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

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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  • by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Friday January 31, 2014 @01:48AM (#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."

  • Twenty questions (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Friday January 31, 2014 @02:00AM (#46117597) Homepage Journal

    Jeff Hawkins [] 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 [] 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 on Friday January 31, 2014 @02:01AM (#46117609)

    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.

  • by buswolley ( 591500 ) on Friday January 31, 2014 @04:00AM (#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.
  • by Savage-Rabbit ( 308260 ) on Friday January 31, 2014 @04:17AM (#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 kaur ( 1948056 ) on Friday January 31, 2014 @04:49AM (#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.
  • by umghhh ( 965931 ) on Friday January 31, 2014 @05:10AM (#46118195)
    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 into discussions because it amused them how I wander about connecting more and more of new aspects. They had golden moments of entertainment out of that which I noticed years later when I changed environment and they became less careful and more blunt. Come to think of it, this maybe the same process: my thinking was faster than the search process - I was just made that way. Reading Encyclopedia (does anybody here still knows what that is and how did it look like without looking in wikipedia or asking dr Google - young colleague of mine I interrogated on the subject yesterday, knew what that is but have never seen one) was one of the things that would help create effect by overloading brain with shit in relatively young age already. Which then leads me to the point where I think it is not really the amount of information but rather the spread of it - most people do not gather knowledge and brain is good in storing only some facets of events (sort of mp3 of nature), problems with search is much more visible when you have to search in this chain of memories and then the other etc.

    interesting subject early in the morning. I suppose I spent early ours at work thinking about that and not about verifying why the system is f.ed up again and who did it.

The only possible interpretation of any research whatever in the `social sciences' is: some do, some don't. -- Ernest Rutherford