Playing Games in Old Age

 

Old people pass their time in very different ways. My mornings are glad and confident and some work is still possible.  For long gaps between lunch and gin different solutions must be found. In dank Oxford winters Internet Chess is a fine resource.

 

old chessplayers

Even after many years  I am still delighted with the idea of playing live opponents  in Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia Iran … or in the Philippines – where they seem to be startlingly good.  As dawn and dusk terminators circle the planet people in China and India settle down for their evening games while those in the Middle-East play during their lunch breaks, North and South Americans are waking up and insomniac Australasians still struggle on. Luckily for me the world is full of weak but obsessional players. Sites1 rate  you to play people roughly of your own level so I am  in an undistinguished ruck from which I strive to get promoted. Players can message each-other during games but most are silent after a tentative “Hi” at the beginning and a polite (if often insincere) “gg” (good game) at the end.  Most of us long ago stopped exclaiming on differences in our time zones or weather but some still start brisk conversations, perhaps to distract you from your game rather than from curiosity. Most sites encourage us to provide simple personal details, such as our ages, on public bulletin space.   I recorded my actual age and am often mistaken for a jokey schoolboy feigning senility and offered ponderous patronage by kindly mature players : (“You don’t use your Queen enough” “Opening symmetry is not necessarily good”; “a Bishop Pair always wins”). Usually I am correctly weighed up by fellow geriatrics whether courteously (“Too much time to waste – just like me”) or not (“Get out of the house more, Old Man”). Anonymity has odd effects on interactions. Very rarely even apparently quiet and staid players abruptly begin heckling and abuse for no reason. There are fine moments when you nevertheless beat these trolls but this does not happen often enough. Best to use the site’s blocking facility so you do not play them again. Unexpected kindness is far more frequent – I have often been offered a draw, at some cost to my opponent’s rating,  when I am obviously losing.

You can guess some things about players from the game-names (tags) they give themselves. These are often cryptic (DX1212/A) or actual surnames and initials or nicknames. Sometimes slightly odd like “Brilliant Sunbird” or “ Scintillating Wave”; or jokey/boastful/self-deprecating  (“Grandmaster of the Universe” ); or jokey/threatening “Exterminator”, “Agonyforyou”, “Predator”, “Uloseagane; or embarrassing (”Jesus Loves You”, “God is my Saviour”; “Sword of Islam”, “My Faith – My Life”); Very rarely monikers are sociopathic ( “All Whites Filth”; “Christian Sewer Rats”; “Disgusting Towelheads”) but these are  expurgated by site managers and, of course, if you are prudent you will refuse to play against people who choose them. Though nearly all players are friendly and patient, everyone is enraged by opponents who, if their position goes bad, simply stop moving and let the clock run out. When this happens you can earn a pointless win by stolidly waiting them out or abort and accept a loss. The reactions people post on these opponents’ publicly accessible home pages range from aloof reproof (“Tedious Person”;  “Childish”; “Learn Etiquette” ) to homicidally violent ranting (“DIE stinking piece of bug s**t!” ; “Koward Douchbag!”).

 

furious chessplayer

Most players do not record their ages but my impressions of those who do suggest that about 30% are schoolchildren of 17 or under; 60% are between 18 and 55 and about 10% between 60 and 90. The few women who play can be formidable. The oldest players clearly find internet chess obsessional fun.  (Last week a 79 year old German, who often beats me, gleefully messaged “Youth Triumphs again!”).

Not all psychologists recognise how rewarding it can be to persistently do something quite difficult quite badly for the rare successes that the Greatest Rat Psychologist of All, B.F. Skinner, called “intermittent reinforcement”. Skinner seems to have been  a rather joyless person – apart from a passion for ballroom dancing – because, in his retirement he warned: “Old age is like fatigue, except that its effects cannot be corrected by relaxing or taking a vacation. Particularly troublesome is old age plus fatigue, and half of that can be avoided.  Possibly you like complicated puzzles, or chess, or other intellectual games. Give them up. ..”2 . Feelings about Chess have always been mixed. Seven hundred years ago the author of Speculum Regiale3 warned “…….beware of, and shun like the devil …. drinking, chess, harlots, quarrelling, and throwing dice for stakes”.

 

dancing mice

 

I strongly disagree with Skinner, not only because playing chess badly  often gives me much  pleasure but because playing chess in old age gives special insights into two key problems of cognitive ageing that his simplistic theory could not address:   Does maintaining high competence at one particular, difficult mental skill preserve performance on others? How far can we preserve skills that we have brought to a high level by practising them while we were young by continuing to work at them in in old age? Chess has been a goldmine of answers.

On the first point Gary Kasparov, the longest lasting and perhaps greatest of all Chess world champions, believed that at any age brilliance at chess is not necessarily related to any other form of mental competence  : “Excelling at chess has long been considered a symbol of more general intelligence. That is an incorrect assumption in my view, as pleasant as it might be.” Lodewijk Prins, a Dutch chess champion and a knowledgeable and observant international chess arbiter and referee, remarked “The only thing that chess players have in common is Chess”. I can find no evidence in the  psychological literature that persistent practice at Chess, or Bridge or Crossword Puzzles in old age benefits ability on other mental tasks. In fact I think that one of the most interesting unexplored features of our brains is that learning is intensely specific to any particular skill you practice. Attributions of high general intelligence to chess-players, bridge-players or crossword addicts do not mean that these pastimes make us more clever but only that people who intensively practice mind games, especially in old age, are also likely to have been generally more intellectually active and competent throughout their lives. There is good evidence that continually practising Chess, or Bridge, or Crosswords or Sums keeps you very good at ……Chess, or Bridge or Crosswords or Sums.

We need many thousands of hours to become excellent at Chess – Neil Charness, the doyen of chess researchers, and other colleagues, estimate that expertise needs not less than 5000, and up to 10,000 hours of practice a year but also that excellent players can keep the maximum levels of performance they achieve in youth well into their seventh decades.

Retention of highly practised mental skills in old age strikingly contrasts with early peaks and declines in physical activities, such as competitive athletics where the glory times are very early and short.

World record times for athletics are accurate and comprehensive and are uniquely informative because they document the magic moments when supremely talented individuals who have trained for years, drive themselves to their uttermost limits and achieve a lifetime best that they can never repeat. A generous retired statistician, David Hewitt4  has compared world records for the mile achieved in successive age-decade groups in 1975 and 2002. In both years these were achieved by people aged 32-33. But between age 35 and 65 record times for men fell by 0.8% a year (Men) and 1.4% (Women); between 35 and age 65, by 1.8 %(M) and 2.4% (W) and  between 75 to 85 by 3.6%  (M) and 3.4% (W). Interestingly, although records for all age-decades improved between 1975 and 2001 the rates of age-decline across generations did not alter until age 70. That is, rates of decline remained the same, though starting from higher levels. Also, recent generations now seem to keep going longer because 75 year olds were much faster in 2001 than in 1975 and 80 and 90 year olds are now represented.

 

elderly sikh  runners

 

Schulz and Curnow 5 calculate that over the last century records for Olympic track, field and swimming events and also for baseball, golf and tennis illustrate that the ages at which outstanding individuals reach their lifetime peaks has remained constant i.e. about 28 for long distance runners 24 for tennis and 31 for golf. For all these sports records have greatly improved over the last 100 years. They ask, but do not answer the question whether current generations remain at peak form longer than their predecessors. Fair6 reviews similar data contrasting early peak and decline for athletics with tournament records often achieved by chess-players in their 60’s. Does this mean that we may keep our brains and mental skills intact though our bodies begin to decline well before we reach 40?

