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When Does Your Intelligence Peak?

Are we really at our smartest in our 20s? What about the wisdom and experience that come with age? At what age do we strike the right balance between cognitive ability and expertise?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
May 16, 2017
Episode #238

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My PhD supervisor, a brilliant and inspiring man, used to jokingly tell me that he had passed his prime and that it was up to me to make the Nobel-prize winning discovery for our group. After all, Albert Einstein was just 26-years-old when he wrote his paper on Special Relativity.

But are we really at our smartest in our 20s? What about the wisdom and experience that come with age? At what age do we strike the right balance between cognitive ability and expertise? When does our intelligence peak?  

Fluid Versus Crystallized Intelligence

It’s an inescapable fact that our cognitive abilities are destined to decline at some point. We will have a harder time remembering where we placed our keys or recalling the details of our favorite family story. However, our intelligence is, unsurprisingly, multi-faceted. We have fluid intelligence – that’s our ability to think quickly, solve new problems, and identify patterns – but we also have what psychologists call crystallized intelligence, which reflects our learned knowledge and ability to relate to our surroundings. These two forms of intelligence are thought to peak at different times in our lives.

In fact, in a recent study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Harvard and MIT found that even different aspects of fluid intelligence peak at different ages. Additionally, they found that there is not an age when even most of our brain’s abilities are at their peak.

The study, led by Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine and funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, utilized a series of online cognitive games and tests available for anyone to try. This easy access dramatically increased the number of participants over a range of ages and thus formed the basis for the uniqueness of the new research. Historically, finding participants that are past college age but pre-retirement (in other words, roughly between 25 and 65 years of age) that are willing and able to participate in studies that require visits to laboratories for testing has proven challenging. The online study included roughly 3 million people over its first few years, including nearly 50,000 in each individual investigation. Hartshorne and Germine also compared their results to findings from much earlier, in-person studies and found those smaller studies supported their internet-based findings.

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