Busting Myths About Human Nature

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Robot and Frank: The Importance of Being Yourself Across the Lifespan

Be yourself and do something in the world.

Is there a “normal” way to be aged? Should we want to fit in with mainstream expectations of society? Is there a “right” way for aged individuals to act? As one moves from the third age (healthy, active but past job and parenting obligations) into the fourth age (dependency, memory loss, health decline) individuality, social bonding, and a vocation can be extremely important. Despite a wide array of disagreement about what “works” to stay mentally acute across the lifespan, being one’s self is a good starting point.

In the movie Robot and Frank, set in the not-too-distant future, the lead character, Frank, is elderly and a bit of a curmudgeon. Living in relative isolation he shows signs of memory loss and confusion. His son buys him a robot health assistant. This robot is has a wide range of interactive skills and is tasked with doing whatever it takes to get Frank’s mental and physical health in good shape. Frank starts out antagonistic, but soon becomes attached to the robot. The robot is not fully sentient, at least that is what we are told, but he interacts with Frank sharing ideas, meals, and moments of contemplation. The robot is a friend. The robot recognizes that Frank needs a hobby, a project to focus his mind and ward off the looming dementia. Here is where normalcy leaves the building. 

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Frank was a former cat burglar, and the projects that he and the robot undertake involve heists. While not condoning thievery, this aspect of the movie combined with the character study of Frank himself (via his interactions with the robot) drive home a central theme: healthy humans need our individuality and strong social bonds but we also must have a calling. We need something that gives meaning and desire to our daily lives.

Frank is not like everyone else in his ideas and aspirations, especially in his drive to solve complex puzzles via difficult burglaries. Frank is outside the norm in his personality and his vocation. However, he is like everyone else in his need for companionship and self-expression. Through the course of the movie we see that the real thief is the pressure to conform to normalcy, the expected way of being a person and growing old, and it is stealing Frank’s happiness and well-being.

Normal, as measured by the average or expected mean, is not always an accurate measure of who we are or what is healthy. What we see as the “normal” way to be is impacted by the region where we live, the language or dialect we speak, and our ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic class, just to name a few factors. These all provide contexts and experiences that influence the shape of what we consider normal for humans to do. The idea that the “mean” (the middle of a probability distribution) of any human measure (social or biological) is something to strive for can be problematic. Is it better to be of average height? Average weight? Average demeanor? The concept that we all need to strive to conform to a single set of societal expectations ignores human variation and bio-behavioral diversity. This counts for aged individuals as much as for other parts of the life span. 

Being different or outside the norm is not always easy. Being alone, isolated from your peers or from people in general can have negative impacts on your psychological and physical health at any age. But, not being yourself and striving to follow your passions because of what is considered societally “normal” for your age, gender, “type,” can also be harmful. We need to find a way to make room for various ways of living and being, especially for aged individuals as they are making up a larger and larger percentage of the population. I am not arguing that that one should follow Frank’s lead and become a thief, rather I propose that we need to recognize that there are many valid ways to be human and that our health and well-being can be tied to our ability to explore those possibilities across all ages.

There is not one best way to be human and to grow old. This is a lesson that has broad support and impact across multiple fields of research and is relevant to our psychology and biology today, especially when there is so much debate about behavioral, pharmacological and psychological treatments for the aging brain (and body!).

Go see Robot and Frank if you can…It is considered outside of the norm by the Hollywood system so it will have a hard time breaking into a theater near you (unless you are lucky enough to be near a theater that is open to independent film). Also, have a read of “Neuroculture, active ageing and the ‘older brain’: problems, promises and prospects” by Williams and colleagues to get a good overview of what is out there regarding the sociological and psychological contexts of the aging brain. Be yourself and do something in the world.

Agustín Fuentes, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

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