The simplest measures of mental competence, such as speed of pressing the correct one of two keys to answer a flash on one of two signal lamps, do not support the idea that our brains change less rapidly than the rest of our bodies. Since 1960 my reaction times have slowed by 36 milliseconds, encouragingly less than David Madden’s better researched estimate that between 20 and 70 we lose about a millisecond a year and after that, rather more. This is not an alarming inconvenience but there are also convincing data showing that our scores on simple intelligence tests tend to peak in our mid-twenties and, after that, continuously decline. In contrast, at complicated tasks where there is a huge amount to learn before competence can be achieved, such as managing a business, writing novels or doing cutting edge mathematics and science, we build up to peaks much later in life and, after this, keep the plateaus we have won for two or more decades. By remorselessly practicing the skills we most value, or most enjoy can we mitigate the effects of the progressive changes in our brains that slow our reaction times and  our ability to  solve novel problems?

Studies of chess-playing give useful information. A vast body of chess theory has hugely expanded over the last century. Ways to begin a game – opening strategies- are intensively analysed for more than the first 15 moves by both players. One of the greatest pleasures of learning chess is to encounter the whimsical nicknames for some of these openings:  “The Fried Liver Attack”, “The Sicilian Dragon”; the “Hedgehog”, the Hippopotamus” the “King’s Indian” or the “Orang-utan” (said to have been invented, or at least named by Grandmaster Tartakower while visiting a Zoo during an intermission of a chess-tournament) are a few of scores of delights. New analyses of hundreds of opening positions, common middle-game positions and endgames appear monthly.  It is not too much of a stretch to think of this huge body of information as a collection of program-sub-routines to deal with the thousands of different situations that often occur during games. Weak players like myself do not try to keep up and only learn and use such fragments as we can. Champions cannot afford to do this, and must spend thousands of hours a year reviewing old and new discoveries.

As for computers, to have a superbly effective program is one thing but having the capacity to run it is another. The doyen of researchers into chess-play, Neil Charness has illustrated this distinction in many ways. He showed that the more skilled chess-players are, the more extensively and deeply they search through potential lines of play. Also older players thought of, and worked through fewer, though not necessarily less effective possible continuations than the young7. Charness also found that players in their early 20s can recall briefly seen chess-positions much more accurately than can players in their late 40’s and 50’s and that the age-difference increases if there is a lag between seeing and recalling positions. This is true both for weak and much stronger players.8 With Jastrzembski and Vasyukova 9  Charness also found that on a simplified quarter-chess-board older players even older experts, were slower to recognise opportunities for check-mates than younger players. Trevor Robbins and Alan Baddeley, and a large group of collaborators10, used distracting tasks to show how much appropriate decisions in chess depend on the ability simultaneously to hold in memory alternative, branching possibilities of a chess theme or program of play in working memory. All of these examples emphasise the difference between having spent many years successfully  learning strategies, and rapidly and accurately recognising when they are appropriate  and, at last, successfully carrying them through. Roring and Charness11 indirectly addressed this   by analysing the documented history of 5011 chess players who were able enough to be documented in databases of tournament statistics over their playing lifetimes. They found that individuals’ peak performance ages are shown to be older when careers are tracked longitudinally for the same individuals rather than compared between different individuals who were in different age-groups at a particular point in time. Also that, surprisingly, continued play in tournaments benefits people when they are young more than when they are old and, again surprisingly, that ages of peak performance and rates of subsequent age-related decline are quite similar for extraordinarily good and less distinguished players.

This does not mean that any young person with high general intelligence can learn to become a superb chess player if only she works long and hard enough. Gobet and Campetelli12 studied Argentinian players ranging from weak amateurs to grandmasters and found that, to reach master level, the slower players needed up to 8 times as much practice as did faster players. Those who had started chess younger retained a lifelong advantage. There is such a thing as natural ability, remarkably specific to chess, as is shown by the contrast between the brilliant early and superb later chess career of Bobby Fisher, and his sad incompetence in many other aspects of his life.

So I am not at all inclined to take  B.F. Skinner’s advice and  give up things like work and chess that continue to bring me very great pleasure even as I become conscious that I am no longer as good at them as I once was. I do not think that taking up dancing would be a good substitute, even though a kind  one-time Oxford colleague, the eminent social psychologist Michael Argyle, repeatedly claimed, in his University lectures and in the public media that Scottish Country Dancing is incomparably the greatest and most life-enhancing of all possible human pleasures. I am happy that Michael merrily panted and capered throughout his cheerful and distinguished life, but

scottish country dancing

my own outlook remains as different as it was while we worked in the same Institution. I am very content to get my jollies spending  grey afternoons struggling against the devilish cunning and granite determination of outrageously clever Phillipinos, Argentinians, Russians, Canadians, Americans, Londoners, Germans, Dutch, French, Serbs and Scots until the pawky, brief sun dips below a lower window sill signalling time to call a truce for drinks and to cook my supper.

 

  1. Internet chess sites are nearly all free (at least to start with, and until you want to purchase useful privileges). I am particularly fond of chess.com which is very friendly and well run, offers lively articles with interactive games and (for a small subscription) excellent chess tuition facilities and also runs graded tournaments of 5 min to 10 min and 30+ min. games. It has also just launched very fine new app for ipads and other tablets. Another favourite is www.instantchess which offers a wide choice of opponents especially for brief (15 min) games. You also start for free but may wish to subscribe. One of the oldest and best, allegedly used by very distinguished players, is the Internet Chess Club, www.chessclub.com.
  2. Skinner, B.F. (1983). American Psychologist. psychnet.apa.com
  3. Larson, L.M. (tr.).The King’s Mirror (Speculum regale-Konungs skuggsjá). Scandinavian Monographs 3. New York, 1917. PDF and translation available from Internet Archive.
  4. David Hewitt, personal communication. Details available on request
  5. Schulz, R., & Curnow, C. (1988). Peak performance and age among superathletes: track and field, swimming, baseball, tennis, and golf.Journal of Gerontology43(5), P113-P120.
  6. Fair, R. C. (2007). Estimated age effects in athletic events and chess. Experimental Aging Research,33(1), 37-57.
  7. Charness, N. (1981). Visual short-term memory and aging in chess players.Journal of Gerontology,36(5), 615-619.
  8. Charness, N. (1981). Search in chess: Age and skill differences.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance7(2), 467.
  9. Jastrzembski, Tiffany S.; Charness, N.; Vasyukova, C. (2006) Expertise and Age effects on knowledge activation in chess.Psychology and Aging, Vol 21(2), Jun 2006, 401-405
  10. Robbins, T. W., Anderson, E. J., Barker, D. R., Bradley, A. C., Fearnyhough, C., Henson, R., … & Baddeley, A. D. (1996). Working memory in chess.Memory & Cognition24(1), 83-93.
  11. Roring, R.W. & Chareness, N. (2007). A multilevel model analysis of expertise in chess across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 22, 291-299.
  12. Gobet, F. & Campitelli, G. (2007). The role of domain-specific practice, handedness and starting age in chess Developmental Psychology, Vol 43(1), Jan 2007, 159-172

 

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Old Age and Religion

Nun

This month, 73 years ago,  I was sent 1200 kilometers away from cheerful idleness to a boarding school run by Roman Catholic Nuns. Religion became as central to my life as for any madrassa student. Now that I am old I no longer go to church twice daily and pray before and after all meals. No colour print of Purgatory on the wall of a communal bathroom shows that, as surely as I shiver naked,  I must inevitably die and then thrash and scream for at least a few centuries in a customised, mini-tornado of bright orange fire. Unless I can jackpot an Act of Perfect Contrition so fast before I go that I have no time for another sin. Even for an unenterprising seven year old this might be a close thing because just a few milliseconds of apostasy is enough to earn a new Purgatorial tariff. Truly heartfelt denial will plunge my soul, illustrated in my Catechism as a white oval speckled with blackheads of veniality, into total Mortal Darkness. A direct ticket to Hell where, as we infants were told, though enough time may pass for a sparrow to brush the earth with its wing once every century, until it sops up the air and oceans and erodes the whole vast planet, our eternities of suffering will not yet have begun. Muslim acquaintances tell me that they were given the same news with the bonus that between death and judgement they will be conscious of the sights, sounds and smells of their future torments.

