Those senior moments
actually show a full mind
Tuesday, February 04, 2014 2:51 AM
New research shows that perhaps those senior moments aren't due to declining cognitive performance. Instead, it may be because as people age, their minds become more full, taking longer to make the connections as it filters through all the information accumulated over the years.
Most studies show memory's speed and accuracy begin to slip around age 25 and continue a downward slide. The finding that the brain slows with age is one of the strongest in psychology, something people of a certain age would prefer to forget.
However, a New York Times piece notes a new challenge to the evidence of cognitive decline comes from an unlikely source: Data mining, based on theories of information processing. In a paper published in Topics in Cognitive Science, 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. And when the researchers incorporated that difference into the models, the aging 'deficits' largely disappeared," according to the Times.
The piece goes into much more detail, including the fact that more studies will be needed to test this theory. Still, for some readers of this column, it is comforting to know that those senior, or blank, moments may not be due to the fact your brains are slow. Instead, it is that you know so much.
I bring this up not because I have been having a deluge of senior moments. And, it's not because I'm drawing a blank on this column (OK, that may be slightly true).
Thoughts on cognitive decline came as I was getting compliments on the award for column writing from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. One of the persons asked how many awards I have won over the years.
I couldn't come up with an answer - not due to a senior moment, but because I enjoy the five minutes of fame before, as always happens in this business, another deadline looms and I file the award away with other things so I can get on with the next issue of the newspaper. Although I don't have an exact number, I do know the awards have been more frequent in recent years as I continue to edge closer to the senior citizen designation.
I imagine some of you are probably thinking that the reason for the recent awards is due to declining competency among the competition, not because I'm getting better. However, I'd like to think my writing is getting sharper as it has become more focused, even though I would have to say this has been one of the most chaotic years in my life.
It seems as if there must be some reason I feel more confident writing in recent years, despite the obstacles of age and chaos.
Could the success be merely due to the practice I have been putting in? Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers," popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of practice was the key to success, regardless of a person's natural aptitude. Anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional if he or she put in the time.
I don't exactly practice writing, but I imagine I have put in my 10,000 hours of writing over the years, which has made the exercise easier for me. Now whether I have risen to excellence is a matter of debate, but I should point out I had a lot of room to rise since standardized testing as a student showed that while my math skills were good, my verbal skills were concerning.
Of course, it isn't the writing skills that grab people's attention. It's the ideas and I enjoy exploring ideas in my columns, either by highlighting people, issues, events, or, in some cases, even my own experiences.
I don't write for contests. I don't really think of them except the one time a year they come around and grab my attention. Instead I write for our readers and their feedback, both positive and negative, is what I value.
The feedback also provides some guidance on what works, and what doesn't, as I continue on my writing journey, one I never imagined myself taking when I was embarking on a career many years ago.
Life is full of surprises, whether you are 15 or 65.
If you are closer to 15, don't rule out visions of success in an area just because you aren't a high achiever now. Any accomplishment takes hard work and lots of practice, no matter your level of competency when you start.
If you are closer to 65, now you have an answer for why you can't recall something instantly. Your mind is just too full of knowledge. As most of you have found, the answer will come in time, proving that the brain is still working well once it filters through all the information stored inside it.