How Researchers Studying the Aging Brain Have It Wrong
“[[B.F.] Skinner’s memory and analytical skills were also declining during the years when I knew him. Sometimes he had no recollection of a conversation we had had only days before.”
“The sad truth is that even normal aging has a devastating effect on our ability to learn and remember, on the speed with which we process information, and on our ability to reason.”
– Robert Epstein, “Brutal Truths About the Aging Brain,” Discover, October 2012
Epstein began his article by noting how brilliant American psychologist B.F. Skinner was in his younger years. Decades younger than his friend Skinner, Epstein assessed the brain power of the older man based on what his brain capabilities were as a younger man, and on what his own brain abilities were at the time.
The decline of Professor Skinner’s brain, Epstein noted (also in the title of the article) was “brutal.” But was that conclusion reasonable?
Others have written about how muddled Albert Einstein became in his latter years, jumping around intellectually as he tried to find the ultimate theory of everything, justifying quantum physics and relativity at once. Einstein questioned and doubted everything, even his own work. He was considered, though a great scientist in his younger years, progressively confused as he aged. Was that fair?
I am not suggesting that we should acknowledge older people for what they accomplished in the past and ignore their apparent cognitive decline. I am saying that younger scientists and writers have very little understanding of the capacity and new abilities of the aging brain.
There is little doubt that older people are not capable of the same skills at the same levels as they were when they were younger. Does that mean that younger writers should consider them goofy old farts because they don’t understand the abilities of the older brain?
Are older people stupider than they were when they were younger, or than their counterparts a generation or two younger? There, that’s as brutally candid as I can make it. Many people believe that, so lets lay it out and examine it.
The reasoning used by younger brain researchers is flawed, just plain illogical. Why? The reasoning is based on an unacceptable premise. To pass the test of logic, we must begin with an acceptable premise.
Do we claim that septuagenarian men dress poorly because they don’t wear the same styles of clothing as teenage boys or twenty-something men? Of course not, that would be a ridiculous comparison. Nor do most of us accept criticism of teenage boys by 70-year-old men that the young ones dress wrong. They each dress to suit their needs.
It’s the same kind of reasoning scientists use to claim that other life forms are not as intelligent as we humans. They begin with the assumption that humans are the most intelligent animals (never giving a first thought to the intelligence of plant life), then compare what other animals can do (more often can’t do) as well as humans. The assumption–the premise of a logical argument–is wrong, unacceptable.
Please try this. Name one activity that any animal does–any one at all, for any animal–that a human can do as well. I have asked that question many times, in many places, to many people and not received a reply. Each animal can do what it needs to do to survive. Does survival not show intelligence?
If humans cannot do anything as well as any animal does as part of its normal course of life, does that make humans less intelligent than every other animal? That is the method of reasoning brain researchers and journalists use.
A common test to show memory decline as people age is for the researcher to read a list of 15 words, then ask the testee to say as many of those words as he or she can remember after a break of a few minutes. Who has to memorize random words of little relevant value? High school students. Why should someone beyond the commonly accepted age of retirement need to be able to memorize random words?
If older people ever had any real need to memorize random unassociated words, they haven’t needed that skill for decades.
Let’s keep in mind something that younger brain researchers tend to ignore. Think about how much a 20-year-old brain has learned and experienced over two decades. A huge amount, right? An 80-year-old brain has learned and experienced, and is somehow expected to remember, four times as much as the younger brain. Four times.
Ask an elementary school teacher how often some facts and skills must be taught and learned by kids in their classroom, because the kids forget. Somehow we accept that. But if someone aged 85 can’t remember where he left his car keys, he is considered to be “losing it.” In total value to a life, which is more important to remember, an arithmetic skill such as how to add or where someone left their keys? A little value perspective is needed.
Of course the maxim of “use it or lose it” applies as we age. We accept that kids of high school age should be able to memorize random and unassociated facts (usually of no further value after the test), but researchers believe that old people should be able to perform the same tasks as their younger counterparts. Why? No reason.
This is wrong. This is flawed reasoning. It begins with the assumption that older brains have no value other than for what they could do when they were younger. No matter what your age today, it is highly likely that you have forgotten almost everything you learned in high school. In fact, once you pass age eleven, that ability to memorize apparently random and meaningless facts has little value.
Before age 11 you must remember because you never know when you will need to draw on the memory. Kids learn languages other than their mother tongue much easier before age 11. As they learn words, they collect them, eventually assembling them into sentences, thoughts and concepts. Kids very much need the ability to memorize apparently random information. Adults need facts to be relevant, to “fit” immediately.
Would you want to choose, at election time, among candidates who were all in their twenties to be head of state of your country? Of course not. We expect men and women who have lived through a few decades of life experiences to be wiser, to have the ability to think clearly over a wide range of topics. Or to consider a wide scope of information input on a single topic. Young brains can’t do that as well.
This is how the human brain works. A 26-year-old woman can stand beside a 66-year-old woman, looking at the same panoramic view, but see things differently. The younger woman will spot distinctive features in the view (a building, a hill, a camel), whereas the older woman will take in more of the full value of the scene (a brown pollution cloud over the city, multitudes of people gathering in a square for a particular purpose, even a sense of general activity or lack of it across the whole scene). Older and younger brains perform differently.
Most people find that time seems to pass faster as they get older. Why? The older brain is able to sustain thought and work on several different subjects within the same time period. Younger people tend to focus their thought and activity on one or two main things at a time. A retired person may be involved with several different activities, turning their attention to each in its time. Even young people learn that time seems to pass faster when they are busy. The older brain, for many people, is always busy.
Generally speaking, we expect an older head of state to provide better guidance to our country than a younger person could give. We value the words of wiser older clerics who speak to us in our places of worship more than we would of younger people. Younger parents will expect tips about raising children from their own parents, who are older and more experienced, more than they will from the teenager next door.
There can be no doubt that some older people are dumb, even dumber than they were when younger. That is practice (atrophy). But look around you at the behaviour of teenagers and young adults to see that they do some pretty stupid things as well. Older people do not dominate when it comes to dumbosity. (Yes, I invented that word and have used it for years because the language needed a word with that meaning.)
B.F. Skinner, at age 70, may not have had the ability to do the kind of ground breaking research he did at age 20. He did, however, have the ability to teach a younger generation how to take his basic research to much greater heights.
Albert Einstein developed his concepts of relativity and gravity when he was young. In his latter years, he struggled unsuccessfully to find a “theory of everything” that would unite his work with that of quantum physics. Yet look at the legacy of work by those he inspired, taking physics far beyond anything imaginable in Einstein’s youth. People today are inspired by the older Einstein, not the younger man.
That’s how life is supposed to work. The older brain has a purpose the younger brain has trouble conceiving. When a younger person thinks an older person is “losing it,” we call that ageism. In my country, discriminating on the basis of age is a criminal offence.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book of solutions and tips that parents and teachers can use to help their children avoid the social problems they see in every community today.
Learn more at http://billallin.com