Does Age Quash Our Spirit of Adventure?

Robert Sapolsky, a distinguished neuroscientist in his 40s, had a young assistant who played different music every day, from Sonic Youth to Minnie Pearl. That made Sapolsky crazy — and curious about why his aging ears still crave the music he loved in college. Is there a certain age when the typical American passes from the novelty stage to utter predictability?

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And if you've ever felt like you're getting more predictable as you get older, this story is for you. Professor Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University is one of this country's most highly regarded and most widely read biologists.

But he's also, as NPR's Robert Krulwich found out, easily irritated. Remember the story of the princess and the pea? Well, if Professor Sapolsky was the princess, his 21-year-old assistant, a young man named Paul, was the pea.

ROBERT KRULWICH reporting:

I only know his first name. It's Paul. But when Paul was 21 a couple years ago, he became Robert Sapolsky's personal secretary, which means he sat outside Professor Sapolsky's office at Stanford University's Biology Department.

Professor ROBERT SAPOLSKY (Neuroscientist, Stanford University): He was great at what he did. He was terrific, but I realized one day that he was just utterly irritating me.

KRULWICH: Well, he was polite and he was good on the phone. That wasn't the problem.

(Soundbite of Sonic Youth)

Professor SAPOLSKY: The music he listened to.

KRULWICH: Okay, so he liked Sonic Youth. In a 21-year-old, that's excusable.

Professor SAPOLSKY: That wasn't the problem. The problem was every day he was listening to new stuff.

(Soundbite of Minnie Pearl)

KRULWICH: Monday, Minnie Pearl.

(Soundbite of Beethoven)

KRULWICH: Tuesday, Ludwig van Beethoven.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Wednesday, Klezmer music.

(Soundbite of Puccini)

KRULWICH: Thursday, Puccini.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: And Friday, pigmy hunting songs. No, let's make it pigmy love songs.

Professor SAPOLSKY: Nah. Everybody listens to pigmy hunting songs.

KRULWICH: Oh, he was leaning toward the love songs, I see.

But there's your problem.

Professor SAPOLSKY: There was nothing about him that was stuck in any rut. And this was infuriating to me.

KRULWICH: Why?

Professor SAPOLSKY: Well, because at some point, I kind of have to sit there and look at my own 40-year-old self and in terms of openness to new experience, it was not a pretty sight.

KRULWICH: No indeed. Sapolsky may be one of America's most celebrated neuroscientists, but adventure wise, the man is an embarrassment. For example, his favorite music?

Professor SAPOLSKY: Ninety percent of what I'm listening to overall is like the same tape of Bob Marley's Greatest Hits. Like, how did I become one of those people on late night TV where they sell anthologies to you and you buy them?

KRULWICH: Well, you could say this is just what happens to people who find themselves on the wrong side of 40 years old. But rather than face his own creeping decrepitude -

Professor SAPOLSKY: If you're a scientist what you get to do instead is to turn it into a scientific study.

KRULWICH: And that's what he did. This is not about me, he thought. This is about everybody. And then he decided to find out if there are ages, specific ages when a typical human being passes from the adventure novelty stage to the routine and the comfortable and the familiar. When does that happen?

So to begin, he turned - not surprisingly - to music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: We're rolling 30 minutes of nonstop music for you now. Here's Elton John, Tiny Dancer on 90.9 KCMO.

(Soundbite of Tiny Dancer)

Sir ELTON JOHN (Singer): (Singing) Blue jean baby. LA lady.

Professor SAPOLSKY: I called up 50 radio stations throughout the United States and in each case got a hold of a station manager and asked them the same two questions. What's the average age of the music you play? And, what's the average age of the people who listen to it?

KRULWICH: And then to help you follow his logic here, I did talk with Don Daniels.

You're the program director?

Mr. DON DANIELS (Program Director, 94.9 KCMO): Right. 94.9 KCMO. We're a '60s, '70s radio station.

KRULWICH: So that's Elton John, Billy Joel, James Taylor.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah. Four Tops, Temptations, the (unintelligible).

KRULWICH: And Mr. Daniels told me that in his business, the radio business, the formula they use is breakthrough minus 20. That means if, say, Billy Joel -

(Soundbite of Movin' Out)

Mr. BILLY JOEL (Singer): O'Leary is walking the beats.

