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Science

It's Not Memory Loss - Older Minds May Just Be Fuller of Information 206

Posted by samzenpus
from the filled-to-the-briim dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes: "Benedict Carey writes in the NYT that the idea that the brain slows with age is one of the strongest in all of psychology. But a new paper suggests that older adults' performance on cognitive tests reflects the predictable consequences of learning on information-processing, and not cognitive decline. A team of linguistic researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany used advanced learning models to search enormous databases of words and phrases. Since educated older people generally know more words than younger people, simply by virtue of having been around longer, the experiment simulates what an older brain has to do to retrieve a word. When the researchers incorporated that difference into the models, the aging 'deficits' largely disappeared. That is to say, the larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word (or pair). 'What shocked me, to be honest, is that for the first half of the time we were doing this project, I totally bought into the idea of age-related cognitive decline in healthy adults,' says lead author Michael Ramscar but the simulations 'fit so well to human data that it slowly forced me to entertain this idea that I didn't need to invoke decline at all.' The new report will very likely add to a growing skepticism about how steep age-related decline really is. Scientists who study thinking and memory often make a broad distinction between 'fluid' and 'crystallized' intelligence. The former includes short-term memory, like holding a phone number in mind, analytical reasoning, and the ability to tune out distractions, like ambient conversation. The latter is accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise. 'In essence, what Ramscar's group is arguing is that an increase in crystallized intelligence can account for a decrease in fluid intelligence,' says Zach Hambrick, In the meantime the new digital-era challenge to 'cognitive decline' can serve as a ready-made explanation for blank moments, whether senior or otherwise (PDF). 'It's not that you're slow,' says Carey. 'It's that you know so much.'"
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It's Not Memory Loss - Older Minds May Just Be Fuller of Information

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  • What *I* find "interesting" is that even though old grandparents have always been saying things like "It's not that grandma's getting stupid, sweetie, it's just that when you're my age you know so much that it takes awhile to remember what you know", none of that matters if the newest generation hasn't climbed out of their dungeons to announce that they simulated the same thing on a computer. Relevance, anyone? Reverence, maybe?

    • by Concerned Onlooker (473481) on Friday January 31, 2014 @12:46AM (#46117515) Homepage Journal

      There's a word for people like you. I can't quite recall what it is at the moment, but I know there is a word for people like you.

      • by icebike (68054) on Friday January 31, 2014 @01:00AM (#46117595)

        Don't worry, it will come to you tomorrow morning.
        I've been known to blurt out answers to three day old questions, and have my geezer friends nod in agreement as if no time had passed.
        Its hard to dig up a single nugget from under under that pile of tailings I've accumulated over the years.

        • by chromas (1085949) on Friday January 31, 2014 @01:53AM (#46117779)

          Its hard to dig up a single nugget from under under that pile of tailings I've accumulated over the years.

          It's okay; you can blurt it out in three or so days when the article is re-posted.

          • by buswolley (591500) on Friday January 31, 2014 @03:00AM (#46117987) Journal
            And that is what old age does. You forget what you've said, and you say it again. Longer search time requires one to maintain the goal of the search in mind, longer. This could potentially explain the wandering phenomenon in old age, where the mind wanders and doesnt' stay on task. The search requires more investment, more time, more concentration. Any Interruption to that search will require a different search to recover the goal/search you were originally maintaining. But this search for your old goal takes a while too and, oh a pretty flower.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by umghhh (965931)
              You first say, you forget what you've said then you say it is not forgetting but being unable to complete search before new one comes. Maybe that is already a sign you know :)

              I also noticed that wandering about is (in my case) more of a character trait, than age related thing. I was mind wandering much more, when I was young. It took years till I learned, that I do and few more to learn how to control that. Learning that I do wander about was a tough part but few 'friends' were very helpful in teasing me i

          • by rts008 (812749)

            Wait a minute!
            You may be on to something with that.

            Maybe this explains all the dupes on /.

      • There's a word for people like you. I can't quite recall what it is at the moment, but I know there is a word for people like you.

        That's ok I'll ask the nurse :)

      • "I used to know all that stuff!"

        --From Goldie, around, uh, 1965? On, uh.... was it the Smothers Brothers? Or that other show? Maybe it wasn' Goldie...

        C'mon fellow geezers, help me out here!

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      I've always used it as an excuse that my brain was full, now it seems I was right.

      • by JustOK (667959)
        Yes, now we're busy determining if it's full of male or female bovine exhaust.
    • by thePig (964303)

      Does this also mean that if you sleep less, you become older fast?