Dante's inferno

I do not believe that my infant education only reflected an aberrant obsolete version of True Catholicism or of True Christianity any more than I think that the beliefs that have brought three unsuccessful, French, petty criminals to murder and world-wide publicity have nothing  to do with True Islam. These are  inchoate belief-systems, the sums of  parts, many of which are extremely repellent. Believers make up their own “faiths” from what fragments they please and then, like Sunnis and Shias or Prods and Catholic take licence to kill each other for discrepant selections. Like the New French Martyrs I was instructed by formidable authority-figures in black robes. While Sister Scholastica did not have a neck-beard or a scary paunch, or glisten with good living, she was so intimidating that if she had told me to strap on a bomb and blow up the nearest Anglican Church, Hindu Temple, Islamic Mosque, Lamasery or even a religiously-dodgy fast-parata outlet I would have snivelled piteously, put on the gear and trotted to oblivion like the little Nigerian girls Boku Haram abuses in the name of God and his Messenger.

J with child

Now, at last, old age has relieved me from speculation about which of the witty tortures described in Dante’s Guide Book I am most likely to suffer. Is this part of a change that we all experience or is it only personal?  Starter questions are whether the incidence of religious belief is declining and whether it differs between age groups.

McAndrew and Voas  ( 1 and in their many other reports) give a fine introduction to how religiosity can, and should not be quantified. One lesson is that we need to discover what people actually do, rather than what they say that they believe. In 1980 Religious Trends No 7  reported that 5,201,300 people, 11.1% of the UK population, had attended Church on a given Sunday. By 2005 this number was 6.3% and is predicted to drop to 5% in 2015.  This seems to reflect both falling uptake of belief among the young and progressive deaths of the more religious old.

A  UK Ipsos MORI poll in January 2007 found that 36%, (about 17 million adults) were humanist in basic outlook and, including these, 41% agreed that ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’ and 62% said that ‘Human nature, by itself, gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong.’ Only 27% agreed that ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’. The 2013 YouGov poll found that only 25% of 16-24 year olds believed in any God and 38% neither believed in any God nor in any “greater spiritual power”. Only 12% were influenced by religious leaders. In the next, 2014, YouGov poll 77% of UK respondents said they were not religious.

World trends are consistent with those in the UK. A 2012, WIN/Gallup poll found that 36% of the world’s population said they were not religious and 13% of these were atheists. A significant increase on previous years. A  2014 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, found that most adults in all of the 9 European countries as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Chile did not think that a belief in God necessary to being moral. In France this majority reached 85% and in Spain 80%. A 2014 WIN/Gallup poll found that scepticism of the benefits of religion is greater in Britain than in most other countries. Only 33% of British respondents saw religion as a force for good and over a quarter believed that it has a negative impact. In Denmark, Belgium, France and Spain, the overall perception of religion is negative, particularly among the young and better-educated.  The jihadist term “boku haram” (Western Education is religiously impermissible) does  describe reality. Before and after the Galileo Trial Christian burnings and contemporary Muslim floggings and beheadings and  illustrate the tradition of brutally silencing dissident voices.

Declines in religiosity have recently accelerated but they are the latest stages of a long ebb noted by Matthew Arnold in 1859 2:

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Religiosity is diluted by secular education and also by assimilation into a different culture. The large European Social Survey (ESS) found that while 60.5% of Muslim immigrants who have lived for less than a year in Europe regularly go to mosque, attendance declines, after a year, to 48.8%. Over half of immigrants rarely or never go to a mosque to pray. Despite extraordinarily efforts, by energetic and intimidating fundamentalist movements, mosque attendance is falling in many Arab countries, particularly among the young and most especially in Iran 3. Functionaries of all religions unsurprisingly do their best simultaneously to avoid bringing the declines of their beliefs directly to attention and to counter them.  So protecting their influence, considerable privileges, political clout and relatively easy lives.

Declines in religious beliefs are paralleled by the desire to separate religion and government. In a 2012 UK YouGov poll 67% of people did not think that religion should play any role in public life. In the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey 75% believed that their religious leaders should not try to influence their voting behaviour; 67% believed religious leaders should stay out of government decision making. 45% believed that the involvement of religious leaders in government would damage policy; 25% believe religious involvement would produce better policy; 82% of those who classed themselves as non-religious and 63% of those who consider themselves religious believe that “people with very strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others”.

None of this tells me whether my personal loss of religion as I have aged is typical of my generation. For this we would need longitudinal surveys of individual lifetimes and I can only find cross-sectional data. Representative of these are summary data from the combined 1973-98 General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. These US trends also appear for most countries and religions.

AGE: PRE-
1900
1900-09 1910-19 1920-29 1930-39 1940-49 1950-59 1960 ON
18-29 27 29 28
30-39 37 36 34 32
40-49 39 40 37 38
50-59 46 44 45 40
60-69 53 46 48 45
70-79 54 57 52 50
80+ 61 55 52
COHORT
TOTAL
59% 56% 49% 46% 43% 36% 33% 29%

The bottom row shows that more old than younger people say that they are religious.  The columns show similar trends but cells represent different groups so neither rows nor columns tell us whether individuals become more or less religious as they age.

A different possibility is that there is something about religion that is especially nurturing and comforting for the elderly.  Apart from the great promise of eternal life beyond the reach of pollsters there do seem to be earthly and temporal benefits.

Americans aged 65+ % “very happy” by health status and Religiosity

HEALTH=EXCELLENT HEALTH=GOOD HEALTH=FAIR/POOR
RELIGIOSITY:  MALES  FEMALES  MALES  FEMALES  MALES  FEMALES
STRONG 63% 58% 51% 45% 30% 28%
SOMEWHAT 61 59 32 32 30 20
NOT VERY 54 60 38 32 25 18
NO AFFILIATION 45 67 29 39 18 10
TOTAL 58% 59% 41% 40% 27% 24%

Strong religiosity seems to be associated with better health. Interestingly, more so for old men than old women. These numbers are consistent with data from other studies that also suggest that the faithful live longer. I cannot find analyses in which differences in affluence and lifestyle, possibly associated with religiosity, have also been considered. Also, belonging to particular religious groups may give elderly people many kinds of useful support. So I can favour no single explanation.

If, having religion prolongs life, for whatever reason, it might be good for me to take it up again as soon as I can. This is difficult because lifelong encounters with the weird Middle-East Trinity of ultra-punitive religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism make me consider their premises equally ridiculous, and their belligerence, (whether in Republican USA, in Saudi-Arabia or in Jerusalem) equally disgusting. An added bonus is that I try to base my interpretations of the world on logic and on generally agreed data with none of the legal protection from contradiction or mockery enjoyed by “Beliefs”. For comfort, longevity and legal protection there is nothing  to do but what countless charlatans have done, and invent a new religion. I shall base it on the Holy and Refulgent Gerbil, whose true name I can never reveal to you lest unbelievers profane it with their filthy heretical tongues and lips and sinful laughter. Nor may I devise and show you any image of the Sacred HARG. Human representations would be insulting because they cannot capture the Sacred HARG’s Infinitely Gerbilly Nature and might even mislead true believers into idolatry. (Of course HE is MALE, how could HE possibly be otherwise?).

J John

If unbelievers  insult the divinity of HARG by drawing images of Him, or  ignore the stern but just Laws  I have carefully derived from the wise teachings (made manifest to me, alone) that I have recorded for the guidance of all mankind in scrupulous commentaries and hadiths….I shall become very, very, very cross indeed!  I shall invoke the power of the Common Law to silence your insults and I shall also, personally, revenge your abuse of the Sacred Harg on your sinful body.  I have no gun and am squeamish of mess. Unlike the present head of my former faith, Pope (“Slugger”) Francis, I will not punch you in the face (he is younger and seems more limber than I am, and has the Swiss Guard to back him up). Like my sainted mentor Sister Scholastica, at the slightest hint of impiety I will hit you with a very heavy and very sharp-angled ruler, as hard and often as I possibly can, on the tender backs of your disgusting heretical legs.

