My mom made friends with every store clerk who ever helped her. One day, we were shopping, and she waved gaily at a young woman who lit up in recognition, dropped what she was doing and hurried over to show my mom her new pale pink leather jacket, its edges fuzzed with dyed-pink fur.
“That’s fabulous, honey,” my mom said. “You look like a streetwalker!”
Dead silence. Shocked, I shot a look at this woman who had never before said a mean-girl thing to anybody. She was still looking at her friend, an expectant little smile on her face. The woman recovered, forced a pleasant excuse, and sped away.
“Mom!” I hissed. “What the hell? You just compared her to a streetwalker!”
My mother blinked. Then it sank in, bringing a wave of distress.
“No worries,” I said, now trying to reassure her. “Maybe she didn’t even catch it?”
But could you miss it? I mean, there have been days I felt so prim and boring, I would have been delighted to be told I looked capable of enticement—but you cannot count on that response.
When we spoke the next day, my mother had already sent a fervent note of apology. How she managed to word it, I have no idea—“I really didn’t think you looked like a streetwalker”? She never walked past that counter again, and I was left to puzzle out the mystery.
I have since learned more about the loss of filter, a joke my brain will no doubt play on me, too. The archetypal curmudgeon, the Maggie Smith dowager who speaks her tart mind—these characters are not always an exaggeration of personality or the privilege of age. Sometimes they are the result of brain shrinkage.
What a terrible, inevitable phrase. Over time, our brains slowly shrink in volume and weight, and we lose, in varying degrees, our ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts and behavior. Neurobiologists locate the change in the frontal cortex, where we plan, control, and, ideally, inhibit. My mother did not suffer from dementia; she could outthink me in most situations. But age, like an excess of champagne or three nights without sleep, rendered her vulnerable just long enough for her to blurt out something that, however true (the clerk really did look ready for fun) would have been far better left unsaid.
At the University of New South Wales, Dr. William von Hippel researched this conundrum, asking why some older people speak out with what appears to be a complete lack of tact. The answer? They have lost their inhibitory ability—and may not even realize they are being rude. “The normal aging process leads to changes in the brain that have social consequences,” he told reporters. “These brain changes often do not affect intelligence, but they can affect other aspects of mental functioning, like inhibition. Thus, even older adults who are as sharp as a tack may say things that embarrass or upset us, without intending to do so. We all think inappropriate things, and we can’t be faulted for that. Perhaps aging just leads us to say more of them, and so perhaps we shouldn’t be faulted for that, either.”
Might this tendency affect elderly politicians, threatening diplomacy? Von Hippel did not take that up, but he did find that older participants were more likely to blurt a potentially embarrassing question in a public place. “Perhaps older people are not being intentionally blunt or inappropriate,” he concluded, “but rather have become socially inappropriate against their will.” Loss of inhibition can make them garrulous, spilling all sorts of information to scam artists as they chatter. They are “more likely than younger people to voice socially unpopular ideas,” including stereotypes, because they arrive at old age laden with prejudices they no longer have the mental energy to conceal. Those who tend toward depression have a harder time suppressing bleak thoughts. Gambling can become a real problem, too—especially late in the day, when people are less mentally alert.
Scientists know all this, yet conventional wisdom holds fast. We still roll our eyes at curmudgeons, grin at impolitic remarks, rebuke elderly relatives for taking such liberties. On an online forum, a woman writes: “Yeah, I think the decrease in use of the ‘filter’ that often comes with age is more of a choice than an actual loss of impulse control.” Her mother, she insists, is “frank by choice.” A seventy-year-old man tells Quora that people with experience “know bull shit when they hear it and are usually very impatient with it. Older people are much less likely to need to please people.” Again and again, people describes the untethered state of old age—no parents to obey, no boss to please—as a satisfying and long-awaited opportunity to tell the truth.
Why are we still so fond of that explanation? Probably because it, too, is true. Old age is an odd place, a swirl of preexisting traits exaggerated by a loss of bandwidth. And personality is already a mixture of brain chemistry and character. The loss of filter is a happy coincidence between biological degradation and earned freedom, because you have indeed lived long enough to give yourself permission to speak your mind. Or maybe because you sense yourself losing control and rationalize it as a free choice?
Not my mom. She was mortified. Granted, she had been stuffing a lot of thoughts back for a long time. But after that afternoon, she guarded her tongue like a German shepherd pacing at the fence line. Somehow she was able to exert a little extra will and shore up that filter, which tells me that the brain is more plastic than we realize—or want to admit. Maybe those who lose the filter altogether really have stopped caring what people think, so have no incentive to rebuild the crumbling wall of inhibition.
The remark itself was not so surprising: My mom was always a little judgey, in private, about tacky clothes. Slender and beautiful but devoid of self-confidence, she used to copy movie-star clothes on a budget, sew whatever Doris Day wore in Pillow Talk, knot her scarf like Grace Kelly in Rear Window. Maybe if she had more confidence all along, she would have ceased to care what anyone else wore. Maybe we all need to learn how to live so generously and comfortably that our innermost thoughts, when blurted, will not carry the sting of judgment.
Maybe that is impossible.