    • Science does not take anecdotes. Someone has to be interested enough to do the simulation, have funding to support it, and time in the schedule.
      And, this is only a suggestion that decline can be uninvolved, not that it is.
      Put simply, your surprise is rooted in not understanding how science works, or perhaps forgetting momentarily.
      Old people know lots of true things and lots of untrue things, and we don't have researchers lining up to see which ones are which. A few yes, but not enough.

  • by Z00L00K (682162) on Friday January 31, 2014 @12:48AM (#46117527) Homepage

    And that's my experience - too many names to keep track of, too much information inflow to filter makes me forget names of people even though I recognize their faces.

    The big problem with age is that your mind gets filled up with information, and it's hard to intentionally forget stuff. Sometimes it's easier to remember old stuff than new. If there only was a way to forget some bad old stuff to make room for new...

    One way to improve the situation is to lower the time spent watching TV since that's a giant information feed. And lack of sleep impacts the memory capacity too.

    Also realize that the human brain has evolved to be an information store and an association processor to pick out a good solution for a problem based on what seems to be insufficient data. This is of course not always a blessing - it's a curse too, and that's what causes the balance between a genius and a mad man. I would like to extend the quote by Arthur Schopenhauer: "Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see." to also add "A mad man sees a target that isn't there."

    • by antifoidulus (807088) on Friday January 31, 2014 @03:15AM (#46118041) Homepage Journal
      Obligatory Simpsons:

      Homer:Marge, every time I learn something new it pushes something old out of my brain, Remember that time I learned how to make wine and forgot how to drive?
      Marge:Thats because you were drunk.
      Homer:And how
    • The big problem with age is that your mind gets filled up with information, and it's hard to intentionally forget stuff.

      Vodka.

    • by Joce640k (829181)

      One way to improve the situation is to lower the time spent watching TV since that's a giant information feed.

      Depends on what you're watching....

    • I wonder if this explains why some young people seems so damn stupid. They get fed far to much useless information constantly via the phone their eyes seem to be glued to, and it has filled up their brains.
    • makes me forget names of people even though I recognize their faces

      I do the same thing constantly, forgetting people's names despite the fact that I not only remember their faces, but their voices, past interactions I've had with them, and sometimes half their life story. You could chalk it up to my age, but I used to do the same thing in my 20's.

      • I do the same thing constantly, forgetting people's names despite the fact that I not only remember their faces, but their voices, past interactions I've had with them, and sometimes half their life story. You could chalk it up to my age, but I used to do the same thing in my 20's.

        Me too! I remember when I was waiting for the bus, and a guy I went to college with walked by. I knew who he was, but was totally blanking on his name. We talked awhile, he left, and 5 minutes later, "Scott" popped into my head.

        • by mwehle (2491950)

          Me too! I remember when I was waiting for the bus, and a guy I went to college with walked by. I knew who he was, but was totally blanking on his name. We talked awhile, he left, and 5 minutes later, "Scott" popped into my head.

          And then what? Did you finally remember the guy's name?

      • Worst case:
        The phone rings. You answer. You are asked "To whom am I speaking?" - You draw a blank.

    • by Will.Woodhull (1038600) <wwoodhull@gmail.com> on Friday January 31, 2014 @10:00AM (#46119667) Homepage Journal

      I learned some time ago to not bother with learning anything I can look up when I need it. So now I'm dependent on a bunch of brain prosthetics: shopping lists, todo lists, calendars with notes. The biggest one of all being Google.

      Now I'm more concerned with remembering how to rediscover that nugget I once knew than in trying to remember the nugget itself. If I can't get to Google, I sometimes look slow and dense in conversations with kids less than 40 years old. But so long as I've got one of my Android gadgets in reach (and charged up), I'm one of the brighter bulbs in the tool shed.

      Uh, wait a minute,.. what did I just say...

    • by Khashishi (775369)

      Shit, I really need to stop reading the internets and start meditating or something. Do I really need to fill my memory with super bowl advertisements and the latest NSA leak?

  • by Solandri (704621) on Friday January 31, 2014 @12:59AM (#46117583)
    For requiring me to take a course on Victorian-era English literature as part of my engineering degree graduation requirements? By forcing me to take the course, they literally filled my brain up with useless stuff which will accelerate the onset of age-related dementia.
    • by eyepeepackets (33477) on Friday January 31, 2014 @01:55AM (#46117791)

      As an old English/Philosophy major who really loves Victorian-era literature, I reflect your resentment. What you choose to do with this reflected image is yet another reflection. I had to have science credits, took Biology classes and have benefitted both directly and indirectly ever since. Perhaps it's an attitudinal thing?

