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.



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

“…… 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 … 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”
  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.


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


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


Address: Université de Genève

Boulevard du Pont d’Arve 40

Bureau 4139

CH-1211 Genève


  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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The Ageing World: Make Room ! Make Room !

elderly crowd

Once upon a time all the world was young because most of us left the party early. Now we hang on so much longer that there are more old people alive than at any time during recorded history. Soon there will be many more. These numbers sketch the story:

Observed and Forecast Percentages of the Elderly (65+ years) in Selected Areas, Regions, and Countries of the World: 1950, 2000 and 2050.1


Major Area, region and country 1950 2000 2050
World 5.2% 6.9% 19.3%
Africa 3.2% 3.3% 6.9%
Latin America and the Caribbean 3.7% 5.4% 16.9%
China 4.5% 6.9% 22.7%
India 3.3% 5.0% 14.8%
Japan 4.9% 17.2% 36.4%
Europe 8.2% 14.7% 29.2%
Italy 8.3% 18.1% 35.9%
Germany 9.7% 16.4% 31.0%
Sweden 10.3% 17.4% 30.4%
U.S.A. 8.3% 12.3% 21.1%


The growth of the New Aged is scary: Over the first half of this century the number of people in the world who are  60 or over will treble to nearly 2 billion. In 2050 more than one in five persons  in Europe and over  in three in Japan and Italy will be over 65. On the most optimistic forecasts world fertility rates will decline by up to 40% of their 1966 levels by 2050 2 . Until, and for a while after this happens we will have to somehow find ways in which the dwindling proportion of adults of working age can support these billions of lingering guests and provide the demanding care they will need. These hard questions are best tackled by economists, agriculturists and health professionals. Cognitive gerontologists and psychologists may ask a simpler question: Apart from the growing inconvenience and so resentment of their demand on global resources how well do  young people like the old?

My only try at this was to ask 76 Manchester undergraduates what most irritated them about older family members. Some included bizarre responses that they insisted were not jokes, such as “boiling squirrels” (!?!). More common were “deliberate loud gasping”, “explosive sneezing” “pretending to be deaf”, “food on the cardigan” and “smells”.  It was hard to find a single main theme but a strong thread was embarrassment at those who try to pre-empt notice of their disabilities by exaggerating them. As by bellowing “Oooffff” or “One, two, three Lift-off” when staggering out of deep chairs, or by exhibitionist demonstrations of loud knee creaking. It is not just that the jokes are weak and grow more tedious with endless repetition but that the disabilities of old age are uncomfortable to notice and that by deliberately stressing them we provoke unease rather than pity and empathy. Is there any good way to applaud a knee-creaking demonstration?

knee cracking

I am old and well understand a futile compulsion to acknowledge that one is aware of the stigmata of old age and of one’s own growing frailties and problems before others can pick up on them. Perhaps some of us also hope that we may win points for jolly stoicism and brave humour.  I have learned that this ploy rarely works.  Undergraduates’ anecdotes of the behaviour of their elders do not give profound insights into possible relationships between young and old during the next half-century so I went to the academic literature confident that my colleagues must have done much better. Of course they had but, as usual, they asked different questions from those that puzzle me.

Most nursery age children find elderly adults strange, and so also disconcerting. Old people are puzzling simply because they  usually meet few of them.

quizzical infant

Even very young children can have uncomfortable feelings about elderly people based on “negative physical and behavioural stereotypes” 3. As they meet more old people strangeness wears off and their attitudes improve, at least to neutrality. Rare  contact with the elderly may also explain why college students, especially men, also express negative attitudes towards the old 4. The old really are different from young adults. Not just because of obvious physical changes but also because of their behaviour, the conversational topics they choose, or fail to follow up, the responses that they make and so uncertainties about the quality of interactions with them. Again there is evidence that the more elderly people college students meet the more comfortable they feel in their company and the more they find to like about them, though this strongly depends on the quality, rather than simply the number of interactions they have had6   We cannot assume that just because the elderly become more numerous they will increasingly be understood, accepted and, hopefully, appreciated.

