As a professor of psychology specializing in how we change over time, I teach Lifespan Development, a course in which my students and I often discuss how the dimensions of development (physical, cognitive, and emotional) can influence one another. For example, lack of sleep, which is physical, can spill over into the emotional and cognitive dimensions, by making us cranky and unable to think clearly. Another example concerns dementia. Although a physical process, dementia certainly influences cognitive functioning, such as memory, as well as emotional well-being. The interactions of these dimensions illustrate how Lifespan Development is “Multidimensional”.

When I switch from my classroom instructor hat to my researcher hat, my concerns focus specifically on identity and personality development in adulthood. In this context also, it is clear that personality is multidimensional. One personality trait in particular, Openness to Experience, stands out from the rest. People who show high levels of Openness to Experience are open to new ideas, people and experiences. They tend to be curious, sensitive to aesthetics, and creative. Because people who are open to experiencing new things are likely to spend time thinking about such, they may be more cognitively stimulated than people who are more closed and rigid.

And indeed, researchers have found that older adults who are more open to new experiences have better memory ability and verbal ability (Hogan, Staff, Bunting, Deary, & Whalley, 2012; Terry, Puente, Brown, Faraco, & Miller, 2013).

It may not be so much that people who engage in high levels of cognitive stimulation experience a slower rate of cognitive decline than people who do not engage in much cognitive stimulation, but that people who engage in more mental stimulation show higher levels of cognitive ability in general.

But don’t fret too much about your specific level of Openness to Experience in the present moment. Instead, seek out more opportunities to learn new things that are likely to bolster your cognitive functioning in the long run, and may even increase your level of Openness to Experience in the future too (Curtis, Windsor, & Soubelet, 2015).

Reading, travelling, attending concerts, visiting museums, doing crossword puzzles, taking up a new hobby, engaging in a new form of physical exercise, and/or mastering new technology will likely keep us functioning better for longer – and keep us more engaged with and curious about the world. As a result, we may also become a more interesting person with whom others wish to engage.

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Curtis, R. G., Windsor, T. D., & Soubelet, A. (2015). The relationship between Big-5 personality traits and cognitive ability in older adults – a review. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 22(1), 42-71.

Hogan, M. J., Staff, R. T., Bunting, B. P., Deary, I. J., & Whalley, L. J. (2012). Openness to experience and activity engagement facilitate the maintenance of verbal ability in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 27(4), 849-854. DOI: 10.1037/a0029066

Terry, D. P., Puente, A. N., Brown, C. L., Faraco, C. C., & Miller, L. S. (2013). Openness to experience is related to better memory ability in older adults with questionable dementia. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 35(5), 509-517.

About the Author

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D.

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of Lifespan Development, Sage Publications.

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