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I don't see what elevation could possibly have to do with it.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 31, 2014 @03:31AM (#46118097)

        As an old English/Philosophy major who really loves Victorian-era literature, I reflect your resentment. What you choose to do with this reflected image is yet another reflection. I had to have science credits, took Biology classes and have benefitted both directly and indirectly ever since. Perhaps it's an attitudinal thing?

        No, it's obvious that taking science classes is beneficial to everyone. It's just the Victorian-era literature that's useless for most things.

        • by JonnyCalcutta (524825) on Friday January 31, 2014 @05:50AM (#46118441)

          How I wish I had mod points today, although not sure if I'd mod it funny or insightful ;)

        • by CODiNE (27417)

          I suppose if bits and bytes are more important to you than people that makes a lot of sense. Classic literature is classic because it's timeless in a way. People go through the same situations as their ancestors, run into the same kinds of societal limitations and attitudes.

          Every one of our lives is like part of a giant brute-force attempt to run things through every possible scenario with every temperament and mindset. So much of what we face is just a repeat of what everyone else has already gone through.

    • by Savage-Rabbit (308260) on Friday January 31, 2014 @03:17AM (#46118053)

      For requiring me to take a course on Victorian-era English literature as part of my engineering degree graduation requirements? By forcing me to take the course, they literally filled my brain up with useless stuff which will accelerate the onset of age-related dementia.

      No, that's not useless. If you were paying attention it may have forced you to learn some proper English. I'm not sure if the summary headline fits the article content completely. TFA seems to be trying to say (caveat. I'm not a psychologist and I only read TFA and parts of the paper) is something to the effect that for example: in the old days when there was no internet or the net was more limited than it is now, you had to solve your own problems and that stimulates your brain and 'trains' it. A person who has the internet at his/her disposal and solves most of their problems by hitting experts-exchange, stack overflow or some such web and benefits from hard thinking done by others does not have their brain stimulated in the same way because they don't have to remember this stuff and don't figure it out on their own. They can just book mark it whereas 20 years ago you 'd better write yourself a private howto once you solved your conundrum in case you ran into this again five years and that makes things concerning the problem it self stick a bit more than hitting [Ctrl]+[D]. If you just use search engines to search for solutions to problems the information retained probably has more (though not exclusively) to do with how to find the solution than how to figure the problem out by yourself. Basically if you are hit by tough problems when you are younger and forced solve them yourself and to exercise your brain it means that when you get older it takes you longer to remember things because you have to 'search a bigger database'. not because your brain is getting slower. Furthermore if your short term memory and analytic abilities decline with age you can make up for it with experience, expertise and 'brain training' received in your youth. Finally, as you age, you also gain the ability to notice subtle side effects of doing something as you get older that a younger person does not notice as a result of your brain being trained more and having more experience. Something like:

      Younger person: If we connect this doohickey with that thingemabomb we get effect X.
      Older person: Hmmmmm.....
      Younger person: (impatiently annoyed) What!
      Older person: Well, that's true but if somebody then presses button A while dohickey is in state Y the thingemabob will short out.
      Younger person: (slightly embarrased) Oh, yeah right.

    • by JakartaDean (834076) on Friday January 31, 2014 @03:19AM (#46118059) Journal

      For requiring me to take a course on Victorian-era English literature as part of my engineering degree graduation requirements? By forcing me to take the course, they literally filled my brain up with useless stuff which will accelerate the onset of age-related dementia.

      As an engineering graduate of 1986, I joined a group of classmates a couple of years ago on a visit to the Dean, who asked us what we would change, looking back, in the curriculum. There were two answers common to all of us: project management and English writing. We are all in management now, not practical engineering, and need words more than we need numbers and formulae. An English writing course should be required for all pure and applied science majors, in my opinion.

      And I think you should have paid more attention in your one class: literally doesn't mean what you think it does.

      • by umghhh (965931)
        so a group of classmates decide what was missing in the course you took 30ya. I doubt this 'if we did it again we should have learned this and that too' approach. It is counterproductive as it is pure waste of time for majority. I wonder for instance about these two things:
        1. How big part of your original group was this visiting party? Do you think all of them would need this English writing course now?
        2. How applicable would this English writing course be now - things change, ways of communicating do too. We
        • by martyros (588782)

          Indeed: if you look at m-w or any other dictionary then you may notice that the modern use have two opposite meanings. That belongs to the richness and sophistication of modern language.