  1. McAndrew and D. Voas (U of Manchester) SQB Topic Overview 4 (Feb 2011).
  2. Matthew Arnold. New Poems, pub 1867.
  3. M. Tezcur*, T. Azadarmaki & M. Bahar (2006). Religious Participation among Muslims: Iranian Exceptionalism Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, 217–232.

 

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Old Age and Lang Syne: Tread softly for you tread upon my mnemes

crushed butterfly

Ray Bradbury told a story about a time-tourist on a dinosaur-spotting  safari who unknowingly stepped on a Jurassic butterfly. A tiny crunch started a time-avalanche whose  cumulated effects  hideously transformed the world to which he returned.

In old age time travel is dangerous for exactly the same reason. Revisiting the past was once awkward.  School and university re-unions  were hard to organise, difficult to attend and it was laborious to weave collaborative records of the past from scraps of information got from Xmas cards, changes of  addresses, chance encounters and gossip. Usually no good came of such attempts. Now E-Mail, Twitter, Face-book and Linked-In dump far too much information on us at the speed of light, greatly increasing the risk of our pasts challenging our presents.  Peak Electronic Round Robin  is New Year.

Round Robin

E-mail  delivered  my fattest Round Robin ever:  a 500,000 word draft of an autobiography from a very old friend whose extended family’s arachnoid search-engines had sensed my feeble twitches in the Web.  He had been a most valued companion from 1952 to 1958 then disappeared to be a political historian working in Africa, Jamaica, Cambodia and, finally, Holland.  His very long second-to-last chapter, which he calls “Dutch Treats”, describes exhilarating  (so he says) patronage of more than 800 prostitutes (so he says), and some enduring and affectionate relationships that resulted. I was more delighted by  other great stuff about a far more vivid, eventful and grown-up life than my own: Cambodia under Pol-Pot, learning to read Vietnamese, the weird charm of Mangrove swamps and a student-rebellion in Jamaica, but I gradually  became alarmed that his versions of some early experiences that we shared challenged a model of myself that I have fabricated from my own story of the past.  I am certain that we deserted a desolate archaeology dig in Canterbury together, after a single miserable morning.  He says that he shared this embarrassment with someone else.  He claims that as a schoolboy he never visited my house. I believe that he did, many times. Our memories of futile attempts to re-map a stone circle that had tumbled down a chalk scarp a hundred years ago  are wildly discrepant. Though our cv’s exactly tally we seem to have been at different schools and universities.  Each  difference is trivial but, taken together, they challenge my sense of myself as a continuing consciousness , in firm possession of an  unalterable past and so a predictable future. I am forced to question the information from which, over the years, I have built this model of myself to explain what I do, why I do it, what  other people mean to me and what I may have meant and so, perhaps, may still mean to them.

As Alan Lerner wrote, and Hermione  Gingold and Maurice Chevalier sang 1 it is banal  for two old people to discover conflicting memories of a shared past:

H: We met at nine

M: We met at eight

H: I was on time

M: No, you were late

H: Ah, yes, I remember it well

Even Psychologists have grasped  this. The key to Freud’s exegesis of the human condition 2 is that we never forget fecklessly. We can only deliberately and provisionally suppress anything that an inscrutable part of our mind, a “sub-conscious”, deems too uncomfortable to think about.  If we can find no other way to avoid troublesome memories we hide them behind  “screen memories” of things that never happened (strangely it is key to Freud’s ideas that though we may become unaware of some memories we can never, actually, entirely obliterate any).  “False memories” are something else again. It is notorious that during supposedly therapeutic conversations psychiatrists and their patients have sometimes unknowingly collaborated to construct “recovered memories” of childhood abuse. Elizabeth Loftus convincingly shows that some harrowing legal confrontations between distressed adults and their appalled families were due to such inventions 3. Even dull experimental psychologists, like me, realise that all we know about how our memories work comes from studies of what we mistake and forget. These losses becomes an increasing problem in old age 4.

So why was I disturbed that my friend and I own irreconcilable bits  of a shared past? Partly because his massive book, updating my knowledge of his entire long life, arrived as part of the annual, inter-continental Round Robin migration. Every year people whom I wish that I still knew as well as I once did send me updates and annotations of their life-stories to establish new contexts for lapsed relationships. Most of this year’s out-reaches are one-liners on Christmas Cards (“Unemployed at last!”  “Byzantine History at the Open University”;” Just given up Whisky and Snuff, Sex went long ago, not a lot left”). Others are multi-page essays, all structured in exactly the same way, never beginning with news about the writer. There must first be cameo appearances by children, grandchildren and domestic animals, resolutely upbeat even when cryptic (“Daphne’s new ointment has made all the difference!”). Then the pace quickens and coyness is allowed to infiltrate (“We had a great day out with Joan to collect her DBE from the Palace! There’s nothing like a Dame !” ) Finally boastful self-deprecation (“My Department will be delighted to be rid of me when I become pro-Vice Chancellor for Research next year!”).

Why do we do this? Every Year?

happy new year

Maybe these  life-inventories are pious gestures like the exaggerated  Irish-Catholic Sign of the Cross (“Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch”) that also check that useful things are still there . I think  there is more to it than that: A compulsion to share. Each dwindling year reminds us that  some webs of association have frayed  so we try to knit in  fresh gossamer (“Little Tabitha grew a chilli-bush in the conservatory this summer! Well done Tabs!”) Perhaps this is also our species-legacy of primate grunting, as among chimps, mutually invisible in dense forest canopy, reassuring each other that all the troop are  present and functioning and that the leopard seems to have buggered off at last. At least for now.

No single explanation is good enough, so many are necessary. Perhaps Round-Robins are letters to ourselves to reveal patterns in our lives and find evidence of dependable continuity and causality in a world in which some things alter (“Desmond has put on rather a lot of weight”) others disappear (“Sadly dachshund Herman died in September”) and  still others replace them (“Amanda, our new goat, is thriving”). Also that the cycle is reassuringly endless ( “At this time of year it is great to see the days lengthen, if just by a bit, and to know that  Spring really will come round again” ). Do we exchange these signals because we only feel that our lives are real if we can persuade others that they are?  How can we recognise ourselves without mirrors?

It is not accidental that the  Round Robin migrations happen at this particular time of year. The  huge earth starts to tilt, new stars appear and, for a short while, change and new amusements  seem possible.  Briefly, the blood stirs.  Then Issa Kobayashi’s haiku reminds us “Second day of New Year. Apathy begins again”.

  1. In “Gigi” (1958) Directed by Vincente Minelli.
  1. Freud, S. (1966).The psychopathology of everyday life (No. 611). WW Norton & Company.
  1. Loftus, E. F., & Davis, D. (2006). Recovered memories. Rev. Clin. Psychol.,469-498.
  1. Rabbitt, Patrick (2015). The Aging Mind: An owner’s manual. London and UK. Routledge,
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Talking and writing about Ageing of the Mind

old_man_writing

 

To start conversations some strangers ask me what I do and, when I admit that I study Old Age, say “ interesting” and gently walk away. Others perk up and tell me about a remarkable geriatric relative. Several have looked pitying and some have, quite rudely, asked “Why?” I find the last response much the most interesting and the rest of this post vents some of the answers I would have liked to give if they had hung around long enough to listen.  These experiences are bad omens for interest in this blog, or in a book I have written that is due to come out on Dec 18 . Maybe an  apologia pro vita sua will help.

