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> Fossilization
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The way your mind operates changes as you get older. It's well known, for example, that before age 10 or so, you learn new languages not only more easily but also in a fundamentally different way, so that you understand them as a native rather than as a foreigner. It's less well known, I think, that another such transition occurs around age 30. Afterward, it's more difficult to learn anything … or, since to learn is to change, it's more difficult to change. In other words, the mind changes more slowly.

The transition isn't necessarily abrupt. For me, I imagine it started just after my junior year of college, when I was 21. Before that, I could learn things almost without effort! (And, in case you're wondering, no, I didn't even touch beer until much later.) On the other hand, even if the transition is gradual, taking years and years, that doesn't mean it can't add up to be qualitative in the end.

So, the way I see it, you have thirty years to adapt yourself to your environment, to become whatever it is you're going to become, and then you're stuck, and had better hope your environment doesn't change too much.

I suspect that most of the reason the phenomenon isn't well known is that there's no standard name for it. So, for my own use if nothing else, I decided to pick one … that is, to pick a verb that I could then make into a noun. I was quite tempted by “ossify”, which my dictionary defines as follows.

  1. To change into bone; become bony.
  2. To become set in a rigidly conventional pattern.

That second definition is pretty good, except for the idea of the pattern being conventional, but what I really liked was a joke: if your mind has ossified, then obviously you're a bonehead, right?

Since the phenomenon is a transition, I thought maybe I could name it after some kind of phase transition, but none of the verbs were quite what I wanted. “Crystallize” is no good, because it implies becoming clearer and more organized; “freeze” is better, but gives the wrong idea about abruptness; “congeal” is better still, but I just didn't like it, and of course it doesn't have a nice familiar noun form. (And, amusingly, it's just the Latin word for “freeze”.)

I also liked the idea of making an analogy to window glass, because glass is such a great example of a quantitative change becoming qualitative. Unfortunately, that didn't lead to any good names. Even worse, I'm not sure of the facts. The change from liquid to glass may be a real transition; and the idea that glass flows downward, which makes the example appealing, is apparently a myth. (Myths and urban legends are good examples of viral memes.)

In the end, as you already know, I settled on “fossilize”. Here's the transitive form from my dictionary, because for some reason there's no intransitive form given for the second definition.

  1. To convert into a fossil.
  2. To make outmoded, rigid, or fixed.

The part about being outmoded isn't quite right, but it's not far off—that's what happens if the environment changes. (And if the environment changes too much, you die, and some future archaeologist digs you up, which makes you a fossil. Did you know that “fossil” derives from the Latin “fodio”, “I dig”?)

It would have been nice to find a word that hinted at the transition being one of a series, sort of like the transitions from larva to pupa to adult in insects. I guess you can't have everything.

Now, in case you don't believe that fossilization is real, I found a bit of evidence for it. First, there's proverbial evidence.

You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Second, there's the experience of mathematicians, who know that if you're going to discover something fundamentally new, you'll probably do it before age 30. Here's some detail about that, from A Beautiful Mind.

What an irony that mathematicians, who live so much more in their minds than most of humanity, should feel so much more trapped by their bodies! An ambitious young mathematician watches the calendar with a sense of trepidation and foreboding equal to or greater than that of any model, actor, or athlete. The Mathematician's Apology by G. H. Hardy sets the standard for all laments of lost youth. Hardy wrote that he knew of no single piece of first-rate mathematics done by a mathematician over fifty. But the age anxiety is most intense, mathematicians say, as thirty draws near. “People say that for better or worse you will probably do your best work by the time you are thirty,” said one genius. “I tend to think that you are at your peak around thirty. I'm not saying you won't equal it. I would like to think that you could. But I don't think you will ever do better. That's my gut feeling.” Von Neumann used to say that “the primary mathematical powers decline at about twenty-six,” after which the mathematician must rely on “a certain more prosaic shrewdness.”

Finally, there's a quote from William James' The Principles of Psychology that I stumbled on entirely by accident (via an old edition of Familiar Quotations).

It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

I'm not sure I agree that fossilization is a good thing, though.

So much for evidence. Now all I have left is some random thoughts.

Here's a nice view of fossilization that is, I think, not entirely wrong. Think of the mind as a damped oscillator, and the environment as an external force. What happens in fossilization is that the damping goes up dramatically. So, on one hand, the mind takes longer to respond to actual changes in the environment; on the other, it becomes better at ignoring random fluctuations. If fossilization is useful, and not just an accidental consequence of something else, I bet that's what it is useful for.

You have to be careful how you define the environment. If computing power is increasing exponentially, shouldn't everyone over thirty be hopelessly fossilized? I don't think so. I think the mind is capable of adapting to an environment of exponential increase, or, more likely, to an environment of wonderful technology. So, whether the increase continues or stops, I doubt we will register it as a change in the environment. But, we probably will register discontinuous changes as increasing computing power makes qualitatively new things possible.

Another thing that's well known is that time seems to pass more quickly as you get older. I think fossilization is the primary cause of that. We feel the passage of time because we change, so if we're not changing, we feel like time isn't passing. It's like when you're driving on the freeway and you wake up and notice you're further along—you were conscious of the road at the time, but you didn't form any memories, didn't change, so to you it seems that no time has passed. (All of which is disturbingly close to saying that the agent of growth is computation rather than physics—see Permutation City and its backlinks, particularly Branching.)

A secondary reason time seems to pass more quickly is that when you're older, you naturally spend more of your time caught up in routines, like work. So, if you're talking about free time, it really does pass more quickly. That reminds me of Not Enough Time, even though it's not really about the same thing.

One more thought: writing these essays advances my thinking, and so is a kind of defense against fossilization.

* * *

Here's a point that I didn't quite make clear enough: because of fossilization, you'll spend the rest of your life thinking and feeling that you're still twenty-five years old and wondering how you got into such a strange old body.

Also, here's another thing that I happened to see in Familiar Quotations, this time from Faust. It's out of context, so I don't know what it's supposed to mean, but I thought you might get a laugh out of it anyway.

Once a man's thirty, he's already old,
He is indeed as good as dead.
It's best to kill him right away.


  See Also

  Back to Neurons
  Personality Types
  Three Digits

@ August (2003)
o June (2004)