          No, that's because most dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive: they're trying to help people understand what someone might be saying, not trying to tell you what the right answer is. And in general, I agree with them -- language is defined by its speakers and develops over time.

          But the fact is that using "l

        • by Valdrax (32670)

          Indeed: if you look at m-w or any other dictionary then you may notice that the modern use have two opposite meanings. That belongs to the richness and sophistication of modern language.

          No, it speaks to a word that has literally lost all useful meaning.

          I'll leave it to you to figure out what I meant by that.

      • by u38cg (607297)
        >>literally doesn't mean what you think it does.

        Oh yes it literally does... [oxforddictionaries.com]

        • by omnichad (1198475)

          Only in the sense that any group of people can force a word to mean something new if they use it wrong long enough. There is no central authority for the English language, so majority rules. It's just a shame when a word's new meaning is because people have been using it wrong for so long.

          • by u38cg (607297)
            The use of literally as an intensifier has been documented since the 17th century. It is literally time to get over it. Congratulations, you're a pedant. Well done. Take a few seconds to pat yourself on the back.
      • by Viol8 (599362)

        " There were two answers common to all of us: project management and English writing. We are all in management now, not practical engineering, and need words more than we need numbers and formulae"

        Seriously? If you're a graduate who couldn't write properly then shame on you. As for a project management section - what a waste of time. For a start not everyone wants to go into management - I didn't out of choice as even the thought of it depresses me - and secondly engineering course should be about engineeri

      • by martyros (588782)

        There were two answers common to all of us: project management and English writing. We are all in management now, not practical engineering, and need words more than we need numbers and formulae. An English writing course should be required for all pure and applied science majors, in my opinion.

        I represented computer science at an elementary-school tech fair a few months ago. Many of the students had been given papers they were supposed to fill out by asking us questions; one of the questions was, "How oft

      • And I think you should have paid more attention in your one class: literally doesn't mean what you think it does.

        Yes it does, his brain is so small it was completely filled by the literature course, leaving no room for the ability to type insightful comments to /.

    • They're not talking about dementia. The kind of "senior moments" they're talking about may seem similar, but it's a different thing. There are studies that show that if you keep learning, it helps *stave off* dementia. Slow, but sure.

    • by gtall (79522)

      Ah, so they attempted to prevent you from turning into the unidimensional being you've become, shame on them. What do people do for fun in your dimension?

  • ...um... annotation.

  • Twenty questions (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Okian Warrior (537106) on Friday January 31, 2014 @01:00AM (#46117597) Homepage Journal

    Jeff Hawkins [wikipedia.org] pointed out that the game "twenty questions" is popular and significant. In twenty yes/no questions you can identify one million objects or concepts (2^20 = 1024*1024).

    He conjectured that the reason the game isn't "twenty five questions" or any other number is that the data capacity of the human brain is about this much. By the anthropic principle, we use twenty questions because a game with any other number would be too easy or hard.

    (Perhaps the game is interesting because our brains hold 2 million concepts, giving the game a 50% chance of success. While arguable, this is still predicts a range of "about a million" concepts for the fully loaded brain.)

    This number (and the conjecture) has stuck with me. The idea that you can build a culturally literate [wikipedia.org] mind - with the ability to understand a political speech, read a newspaper article, apply for a job - would take an understanding of only about a million concepts.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      By the anthropic principle

      I don't think that means what you think it means.

    • He conjectured that the reason the game isn't "twenty five questions" or any other number is that the data capacity of the human brain is about this much

      Huh? Haven't you ever continued the game until the person won? In the car as kids we'd regularly get into the mid-30's with unique questions.

      Perhaps I miss your point.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

  • When I was a kid I snapped out fast answers and interrupted everyone because I knew I was right.

    I'm coming close to being half a century old, and yes, I do stop and try to dumb things down for my nephews.

    My parents were dumb when I was a kid, and now they show me how i might of been a bit less smarter than I thought I was. With age comes wisdom.

  • With all the brainwashes we get from ads, TV, reality shows and political meetings, how could we be "information fuller"?
  • by wherrera (235520) on Friday January 31, 2014 @01:54AM (#46117785) Journal

    A story is told about ichthyologist David Scott Jordan. Jordan and a colleague were walking across campus one day when a student asked Dr. Jordan a question, which, upon answering, Jordan asked the student's name. Jordan's colleague asked him why he didn't remember his student's names. Jordan replied, "Every time I remember the name of a student, I forget the name of a fish!"

