James Birren

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James E. Birren, Ph.D., (born April 4, 1918[1] ) is one of the founders of the organized field of gerontology since the 1940s (although the term itself dates to circa 1903). He is a past president of The Gerontological Society of America, and author of over 250 publications.


Birren is known for defining aging as three distinct processes: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Birren was the founding dean of the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and founding director of the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, and after his retirement from USC was associated for many years with the UCLA Center on Aging. A leading gerontological theorist in the area of neurocognition and psychology, Birren established much of the framework of modern gerontological theory, such as "quality of life" as a multidimensional concept involving biological, psychological, and sociocultural domains.

Aging and Slowing of Behavior

It has been over a hundred years since Francis Galton observed that older persons responded more slowly than the young. Since then, Birren and colleagues demonstrated that slowness of behavior with age has become the most robust phenomenon seen in research on aging. The weight of evidence suggests that slowness of behavior with advancing age is a general process, which is most likely of a biological nature. In addition, speed of behavior may be viewed as a reliable marker of aging. General slowing of behavior with age is related not only to biological changes in the CNS, but also to speed of cognitive functions. One of the consequences of slowing in humans is vulnerability, accidents and falls. In animals slowness leads to vulnerability to predators. Thus slowness in general is a major contributor to shortening length of life.

The explanation of the cause of slowness with age primarily focuses on the central nervous system where several changes contribute, e.g., loss of brain cells, pathological interferences with conduction, and reduced neurotransmitters. However, general slowing of behavior is a complex process and its causes need to be further studied leading to interventions.

Reference: Birren, J.E. & Fischer, L.M. (1995). Aging and speed of behavior: Possible consequences for psychological functioning. Ann. Rev. Psychol., 46, 329-353.

Counterpart Theory

In 1960, James E. Birren, the Nestor of American gerontology, presented a general theory of aging as a counterpart of development. The use of the metaphor counterpart is meant to express the idea that there are latent structures of behavior (emotions, cognitions, and motivations) carried forward from earlier experiences that interact with present situations. Aging is viewed as a transformation of the biological and behavioral development of the organism expressed in a counterpart manner in variable ecological contexts.

Observations of old persons suggested that there is a pattern to the changes that occur in late life, which are not merely due to happenstance or chance. In explanation of these late-life patterns of change, Birren noticed that natural selection as an explanatory mechanism was not very obvious since some of the patterns or features in old persons (organisms) do not appear until long after the age of reproduction has passed. He concluded, therefore, that these regularly appearing features (including longevity) must be a consequence of traits that were selected for at the time of reproduction. Briefly summarized, Birren’s counterpart theory states that any biologically based order in late-life characteristics must arise in association from counterpart characteristics of development that were subject to pressures of selection.

Birren pointed out that behavioral factors can be involved in the counterpart process, that is, patterning of late-life events could arise via natural selection of long-lived and intelligent persons. For example, although individual differences in longevity do not appear until long after reproduction has been completed, intelligent, long-lived parents are able to provide an environment in terms of food and protection that is favorable for their young to survive. In other words, counterpart theory advocates indirect selection for positive late-life characteristics that embrace a wide range of complex biological (e.g. potential for a long life) and behavioral (e.g., intelligence) characteristics. As such, counterpart theory expanded the classical hill metaphor of development and aging to include questions about their relationships and how behavior comes to be organized over the adult years of life, if not over the whole life span.


Birren, J.E. (1960). Psychological aspects of aging. Annual Review of Psychology, 11, 161-198.

Schroots, J.J.F. Theories of aging: Psychology (2007). In: J.E. Birren (Ed.), Encyclopedia of gerontology; Age, aging and the aged (2nd Edition; Volume 2 , pp. 611- 620). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Historic significance[edit]

James Birren is considered "one of the reigning pioneers of gerontology," by the American Society on Aging.[2] He was instrumental in the growth and expansion of the field of gerontology in the 1950s, and his career has now spanned six decades.