I began to study mental changes in old age 57 years ago and, consequently,  have probably thought about ageing every day since (i.e. about 20805 days with extras for leap years). In spite of this, like most people, I am absurdly surprised to find myself suddenly old. At first I made small experiments to find out how and why older people become slow at making simple decisions. Then, with colleagues in Manchester and Newcastle, I spent twenty years following  6500 remarkable persons who, when we first saw them, were aged from 52 to 92. This taught us something about how ageing affects our brains, and so our minds.   I am now older than most of these kind, witty and gallant volunteers were when I first met them and it is amusing to recognise the changes that my colleagues and I tracked in them appear in my own everyday life and lapses It was always exciting when new batches of data from volunteers gave us insights into how our minds and bodies change as we become old.  It is even more amusing to see how these changes shape my conscious experience of  daily life  and my ideas of who I am and what I still can do as I trundle around.  There is also contentment in finding that the work that my colleagues and I did has been useful: not just because it identifies the things that people can no longer do as well as they once did but because it highlights things that we can all still be quite good at and confirms that even late in life we can still learn how to do better.  We all know that ageing changes our mental abilities  in ways that we deeply resent and so do not like to think about. Descriptions of this process may seem scary check-lists of the diversity of the big and little dooms that will surely befall us. In fact the more closely we study the effects of age on our minds the better we recognise how slight they can be, how  slowly they happen,  how they can be further stalled and ameliorated and some things we can do to cope better.

Messages from cognitive gerontologists are no bleaker than those from any other scientists. The universe that we live in, and ourselves,  are all we can know, so  we must adjust as best we can to what we discover about them.  What we find may not always be comforting but there is always interest, great fun, and most of all some dignity in understanding our situation as clearly as we possibly can.

Age changes are inevitable and most of them are not what we would most prefer.  Many who talk to me seem to need to avoid thinking about the details. My job has not allowed me to do this. This has been absolutely fine because finding out new things about ageing has always been enthralling and now I have the added fun of experiencing as well as watching what goes on. I have been lucky to find many others who share these strange pleasures. Some of them are as dubious as I am about our reasons for doing so. One of these, Mike Horan, Professor of Geriatrics at Manchester, continually self-deprecates by saying that he took up his line of work because he has always been fascinated by the variety of ways in which things can go badly wrong. Warm relationships with family, friends and colleagues have only been possible by allowing each other space to exercise  our unattractive hobby horses in the pleasant pastures of our conversations.

With strangers, such as most readers of this blog and my book,  communication must work differently.  Many young people do not really feel, in their hearts, that they will ever grow old and so twitch away from this grey idea to anything more congenial. Because it is likely that many young readers will be undergraduates, graduate students and health professionals who need course-notes in cognitive gerontology  my posts and book chapters have been referenced for this convenience. Because they read for their own practical purposes I need not apologise to them for providing more details than they may require but I must beg their pardon for how I have set these out.  I have done my best to be as accurate and comprehensive as I ought to be, so as to be of as much use to these potential readers as I can, but I found that, no matter how hard I tried, I simply could not bear to write another textbook. So I have done my best to describe not only what we know about all aspects of mental ageing but how we learned about them and, more importantly, to give a glimpse of the excitement and the everyday fun and comradeship that makes science research the happiest career that I can imagine. To keep writing I also needed to keep myself amused as best I could.  Hence the (mainly lame) jokes. I am sorry if they do not work for you but they made my task much easier.

Middle aged people may read what I have to say for different reasons. In their uneasy time of life many desperately want to be told something encouraging:  ideal news would be that theirs is the first generation of humans for whom ageing and mortality have been indefinitely postponed or, at least. that they personally will be spared the particular changes that they most fear. Of course most are far too savvy for such  breathless optimism. I can offer some good news:  the changes to come are far smaller and more gradual than most of us imagine and there are simple ways to slow them and reduce their effects on our lives. Though most of the changes I describe are barely detectable in middle age it may help, at this point in life, to have a map of the territory ahead and to plan the journey to come. Middle age is also a time when changes in parents and older family and friends becomes an issue. To be as helpful to these as we possibly can we must try to understand what they are experiencing and, in particular, to grasp that most of their problems have many different, and some unexpected causes and consequences. It is crucial to be aware of what older people can, and cannot help.  More exact comprehension of what is going on really does calms irritation and worry, allows more insightful and so more affectionate and useful relationships and encourages more effective and compassionate care. I have never understood why many people mistake attempts at scientific objectivity for cold indifference.   This is certainly not true of medics like Mike Horan. Nor of cognitive gerontologists who do care very much indeed, and want to do the best they can to help, but realise that they have no chance of being any use unless they can find out, and explain, precisely how things are and how they came to be this way.

 

old man on front

The readers I feel most easy about are in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. With them I find conversations an easy joy. We do not have to worry that we don’t understand each other. We do not want to talk about grand panaceas for our condition because we have long lost any belief that these exist. People of my age are sharply knowledgeable observers of their own difficulties and those of their partners and friends and do not flinch from recognising the changes that they are experiencing just because they are unwelcome. They are happy to talk about their problems in detail, and in neutral, practical terms.  Some of the best and most illuminating conversations I have had since I have become old are with my age-peers about the big and small things that happen to us and how we can best take the edge off them or put up with them by understanding them better.  These chats have probably taught me more about how our minds have changed  than any of the laboratory experiments that I once so carefully planned and thought about.

My blog and book are tries at a conversation with my generation about the changes that we must all share, how and why these things happen to us and what we can do about them. I hope to show them that research  has done something  more useful than illustrate that ageing is an inevitable series of disasters escalating to a nasty end. What research actually  shows is that, as with all our problems, at any stage of our lives, the only effective  way to cope is to understand what is happening to us as clearly as we possibly can. It is superstitious to hope that changes will not affect us if we succeed in ignoring them.  It does help to recognise what these changes are, how they come about, how they affect our lives and how we can minimise their effects and even become happily amused by many of them. Perversely, writing about the changes that I am experiencing in as much detail as I can has cheered me up enormously.  I will be very content if what I have to offer cheers up others, by even a little.

My book, which  is due to appear on Dec 18 2014, is “The Aging Mind: An Owner’s Manual”, by Patrick Rabbitt, and is published by Routledge, available in  luxurious Hardback,  quite natty paperback and Kindle (and other) electronic editions. All available from Amazon.co

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Age and Memory Muddles

'I got up for something - but now I can't remember what it was.'

I cannot imagine a happier working lifetime than I have spent researching cognitive ageing but I do get uneasy when people ask me to explain, “Just what have you  found out?” (with the clear sub-text “after all these years”). The pawky “scientific” language in which my colleagues and I describe hypothetical mechanisms that might plausibly support bits of our mental lives does not map on to our marvellous everyday languages, created and enriched by writers poets and philosophers, that elegantly convey and interpret our  conscious experience of all the glitter and wonder of the world.

This gap becomes especially clear when non-psychologists (NPs) and   Psychologists (Ps) try to talk to each other about memory – an enthralling capability because the images, words, sounds and smells it displays are the cast, dialogue, stage, scenery and backdrop of the bright theatres of our consciousness (or, admittedly, for some of us, the gloomy flea-pits of our minds). For four centuries Marvell’s “The mind, that ocean where each kind does straight its own resemblance find” 1 has been the most vivid and concise statement that memory is both marvellously capacious and startlingly efficient because we need only a few hundredths of a second to recognise, name, eat, reject or use any of the millions of different objects in our perceived worlds.

 

marvell

Shared experiences of their memories should make it easy for Ps and NPs to have useful conversations. So we can, up to a point, so long as we recognise that we use very different kinds of metaphors to describe what memory does and how it works. Moreover, when NPs use metaphors they know just what they are doing, and do not mistake playful  illustrations for reality. Ps ,  always pathetically needy for professional dignity, call their metaphors  “models” or, when they really do not understand what they are talking about, “frameworks” and they actually do believe that these  are precise descriptions of function.