  • by mendax (114116) on Friday January 31, 2014 @02:35AM (#46117913)

    ... as I get older I find that I get wiser. But it also fills up with useless information. The next time someone says to me, "You're full of shit," they may be accurate for a change.

  • Note that it is not a fact. It's only that some activation model that is sensitive to the number of items in word memory is compatible with slowing down with age. That's interesting, but the paper does not present a working model of human lexical memory, as it basically selects words based on trigrams and some mysterious weight parameter. This does not seem to be compatible with the literature on priming, interference, or multilingualism without heavy modification (which will undoubtedly change the outcome

  • Why is the sky blue?
    Grade school student - because it is.
    High school student - dust.
    Undergraduate - Rayleigh scattering
    Postgraduate - an answer that spans a few dozen pages.
  • by synaptik (125) * on Friday January 31, 2014 @03:03AM (#46118005) Homepage
    We can't bust heads like we used to, but we have our ways. One trick is to tell 'em stories that don't go anywhere - like the time I caught the ferry over to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for my shoe, so, I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. Give me five bees for a quarter, you'd say. Now where were we? Oh yeah: the important thing was I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. They didn't have white onions because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones...
  • by kaur (1948056) on Friday January 31, 2014 @03:49AM (#46118147)
    I play Scrabble.
    Both in my native language (Estonian) and in English.
    I am much much MUCH faster in English Scrabble than in Estonian one. I believe the reason to be the same. Picking a word from my limited English vocab is fast. Working through all resources of my native language takes time.
    As a result, I can beat most native English speakers in a timed game simply because of my speed, whereas my native Scrabble skills are mediocre at best.
  • Maybe they just need to find a way to delete unwanted or unneeded info then defrag and reindex the brain.
  • I guess it can all be explained if you consider the human brain to be a Windows machine running Access.
  • by JustOK (667959)
    The post is fine and all, but I wish they would post a story about a study into the age effects on the brain.
  • We'll take amnesia pills every 5-6 decades or so.

  • by reboot246 (623534) on Friday January 31, 2014 @05:58AM (#46118459) Homepage
    I saw this once on a t-shirt:

    "I really do know it all.
    I just can't remember it all at once."

    I'll be 61 in a few weeks, and I don't know it all yet. But I'm close, really close now!
  • by some old guy (674482) on Friday January 31, 2014 @06:30AM (#46118531)

    I love to read the little young snerts sounding so clever in their cock-sure certainty that in their Peter Pan worlds they can ridicule and mock those of greater age with impunity.

    Guess what, snotty? You are nothing but a geezer in training, awaiting your inevitable turn. The only escape? Premature death.

    How's that aging thing working for ya?

  • So from the data collected they should be able to calculate the big-O order of growth of the brain when it searches for words?

  • Fuller of information?

    Is it just me, or did that topic title make you cringe? So I guess my mind treats information like a fuller treats wool?

    Here is an article about fullers:
    Wool industry [uakron.edu]

    Also, things cannot be 'fuller' than full. Things are full or they are not. And even then, it would be 'more full' not fuller.
  • The real reason you don't remember as many new things as you get older, is that you realize just how useless most of the stuff you already remember is.

  • by AnalogDiehard (199128) on Friday January 31, 2014 @09:13AM (#46119299)
    My brain is full [wordpress.com]
  • This reminds me of a section of Jeff Hawkins' books On Intelligence. In chapter 6, How the Cortex Works, on p. 115 he says,

    "Think about information flowing from your eyes, ears, and skin into the neocortex. Each region of the neocortex tries to understand what this information means. Each region tries to understand the input in terms of the sequences it knows. If it does understand the input, it says, "I understand this, it is just part of the object I am already seeing. I won't pass on the details." If a
  • Years ago, I read about a theory that stated the 'mind' only has a finite memory capacity. So at aged 10, e.g., it looks like this

    |_|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|_|

    Each year gets condensed into an even smaller space as you get older - the longer you live, the more the brain condenses the information - and it is not stupid, it only saves the 'memorable' stuff such as the first time you had sex, got drunk, broke a leg etc.

    So by the time you are fifty, you have 50 years crammed in that small space - and a lot of i
  • The counterargument would be to pit healthy 20-somethings against other healthy 20-somethings with vastly different amounts of accumulated knowledge. Does a young rabbi who can recite the whole Torah verbatim have less fluid intelligence than someone who never read a book? Do trained London cabbies with immense knowledge about routes (and who have objectively larger brain structures after they commit all this rote memorization) have less fluid intelligence than their age-peers? The "old people just know mor

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