer’s. When Dr. Alzheimer first saw plaques and tangles it was using his state-of-the-art microscope. Ever since then we have been chasing plaques and tangles to fight this cognitive scourge. And we went about this in a similar way to researching old age. We only looked at people who had these plaques and tangles. So, guess what we found? Plaques and tangles!

What we didn’t know that we didn’t know (and couldn’t have known because we didn’t have the tools!) was that the brain is far more complex than what could be seen on those slides and the disease itself has more to do with underlying genetics and proteins than the residual glop that seems to clog and interfere with memories.

Literally every day we are discovering new things about how the brain works in people who are young, people who are old and people who have all kinds of different diseases. This is increasing the data set that will give us more information so that we can begin to re-think how to think about Alzheimer’s. This, in turn, will give us a different way of seeing the problem and allow for a different understanding.

A Different Way of Seeing

And a different way of seeing so often is what frees our mind from its habits. This week also saw the first pictures come back from the James Webb camera now happily in orbit around our sun 1.5 million kilometers away. The camera itself was a product of out-of-the-box thinking and the pictures we now have in front of us require that we re-think what we thought we knew about the universe . . . about what we thought we knew about time . . . about what we thought we knew about our beginnings and what our ending is going to look like.

What was believed to be true about our Universe when taught long ago to Pali students or in the Latin Lyceum is now considered quaint mythology. The challenge the great mariners of the 15th and 16th centuries had to overcome was an unquestioned belief that they would fall off the edge of the earth. We now find it humorous that such things were believed. But it wasn’t all that long ago when faced with pictures of footprints on the moon, that conspiracy theorists created an equally fantastical explanation that the whole thing took place on a secret Hollywood stage.

Letting Go and Just Not Knowing

It is ironic that we hold fast to beliefs, sometimes well-past their shelf life. This is true about aging. Take some time to explore what you “know” about growing old. Challenge what you take as being “true” and see what else is out there. Do pay attention to your feelings, but don’t rely on them as the sole indicator of what you should or shouldn’t believe.

And remember, there are lots of things you think you know, and you just don’t.

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