Focusing on differences, while often stimulating, is just not as satisfying long-term. Certainly, discerning differences enhances survival… up to a point. For example, being able to distinguish a snake from a crooked stick is a survival advantage. On the other hand, imagining mountains of difference out of actual molehills of similarity is clearly counterproductive and stressful. The recent Science News article on human relationships, Getting to not know you: Young couples are better than long-term partners at discerning each other’s preferences, offers evidence of the wisdom to let molehills remain molehills, or as they say, let sleeping dogs lie.
BASEL, Switzerland — Long-lasting marriages may thrive on love, compromise and increasing ignorance about one another. Couples married for an average of 40 years know less about one another’s food, movie and kitchen-design preferences than do partners who have been married or in committed relationships for a year or two, a new study finds.
Note the subtitle of the article: “Young couples are better than long-term partners at discerning each other’s preferences“. Cultural bias is creeping into this research right from the start. If you think it is better to discern things more sharply, that skews your understanding in that direction as these excerpts go on to show:
The psychologists observed this counter-intuitive pattern in 38 young couples aged 19 to 32, and 20 older couples aged 62 to 78. “That wasn’t what we expected to find, but this evidence lends support to a hypothesis that accuracy in predicting each other’s preferences decreases over the course of a relationship despite greater time and opportunity to learn about each other’s likes and dislikes,”
In long relationships, partners may also come to perceive an unduly large amount of similarity between themselves, the scientists add. Members of long-term relationships often attributed their own food, movie and design preferences to partners who had different opinions.
In the case of food, taste perception suffers as people get older, Hertwig notes, which could make it more difficult for long-term partners to keep track of each others’ increasingly inconsistent food likes and dislikes.
It’s also possible that older couples in the new study come from a generation in which men and women generally knew less about each other to begin with than couples do today, Hertwig says.
What’s more, long-term partners may be especially apt to tell “white lies” to each other in order to keep the relationship running smoothly, thus diluting their knowledge of one another.
Despite their relative disadvantage in predicting partners’ preferences, long-term couples reported more satisfaction with their relationships than did younger couples.
The following letter to the editor points to some of what the researchers overlooked:
Over time, it gets complicated
After reading “Getting to know you less and less” (SN: 11/6/10, p. 16), I felt the researchers’ assumptions were incomplete. So I asked my wife of 42 years what her favorite color was. Her response was just as I expected: “I don’t have a favorite color,” she said, “only a range of colors.” This was true for me also. Thus, I think that one factor is not that couples get to know each other less the longer they’ve been together, it is that over the years they experience more and more things, and their likes and dislikes are more complicated than when they were young. Each partner then is less likely to know what the other likes because the other has no simple answer.
Frankly, I would say it’s not “more complicated”, it is just less sharp. As we get older, we become more adept at knowing nothing as chapter 10 hints, When your discernment penetrates the four quarters, are you capable of not knowing anything? As one’s days dwindle, “soften the blightness, be the same as dust” comes more naturally… naturally. Admittedly though, explaining that can get “complicated”. The article, Getting to not know you, while accurate in facts, lacks perspective, and without that, we merely go around in circles I feel.
Too much of a good thing
The Science News’ article, Making Nuanced Memories, offers another angle to illustrate the common bias of ‘better’ in regards to memory. It points out that the better our memory, the keener we can discern things. I suppose we place such a high value on memory because it gives us an extraordinarily competitive edge on this planet. Here again we may have a case of accurate fact, erroneous interpretation. It is not easy to realize when we have reached a ‘too much of a good thing’ tipping point. Perhaps our attraction to alcohol comes from a need to turn down memory’s glare.
“We are closer to understanding how memories are truly formed and stored in the brain,” says Craig Stark, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. “If we want to try to help get better memories, we’d darn well better know how the system works.”
Once the cells finish maturing, they integrate into the rest of the hippocampus, where they remain for a lifetime. “Most of the dentate gyrus is formed after birth,” Gage says. “A lot of it is formed in the first four years of life. That’s when you’re getting your baseline of memories. Then a low level of neurogenesis persists.”
“New neurons are helping to distinguish between events that are close to each other,” Gage says. Let’s say someone offers you a banana. The dentate gyrus records the fact that you’ve just seen a yellow tropical fruit. “It’s like a bar code,” he says. “You put the bar code of the banana into the dentate. It’s coded with lots of information.” When you see another banana, the dentate will determine whether it’s the same one. But if the next fruit is an apple, the dentate doesn’t get excited, Gage says, because the difference is so big you know it’s not déjà vu.
An eye for subtlety Neurogenesis appears to slow in old age, perhaps explaining why the elderly have trouble telling a new but similar image (outlined in green) from a previously seen version. In one study (graph), older adults were more likely to label such images as “old,” thinking they’d been seen before, while the young correctly pegged the images as “similar.”
Stark and others are now trying to understand why short-term memories become more difficult to capture as people get older, even among adults who remain mentally sharp into their later years. In 2010, in Hippocampus, Stark and his colleagues described evidence of a sluggishness in new neurons that arise in the dentate gyrus of aged brains. In older tissue, the newborn nerve cells appear to require greater contrasts among images and experiences before reacting and capturing a memory. As people age, Stark says, “we seem to be less good about details and specifics.”
But researchers are also exploring ways to keep newborn neurons of old age as numerous and eager as those formed in younger years. First, scientists are identifying influences that, in animal studies, appear to decrease neurogenesis in the dentate. “Exercise is the strongest neurogenenic stimulus I know of,”
‘What Is Naturally So’
If challenged, few could really pin down what ‘natural’ is. There are many superficial definitions of natural, some are commercial like natural food, and others are spiritual like natural healing. These imply that a non-natural reality exists. Try right now to define natural without this implied ‘not natural’ devilish side. Difficult, yes?
There is transcendent beauty in a ‘natural’ that has no opposite. Chapter 1 hints at this,
Frankly, we resist or reject ‘what is naturally so’ if it doesn’t match our idealized better world. The better is nothing more than a projection of one’s self interests. These articles exemplify our natural desire for a better memory. However, feeling any transcendent beauty of ‘what is naturally so’ can only happen when we loosen our grip on the ideals of how better any situation could or should be. No wonder chapter 64 advices, Therefore the sage to desire not to desire, or chapter 19, Have little thought of self and as few desires as possible