KRULWICH: If Billy Joel had his big breakthrough in the -

Was it the '60s or the '70s?

Mr. DANIELS: He's a '70s guy. Not a '60s guy.

KRULWICH: Right. So if Billy Joel was red hot, say, in 1976, then minus 20 means that his first fans were born about 20 years earlier, around 1956, because, says Mr. Daniels -

Mr. DANIELS: You know, the music that you go to high school and college with becomes the music of your life.

KRULWICH: And commercial radio is built on this principle, that when you are 14 to 21 years old, that's when you're wide open to new music and that's when you find your lifelong Billy Joel or whomever. That interest gradually wanes until, Sapolsky learned -

Professor SAPOLSKY: By age 35.

KRULWICH: By age 35, if a hot new musician comes around, no matter how wonderful she is, most people don't care. Their window for musical adventure, it's closed.

(Soundbite of Movin' Out)

Mr. JOEL: Never argue with a crazy ma-ma-ma-ma -

KRULWICH: But you can keep selling Billy Joel to those '50s babies for the rest of their lives. This is our business, says Atlanta programmer Chris Miller.

Mr. CHRIS MILLER (Radio Programmer): You know, like Homer Simpson says that, you know, music achieved perfection in 1974 and, you know -

KRULWICH: I forgot about Homer Simpson.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

KRULWICH: Okay. So for music, then, the window of adventure opens from 14 to 21. It's closed by 35. Now let's switch categories. Let's do food, new food.

Sushi, for example, is still kind of new in the Midwest. When I talked to Aaron, headwaiter at Hero Sushi in Omaha, he says uncooked fish wrapped in seaweed still makes a lot of Nebraskans nervous even now.

AARON (Hero Sushi, Omaha): You know, when you tell people it's raw, they are not gung ho at all.

KRULWICH: So Sapolsky did a sushi survey.

Professor SAPOLSKY: So I called up 50 sushi restaurants through the Midwest, and you crunched the numbers there and back comes something very similar.

KRULWICH: What he found is that for first-time sushi eaters 26 and under, you are likely to try it. Twenty-six to 39, less likely, and after 39 -

Professor SAPOLSKY: Statistically, 95 percent likelihood that that's it.

Unidentified Woman: Turner Grille is open for lunch and dinner daily. We'll see you soon.

KRULWICH: No, you won't. Not if you're over 39 and you have never had sushi in Nebraska. Your adventure window for new food has closed.

Okay, one more category.

Professor SAPOLSKY: Body piercing.

KRULWICH: And in particular, tongue studs.

Professor SAPOLSKY: It was at this point that I decided that Paul needed to do the phone calls because this was way beyond me, and he called up 50 body piercing parlors.

KRULWICH: Where you can get on the phone with actual body piercers, like Chad of Venom Ink Tattoo in Maine. He pierces many tongues.

CHAD (Venom Ink Tattoo): Ten a week at least.

KRULWICH: Whoa.

CHAD: I have three belly buttons coming in today at 3:00, 3:30. You know. And I can pretty much guarantee you they're all going to be under 18.

KRULWICH: And as Chad says - and Paul confirmed this - tongue piercing is a young person's adventure. Very young. Sixteen to 23 is the time you try it, and then after 23 -

Professor SAPOLSKY: If you don't have tongue studs by then, 95 percent chance you are not going anywhere near it for the rest of your life.

CHAD: I think that's pretty accurate.

KRULWICH: But what is the difference, I don't understand, between 23 and 24, tongue wise.

CHAD: I don't know what happens. People apparently have different interests at that point, you know.

KRULWICH: So there you have it. Three different categories - music, food, tongues - in all three, our willingness to try something new, something dangerous, fades away.

Now the question is why?

Professor SAPOLSKY: That's where, you know, sort of the scientist takes over, trying to figure out what this is about.

KRULWICH: I would figure it's about your brain, at least having, you know, that when you lose brain cells after 20, you know, that there's -

Professor SAPOLSKY: No. That is pure, pure urban myth.

KRULWICH: You mean when you wake up on your 20th birthday, you don't go from adding to subtracting out of 10,000 every single day?

Professor SAPOLSKY: I would say only if you start drinking at that point, but that's a different case.