Sometimes Ps and NPs can share the same metaphors. We all agree that we have both short-term and long term memory, and that these are different. A majority of decent, diffident NPs think of Short Term Memories as lasting for hours or, at most, days and weeks 2.  More sophisticated NPs, often mischievous philosophers, explain to me that Short-term Memory (STM) is a different system than Long Term Memory and that it lasts only seconds. The capacity of this envisionment of STM is estimated by the number of words or digits that we can repeat back in the same order that we experienced them. Both diffident and sophisticated NPs are happy with similar metaphors to explain why STM can only briefly hold a little information: It is like a small warm cup into which we drop frozen images of words or numbers. These immediately start to melt, so the number we can recover is sharply limited by rapid rate of mind-melt. NPs and Ps agree that, by some unexplained trick, we can pick particular things out of our cups before they vanish and lodge them in the permafrost of long-term memory where records of words, deeds and images may possibly last as long as our brains survive.

When I was an undergraduate this was  the kind of metaphor used by mathematically-minded Ps like Wayne Wickelgren who worked to estimate the rates of rot of things briefly held in STM. He also pointed out that things that are  similar, like words that sound nearly alike, (e.g. cat, rat, mat) will earliest become confused with each other as rotting blurs them. (This was very long ago and WW is remembered for many other different and excellent things he accomplished before he, sadly, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The problem is that after thinking a little more about our short-term memories both Ps and NPs realise that this is a threadbare description and misses the point of what memory is for.  Before Wickelgren’s work my kindest and most articulate mentor Alan Welford  pointed out that

“……..data are somehow held in a form of short-term storage while other data are being gathered. Obviously unless data can be so held the amount of information that can simultaneously be applied to any problem is very small indeed …..in old people the amount that can be stored tends to diminish, and that which is stored is more liable than it is in young people to interference and disruption from other activity going on at the same time. Such a decline in short-term retention would be capable of accounting for a very wide range of observed age changes in learning and problem-solving” 3.

This is a language that Ps and NPs can share. Memory is not a passive receptacle of slowly degrading information but a busy, active system for understanding and keeping up with a fast changing world. Most crucially, it is not there only to display recorded fragments of the past but to actively predict what is going to happen next. Since, on this account, Working Memory is needed to solve intelligence test problems it also has to be taken seriously as a functional description of what intelligence is. A provocative finding is that age has little or no effect on how accurately we remember lists of words or numbers in the order we were given them (in our North English samples word and digit “spans” changed little or not at all between age 50 and age 90). In contrast, age sharply reduced the accuracy with which people could juggle the same number of items in our minds, as by repeating them backwards.

Fifteen years after Alan Welford’s summary, Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch 4 captured these ideas in a neat phrase, “Working Memory”. I remember, with embarrassment, that when they first used the term at a London meeting of the UK Experimental Psychology Society it seemed so all-embracing that it was mocked as “whatever bit of memory you happen to be working on at present”.  This has  proved to have been fatuously irreverent because Working Memory  is now a caption for so much research in cognitive psychology that it is almost a “Grand Theory of Everything” in our small science. As Welford noticed, we can only cope with a rapidly changing world by continually rearranging data that we have just registered to interpret what has just happened; relate this to what has just happened and to what we have already known for ages and to work out what we expect to happen next; make plans to deal with this  prediction; choose how and where to find more information to do this and suppress irrelevancies; switch attention between different activities as becomes necessary and, while all this is going on, still keep a firm  grip on what it is that we need to look out for and to do (“Goal Maintenance”). These frantically active processes cannot be imagined as movements of  fading shadows on the screens of our minds. They imply active control.

What metaphors can we find for the controller, and how far can Ps and NPs share these? In everyday language we might call it a “Self”, or “Ego” or even “Soul” or “Spirit”. Descartes would have housed it in the pineal gland. Alan Welford was a clergyman, so may well have considered these alternatives, but he was also an Anglican and kept this, and all other hints to his  beliefs to himself. In 1974 Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch  4 found a term in better tune with their  period:  the “Central Executive”. This  conveys harassed middle-management tasked with getting things done. When young this creature of the 1960’s and 70’s is ostentatiously competent and brash 5.

 

young executive

 

What happens as it ages? It may help to consider what we know about the brain-basis of working memory

Studies of patients with localised brain injuries suggested that damage to the frontal and pre-frontal brain cortex causes problems with just the tasks that Alan Baddeley set his executive. Suggestions that age depletes brain tissue earlier and faster in these than in other parts of the brain encouraged experiments to test whether elderly people also perform unusually poorly on tests used to diagnose frontal damage in neurological patients. Early results were unconvincing, probably because individuals experience different patterns of brain changes as they age. These vary so much between persons that we may not find consistent averages if we can only collect behavioural data on groups of 50 or fewer people. As brain scans have become better and more easily available they have confirmed that, in general, frontal, pre-frontal and medial temporal cortex do seem responsible for activities that fit many of the job-descriptions suggested for the central executive 6.

 

working memory frontal lobes

So far so good. We have a lively metaphor that both Ps and NPs can share; a job-description for the Central Executive and an address for his office. At this point NPs might nod politely and wander off to wherever their personal executives decide to take them.  Can we Ps usefully prolong the conversation? A recent collection of essays on “Working Memory and Ageing”7 seems promising.

I am a keen fan of this sort of stuff because it is just what I have tried to do for the last 50 years. One of these nice essays suggests that decrepitudes of the ageing executive are best accounted for by general changes in all aspects of brain efficiency, such as “global slowing”. Performance on all sub-tasks begins to fail as the entire system runs out of juice. Others think that the best way forward is to try to measure and compare different amounts of declines in each of the various executive abilities we can identify: For example they test whether “updating” is affected more than “goal-maintenance” or “switching” between different activities?   Whether records of visual information on the executive’s “scratch pad” fade faster than records of the sounds of words? This sometimes seem a questionable way to go about things because it seems to forget that “updating”, “switching”, “re-arranging information” etc. are only common language metaphors for the effects that working memory achieves (the things that it seems to do) and that it is rash  to suppose that each of these partial task-descriptions must be supported by a corresponding different, and probably independent process. This line of argument also seems to miss a difficult methodological problem that, before we can decide whether age affects some  tasks such as “switching” more than others such as “rearranging information” or “updating” we must find a way to equate them for difficulty on some absolute scale rather than begging a question by simply ranking  how hard most people find them.  I can’t think of satisfying ways to do this.

Rebecca Charlton and Bob Morris8 suggest a way forward by evicting the executive from any single office. They discuss interesting clues that its activities are distributed over much of the brain and so depend on richness and speed of connectivity between nerve cells that are impaired as many of them age and die leaving as markers their tiny sad tombstones “white matter lesions”. As connectivity suffers so must performance on all sub-tasks.

It is unnecessary to talk about a collection of quasi-independent devices:  one “updates”, another “switches” a third “holds goals” another holds “images” and another “noises”. Steve Jobs was far too smart to design i-pads this way. He recognised that we can run apps for each task on a common processer and associated circuitry. If i-pads gradually aged, rather than suddenly and totally blanking  with the blue screen of death, we might well find that long declines affect some apps earlier and more than others. Comparing computers in terms of bench-mark characteristics, such as processor-speed and RAM capacity also reveals which programs are most likely to be affected by changes in these system performance characteristics and why particular programs can run on some systems but not on others. As far as I know, most Ps still don’t think about working memory in this way.

Until we find better descriptions have P’s anything interesting to tell NPs than Alan Welford and Alan Baddeley said long ago? Their descriptions are certainly clever, and NPs can surely recognise this, just as they can recognise the skill of Sudoku experts, but without feeling that this in the least enriches our mental lives or tells us anything that we really care to know.

Non-scientists are not less smart than scientists. They are just smart about different things. They keenly appreciate science when it tells them something that illuminates our human experience. We need marvels to dazzle and nourish our minds, to enrich appreciation of the Entire Grand Shebang and to understand our place in it. We are excited and awed even by our vague understandings of difficult topics such as the shadowy existence of Schrodinger’s cat; different passage of time for long-distance cosmonauts  and stay-at homes; Black Holes; Big Bangs; Quantum Entanglement and the speculative Multiverse. We eagerly buy, and quite often read, expensive books about them. Even vague comprehensions of these wonders are satisfying, and provoke nourishing thoughts and ideas.