Birren received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University and began his research career at the Naval Medical Research Center. In 1947, he joined the U.S. Public Health Service in Baltimore and did research on aging at the Gerontology unit. Birren attended the very first meeting of GSA, The Gerontological Society of America in 1948 at the Hotel Commodore in New York. As he quips, "The hotel where the first GSA meeting was held has been torn down, but I'm still here." In 1950, he joined the National Institute of Mental Health and created the first section on aging. In 1964, he became the Director for the Program on Aging for the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development. Jim moved to the University of Southern California in 1965 where he remained until 1989. There he was the founding director of the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center. In 1989, Jim moved to UCLA, where he remained as the Associate Director of the UCLA Center on Aging until he retired in 2003.

Birren's early research had an experimental base and he studied cognitive change and aging. Since developing the course Guided Autobiography more than thirty years ago, he has devoted much of his time and energy in the area of autobiographical studies.

James Birren's accomplishments and awards are too numerous to mention in prose (see partial list below). Most recently, he received the Exemplar Practice Award at the International Reminiscence and Life Review Conference in 2005. In 2004, Birren was presented with the "Ollie Randall" award by the National Council on Aging and was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the American Society on Aging (ASA). In addition to more than 250 publications in academic journals and books, Birren is Series Editor for the internationally recognized handbooks on aging, e.g., The Handbook on the Psychology of Aging. The handbooks are currently in their sixth edition. He has written two books specifically on Guided Autobiography: Guiding Autobiography Groups for Older Adults with D. Deutchman (1991) and Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography with K. Cochran (2001).

Jim Birren, at the age of 96, still works with his close associate since 1998, Cheryl Svensson PhD, the Director of “The Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies”. www.guidedautobiography.com The Birren Center was created in 2001 and grew out of collaborations with a devoted group of colleagues who worked closely with Jim Birren for several years. The Center, under the guidance of Dr. Svensson, carries on the legacy of James Birren and is dedicated to enriching the lives of adults through writing, sharing, and preserving their life stories and life experiences. The program provides opportunities for education, research and dissemination of information to professionals who are engaged in the fields of life review and aging. For the past five years, Cheryl Svensson has conducted live, interactive online classes to train Guided Autobiography instructors worldwide. Currently, more than 200 GAB instructors have been trained.

Currently living in Thousand Oaks,CA, Jim still gives presentations on Guided Autobiography in the Southern California area as well as being the founder and mentor of the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies.

Partial list of academic and career honors:

Fielding Graduate University presented the Creative Longevity and Wisdom award to Jim Birren at the International Conference on Positive Aging in February 2013. American Society On Aging Hall of Fame Award 2004[3] James E. Birren received the Exemplar Practice Award at the International Reminiscence and Life Review Conference in 2005.

NCOA presented James E. Birren the “Ollie Randall” award in 2004.

2003 James Birren and Cheryl Svensson received the MindAlert Award from the American Society on Aging and the MetLife Foundation in the category, “Innovative Older Adult Learning Program”

James E. Birren received “The Distinguished Career Contribution Award” from the Gerontological Society of America, in Boston, November, 2002.

Brookdale distinguished scholar[4]

Gerontological Society Award for Meritorious Research[4]

1996 American Society on Aging President's Award[5]

Brookdale Foundation Award for Gerontological Research[4]

1989 Sandoz prize for Geronotological Research[4]

1990 Award for Outstanding Contribution to Biogerontology, Canadian Association of Gerontology[4]

Association for Psychological Science, William James Fellow Award[6]

1979 (shared with one other faculty member) University of Southern California Associates Faculty Award (The USC Associates Awards are the highest honors the university faculty bestows upon its members)[7]

1968 American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions[8]


  • Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups (2001), J.E. Birren & K. Cochran. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Guiding Autobiography Groups for Older Adults (1991), J.E. Birren and D. Deutchman. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Where to Go From Here (1997), J.E. Birren & L. Feldman. Simon and Schuster.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bengston, Vern (1999). Handbook of Theories of Aging. Springher Publishing Company. p. 475. ISBN 082611234X. 
  2. ^ ASA | Media Center - Press Release

External links[edit]