KRULWICH: So Sapolsky then looked for a psychological explanation, and from a psychologist named Simonton, he learned that some people do retain their sense of adventure but those who don't, those who become most rigid and most conservative, have two common qualities. First, they spend a long time at the same job, and second, they're good at it. They succeed.

Professor SAPOLSKY: And if you are highly accomplished, creative and you've been doing this for a long time, you wind up suffering from this horribly debilitating state, which is you've become eminent. And as soon as you become eminent, almost certainly, whatever the new exciting thing is, it means that you and your buddies are going to get knocked out of the textbooks.

KRULWICH: Therefore, if you want to stay open to novelty, don't stay in the same job too long, and don't become eminent.

Professor SAPOLSKY: Yes, or if you do become eminent, somewhere in there find the whatever to pick up and walk away from it.

KRULWICH: But beyond psychology and deeper even than brain chemistry, Sapolsky found that losing one's sense of adventure isn't just a human thing. It happens to aging bears. It happens to aging cats, to baboons.

Professor SAPOLSKY: You look at a lab rat and you look at what points in its life is it willing to try something new.

KRULWICH: And when that baby rat reaches puberty?

Professor SAPOLSKY: Suddenly, novelty is real appealing and in early adulthood, the window slams shut.

KRULWICH: Whoa. It's the same.

Professor SAPOLSKY: It's the same thing.

KRULWICH: Sapolsky, who studies stress in baboons, told me about a study that he'd read about a troop of baboons forced to move to a new territory far from home. And when they got there -

Professor SAPOLSKY: There's different plants and stuff to eat than they're familiar with, and then you get this question of who's going to try out the new foods.

KRULWICH: Well, not the old baboons. Above a certain age, like older Nebraskans looking at sushi, they would not touch plants that they had never seen before -uh uh - but guess who was willing?

Professor SAPOLSKY: It was the young ones.

KRULWICH: The young baboons not only ate the new foods, they taught their younger brothers, they taught their younger sisters to eat them, too. But the oldies, the oldies would not budge.

Professor SAPOLSKY: Exactly. It spreads downward, younger to younger animals.

KRULWICH: Just like sushi in Nebraska.

Professor SAPOLSKY: There's something just much more deeply biological about this than the purely psychological interpretations.

KRULWICH: No one can explain yet this connection between youth and novelty, but you could put the question differently. Instead of asking Sapolsky what's wrong with you, why are you getting less adventurous, maybe we should ask what's right with you? Why do so many aging creatures all over nature like repetition, like listening, for example, to Bob Marley's Greatest Hits over and over and over.

(Soundbite of One Love)

Professor SAPOLSKY: I think you get to a time in life where by definition stuff's turning to quicksand and wherever you can get some solid footing of the familiar suddenly becomes real comforting.

KRULWICH: After a while it's not just the song you love, says radioman Chris Miller, it's where the song takes you.

(Soundbite of song, One Love)

Mr. BOB MARLEY (Singer): (Singing) Let's get together and feel all right.

Mr. MILLER: I'm no neuroscientist, but I think that as time goes on, you know, something that people tell us about that music is that you know, when I hear those songs, I can see what I saw and hear what I heard and feel what I felt when I first heard them.

KRULWICH: So they become a kind of form of time travel that tells you there is something firm, something permanent, in a constantly changing world, and that feels good. The familiar makes an older person stronger, even if they're calling your favorite song an oldie.

You know what that means, too, don't you?

Professor SAPOLSKY: Yup. Dipped in bronze and put up on the mantel place.

KRULWICH: So this is a double-edged thing.

Professor SAPOLSKY: It's not pleasing.

KRULWICH: No, because in the end, Sapolsky says, while continuity may make us comfortable, it's when you dare to do that new thing - that's when you grow.

Professor SAPOLSKY: I spend most of my time by being at a university, hanging out with very manic, excited 18-year-olds. And there's a pattern I noticed among my students, and the best ones, the ones who are off teaching English in the migrant worker camps and they're the ones who are signing the petitions and they're the ones who are going to head off to the Congo in the Peace Corps afterward, and they are in a froth of trying to do something with this empowerment and this optimism.

And I look at them and I just get depressed as hell, because I always have the same thought at that point, which is it used to be so much easier to be that way.

KRULWICH: And it's when you are that way, he remembers, that an open mind is a prerequisite to an open heart.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News in New York.

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