Cognitive Psychologists (CPs) have tried our best for more than a hundred and fifty years, but I find it hard to convince  NPs that our most recent work has more to tell them about their inner lives than manuals of how to do Sudoku or play Go. Are our metaphors, which we call models, intellectually un-nutritious because the more detailed they have become, the more dull and artificial they seem to anybody who has not worked to devise them?  Or are we just incompetent at translating them for others? When people ask me what I have been doing for the last 50 years must I continue to hedge and say that I do not think that they would really much like to hear about it but, whatever it has been, I   really have enjoyed it very much indeed.

1.Andrew Marvell. c 1664. The Garden.

  1. See use of Short-Term Memory in “Alzheimer’s  Reading Room” http://www.alzheimersreadingroom.com/2013/02/first-sign-of-alzheimers-short-term.html
  2. Welford, A.T. (1958) Age and Human Skill. Oxford, Oxford University Press.(p285).
  3. Baddeley, A.D. & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G.H. Bower (ed) the Psychology of Learning and motivation, (Vol 8, pp 47-89). New York
  4. crf John Betjeman, (about 1960) “I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner; I have a slimline brief-case and I use the firm’s Cortina”.
  5. Stoltzfus, E. R., Hasher, L., & Zacks, R. T. (1996). Working memory and aging: Current status of the inhibitory view.Working memory and human cognition, 66-88.
  6. Logie, R.H. & Morris, R.G. (2014). Working Memory and Aging. London and New York, Psychology Press.
  7. Charlton, R. and Morris, R.G. (2014). Associations between working memory and white matter integrity in normal ageing. In . Logie, R.H. & Morris, R.G. Working Memory and Aging. London and New York, Psychology Press.

 

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The clever, the quick and the dead

alert old man

In Science What Goes Around Comes Around – but sometimes this can take 40 years. By far my kindest mentor was Alan Welford; a slow, sonorous, intensely dignified scholar and clergyman.   He was touchingly dismissive of all but one of his own abilities: high intelligence.  When he heard that I had  support for what eventually became a 20 year longitudinal study he accosted me, in his stately way, and said “Always remember, Rabbitt“ (we never, ever, dreamt of using each-others’ first names) “the most important thing that you can possibly find out is whether clever people keep their intelligence longer than the rest”. A self-satisfied glint signalled that, in his heart, he was already sure of the answer, and of the group to which he belonged, and so of his destiny, but might like to have his faith backed by numbers (though he was never truly at ease with statistics). I am happy that he did indeed live as long and stayed as intellectually sharp as any of us can hope to do.

When others have asked me “Do clever people live longer and lose their wits more slowly” I have always answered that I think that they do, but only because life is unfair from beginning to end.  Affluent families tend to have fine plump healthy babies who are better and more wisely fed and educated and so  enjoy   more prosperous careers and better medical care and survive longer. Many studies show that because declines in our mental abilities are strongly driven by the accumulations of illnesses that will eventually kill us, at any moment in our later lives our rates of change are more closely linked to how far we are from death than from birth. Dying late  also allows us to keep our wits  longer.

images

These arguments are not unwelcome to academic colleagues who are (of course quite rightly…..) extremely conscious of their own high intelligence. But I get the feeling from encounters with them that, like Alan Welford, they really hope for much more than this simple story.  They seem to feel that intelligence is a transcendent rather than a biological or a neurophysiological quality, a sort of …… Mojo, …… that magics all aspects of life. I have not found that this feeling is necessarily related to any spiritual or religious belief. For example I know that the Holy Irish Christian Brothers who did their best to bash religion and Latin into me did not think in this way because I remember Brother Gleason panting with effort as he told me “I can strap into you Grammar and the love of God, but never any, any, any glint of intelligence”.

Evidence accumulates that the story I have been telling is too simple. A fine study 1,2 found that the intelligence test scores of Scottish schoolchildren who were aged 14 when assessed in 1948 strongly predicted how long they would live and how late they would decline thereafter. This remained true even when differences in lifelong socio-economic advantage and education had been taken into account though, as far as I know, the more crucial and directly interesting health data were not considered. However later work finds that peoples’ reaction times and intelligence test scores predict their chances of survival   even after   differences in their affluence, education and  general health  have been allowed for 3

intelligence

A great part of the enchantment of doing science is that while you live it never stops. This week, 34 years late,   I have learned  new bits  of answers that might have  pleased Alan Welford and that will  allow me to look my colleagues more directly in the eye if they ask why my work still offers no reassurance about the durability, if not the actual transcendence and immortality of their intelligence.

Paolo Ghisletta and Stephen Aichele, at the University of Geneva,4 have looked again at the Newcastle and Manchester data for 6504 people who had taken the same sets of  tests of intelligence, speed of decisions and memory for words and pictures up to 4 times at 4 year intervals over 11 to 20 years. They found, as  others had earlier noticed, that individuals who had performed well when they were first tested thereafter  lived longer and declined more slowly than those with lower scores on mental tests. Volunteers’ baseline  memory and vocabulary test scores did predict their subsequent survival, but more weakly than did their intelligence test scores and decision speeds.  As usual women survived longer than men but, provocatively, for men the stronger of these two powerful predictors was intelligence while for women it was decision speed.   Within this elite, highly self-selected group of volunteers there were no differences between the most and least prosperous. How fast and bright you happen to be during your lifetime seems to strongly affect how long you are likely to live.   Paolo and Stephen  also took into account differences in levels of affluence and between the cities of Newcastle and Manchester but this did not change the pattern.

Paolo’s and Stephen’s additional new finding is that volunteers’ chances of survival are not just determined by their  estimated baseline intelligence and speed scores at the beginning of the study, and so probably throughout their earlier lives, but also  by the rates at which they changed while the study was in progress. Those who declined faster died sooner than those who declined less and more slowly. This was not just because, as other colleagues and I have suggested in an earlier paper, sharp declines (“terminal drops” as they are described by my grimmer colleagues) occur during the few years just before death 5.   The rates at which we change over periods up to 8 or 11 years before death also strongly predict how long we have left.

Obviously at least some proportion of the relationship between rate of mental decline and the approach of death must be due to the accumulating burdens of illnesses that can start to affect our bodies, brains and minds long before they kill us. The other, much more tantalising association is  between lifetime level of intelligence and speed and probable lifespan. This suggests that the simple relationship between health, longevity and rate of decline does not capture all that is going on. If further work continues to confirm claims from other studies 1,2   that  intelligence and speed do not prolong our lives just because they benefit our lifestyles  we have a new, rich puzzle to solve: What, precisely, is the Great Good Luck, – the Grand Mojo – of which being quick and clever are only some, and maybe only incidental, manifestations ?

  1. Deary, I. J., Allerhand, M., & Der, G. (2009). Smarter in middle age, faster in old age: A cross-lagged panel analysis of reaction time and cognitive ability over 13 years in the West of Scotland Twenty-07 Study. Psychology and Aging, 24, 40–
  2. Deary, I. J., Johnson, W., & Starr, J. (2010). Are processing speed tasks biomarkers of cognitive aging? Psychology and Aging, 25, 219–
  3. Anstey, K. J., Luszcz, M. A., Giles, L. C., & Andrews, G. R. (2001). Demographic, health, cognitive, and sensory variables as predictors of mortality in very old adults. Psychology and Aging, 16, 3–11.
  4. Stephen Aichele, Patrick Rabbitt & Paolo Ghisletta (2014) Lifespan Decrements in Fluid Intelligence and Processing Speed Predict Mortality Risk. Submitted Ms. For futher information please contact Stephen Aichele

Email: stephen.aichele@unige.ch

Address: Université de Genève

Boulevard du Pont d’Arve 40

Bureau 4139

CH-1211 Genève

Switzerland

  1. Rabbitt, P., Lunn, M., Wong, D., & Cobain, M. (2008). Sudden declines in intelligence in old age predict death and dropout from longitudinal studies. Journal of Gerontology Psychological Sciences, 63B, P205–
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Train your old Brain?

 

brain on treadmill

 

As we grow old we all hope for some way to keep, and even sharpen our wits. The media understand this and excitedly publish claims, often based on very dodgy studies, that computerised “brain training” programs, or courses of mental exercises, sold for remarkable sums of money, will restore or even improve on our former youthful abilities. This week the Centre for Longevity at Stanford University and the Max Planck institute for Human Development in Berlin jointly published a statement that strongly questions these claims. It is signed by 78 eminent researchers in mental ageing

About time too. Over the last 30 years very many of us have worked very hard indeed, for no commercial return, to find ways to improve mental abilities in old age. My own results, and those of colleagues I admire and trust, have been so disappointing that I now feel that the failures of brain training programs are, theoretically, far more interesting than the outrageous claims that some venal salespersons make for them.

woman brain training

 

For over 150 years neuroscientists have known that some mental abilities are supported by particular, often quite tiny, specialised areas of the brain. A Japanese neuroscientist, Dr Ryuta Kawashima, was not the first to notice that when we carry out particular tasks the blood supply to the particular parts of the brain that support them briefly increases. (There is now good evidence that intense practice of particular skills does result in changes in the particular parts of the brain on which they depend. Still missing is evidence that practising particular skills results in changes in the entire brain that also benefit other skills that have not been trained).

Dr Kawashima was not the first to speculate that practising mental tasks might improve both local and general brain-blood circulation and so general brain health and mental competence. He was the first to develop a hand-held “Brain Training” games console that guides purchasers through simple tasks involving mental arithmetic, memory and decision speed and scores their performance in terms of estimated “Brain Ages”. I cannot find any way in which sensible estimates of “Brain Age” can be derived from first scores on any behavioural task. For the Kawashima tasks they are calculated from performance on first attempts when middle-aged and elderly purchasers, unused to hand-held game consoles, have initial difficulties and may be distressed by estimates of their current “brain ages. Happily they may soon become elated as their inevitable improvement is translated into to a gratifyingly young brain age.

Dr K brain age

One sad snag is that old and young people improve with practice at different rates. On   the simplest possible laboratory tasks it takes only a few hundred trials for most of us to become as fast as we can ever get. Even after their first scores of attempts young adults are almost as fast and accurate as they will ever become but elderly people improve markedly from a much lower initial level to a lower final peak. At any age, on any task, practice always improves performance but in old age we need more time and effort to reach lower peaks than we could once attain (1). It is encouraging for purchasers of brain-training devices to be told that their prolonged improvements are evidence that their brain ages are steadily becoming more youthful. I do not think that this is what is happening.

Boosts to elderly morale are always good and, if the tasks we learn are useful in our daily lives, even modest gains are worth the effort. It is an excellent idea to devise programmes to re-train older people, such as myself,  as fast and pleasantly as possible on any particular skills that make our lives more interesting and comfortable. It would be a greater achievement to invent training programs that do not just improve our competence on a single task but also on many others that have not been practised. Very many of us have tried very hard to do this and do not think that we have yet succeeded.

brain smart

An inconvenient reality is that on more difficult skills, such as languages, mathematics or chess, older people not only start from much lower baselines but improve much less, and far more slowly than the young do. Even after long practice they never reach the performance peaks that they once attained when young. The harder skills are the greater will be the differences in learning times and in peak achievements between old and young. Of course, even very modest improvements on life-enhancing skills, like languages or mental arithmetic, are immensely rewarding and useful but, alas, older people need more time and effort to achieve them.

Sales of Kawashima’s “Brain Trainer” exceeded 3 million units in a market in which sales of 1 million are exceptional. He was urged to make controlled trials to provide evidence that practice on his brain training tasks also generalised to improve performance on others. Ichiko Fuyomo (2), reviewing Kawashima’s work for the prestigious scientific journal Nature, reports that he declined to do this. Perhaps Kawashima was prudent. Other well-intentioned efforts to evaluate brain training programmes as tools to rehabilitate cognitive performance in older people have provoked surprisingly unpleasant disputes in our placid grey science.

What has become very ugly, but also very interesting is the vehemence with which those involved in marketing of these devices react to research that questions whether they are useful. Adrian Owen, with colleagues based in Cambridge and Manchester took advantage of an offer by the BBC to sponsor a web-based experiment for a TV program “Bang goes the Theory”. In 2010 they collected data from 11,430 mainly young and middle-aged people, who had trained themselves for about 3 sessions a week for 6 weeks on tasks that involved memory, planning, spatial skills and selective attention. They published their results as a paper titled “Putting Brain Training to the Test” (3) in which they reported that, of course, people of all ages became much better on all of the particular tasks that they practised. They found no evidence that these improvements extended to other, different, unpractised tasks, even when these were quite similar to those included in the original training battery. Immediately after their paper appeared the editor of “Nature” received a letter demanding its withdrawal from a distinguished North American scientist who had reported positive results with a different training program that is currently being marketed by a company for which he is scientific advisor.

In any science, disagreements between experiments are inevitable, and frequent. They are also essential for progress because differences between results always identify important differences in assumptions, in logic, in experiments or in analyses. Endless challenging of evidence is the core of the scientific method. Science advances by disagreements and is crippled by attempts to suppress results or opinions.

It is a fine ambition to discover training techniques that can quickly and painlessly make us better at particular skills. To discover “master tasks” that can also make us much better at everything else would be a far more wonderful thing and  has been a very old ambition for educationalists. Until the early 20th century, School and University curricula were based on the idea that this is just what a solid education in classical Greek and Latin achieves. A recent meta-analysis of results from 23 different studies of schoolchildren considered training programs designed to bring about general and lasting improvements in Working Memory. There was no evidence for such generalisation: any improvements were restricted to specific kinds of material (4). With many of my colleagues I have been frustrated to find that ability on any particular skill is surprisingly specific and often does not generalise even to other similar situations. Part of my personal experience of this came from supervising a study by Belinda Winder who based her Manchester MSc thesis on an experiment to test the conviction of many elderly Manchester volunteers that they had preserved their everyday competence by constantly practicing cryptic crossword puzzles. Belinda compared fanatical cryptic crossword experts aged between 70 and 85 against non-experts of their own age on memory tests, intelligence tests, vocabulary tests and tests of mental speed. She found that on all of these unfamiliar tests the experts were no better than the non-experts. Tim Salthouse reports similar results (5). It seems surprisingly difficult to show that lifelong expertise on one skill necessarily generalises to improve or preserve ability in other, quite similar, skills.

I now believe that this remarkable failure of general brain training is theoretically far more important than claims, based on dubious experiments, for general, overall mind improvements. I do not (yet) despair of becoming better at regaining some old competences, such as playing  chess better than I now do, or reading Russian and Latin or doing simple mental arithmetic. My personal research, and that of the colleagues I most respect and trust convinces me that I should not waste money on commercial training programs that promise to improve my performance even on other tasks that I do not practise. In my old age I am content to improve, as much as I can, on one thing at a time because I think that this is all I have ever been able to do. I also think that the reasons why this should be the case are very interesting indeed.

 

  1. Rabbitt, P.M.A. (1993). Crystal quest: A search for the maintenance of practised skills into old age. p 188-230 In Baddeley, A.D. & Weiskrantz, L., (eds) Attention, Selection Awareness and Control. A tribute to Donald Broadbent. Oxford, Clarendon Press, OUP.
  2. Fuyuno, (2007). Brain craze.Nature447 , 18-20.
  3. Owen, A. M., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S. et al. (2010). Putting brain training to the test.Nature,465, 775-778.
  4. Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review.Developmental Psychology, 49, 270.
  5. Hambrick, D. Z., Salthouse, T. A., & Meinz, E. J. (1999). Predictors of crossword puzzle proficiency and moderators of age–cognition relations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,128, 131-142.

 

 

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