The question as to whether increased immersion in elderly groups can change attitudes is an important issue in health care 5.  Medical training recognises this but evidence from junior doctors, trainee nurses and health carers who must adjust to placement on geriatric wards is not entirely reassuring. One small study (36 Cases) found evidence that medical students working on geriatric wards have slightly more positive attitudes towards elderly people than those without this experience . There is some evidence that more active training may achieve more. Training can be made surprisingly onerous, especially during the  bizarre “Age Game” in which young doctors and health professionals undergo simulated visual and hearing losses, joint stiffness, mobility restriction and ingenious imitations of the tiresome physical problems of old age. There is some evidence that playing the Age Game brings about slightly greater empathy, and so perhaps greater tolerance of the difficulties of elderly patients. Documented trials seem to be too rare, and too small and to suffer from a common problem that they only evaluate changes from pre- to immediately post-study evaluations 7. Perhaps  being forced to totter about, physically constrained and inconvenienced and half – blind and deaf, while being lectured on the problems of hypothermia and incontinence makes even  dim or callous participants guess that they are supposed to show some change of heart. It has not yet been shown how long sudden new empathy lasts. Another difficulty is that these and similar attempts to educate junior nurses and doctors towards better attitudes may enhance recognition of the difficulties patients face, but  may do less to increase liking or affection for them. It is sad that for many of us, in spite of clinical experience, sympathy for disabilities and physical problems is tinged with revulsion.

Perhaps the attitudes of the young are unsurprising because even the elderly have negative attitudes towards each other. It is very common for old people  facing  the prospect of admission to a care – home to bitterly complain “I don’t want to be locked up with all of those awful old people”. One study attributes some of the unease that older people sometimes express about each other to discomfort at being reminded of the nearness of death 8.  Personally I do not find that meeting other elderly people is a sad memento mori. Rather, it  sometimes confronts me with aspects of what I have become, or am becoming, that I would prefer to ignore. So I am not surprised if younger people who meet me may wince at an illustration of things in store for them. This is regrettable but there is little I can do about it and pre-emptive acknowledgements of disabilities will hardly help. My generation find that sympathy and pity are too readily available, but we are uncomfortable with these generous emotions because they are alienating for both givers and receivers. Like all the human race, of all ages and conditions, we just want to be loved. Or at least liked ? Just a little bit?  Or, failing that, tolerated and benignly ignored ? This remains just as hard to achieve as at any time during our long lives.

The obligation to find ways to like one another is not one-sided. We elderly have the obligation not only to express but to feel liking for the young and to learn to be better company, more sensitive and responsive to their problems, which are often as acute as any we experience. We must try to re-learn social skills we should have discovered earlier in life and to take genuine interest in others- even if this means giving up tedious self-preoccupations with which we waste our time. If the billions of us who are about to crowd the world are to gain tolerance, let alone respect and affection from the young it is not enough to lecture them on our problems,  immerse them  in experiences of geriatric wards, or in simulations of our infirmities by the Age Game.  We should also take courses or classes or, failing that, take really serious thought as to how to become more likeable human beings. Giving up boiling squirrels or shouting “One! Two! Three!  LIFT OFF” , or endlessly offering the same anecdotes and opinions or stopping public exhibitions of noisy joints is  start, but not enough. We do not need or want pity from the young.  If the young pity us we should just pity them back. More than anything we need to be amused and if we can just manage this we may begin to hope to be amusing

1. Gavrilov L. A and Heuveline, F. (2003) The Encyclopaedia of Population, Macmillan Reference, U.S.A.

2. Jantz, R. K. (1977). Children’s Attitudes toward the Elderly. Social Education,41(6), 518-23.

  1. Seefeldt, C., Jantz, R. K., Galper, A., & Serock, K. (1977). Using pictures to explore children’s attitudes toward the elderly.The Gerontologist,17(6), 506-512.

4 Hawkins, M. J. (1996). College students attitudes towards elderly persons. Educational Gerontology: An International Quarterly,22(3), 271-279.

  1. Lovell, M. (2006). Caring for the elderly: changing perceptions and attitudes.Journal of vascular nursing,24(1), 22-26.
  2. K. Schwartz, Joseph P. Simmons, L. (2001). Contact quality and attitudes toward the elderly.Educational Gerontology,27(2), 127-137.

7. Varkey, P., Chutka, D. S., & Lesnick, T. G. (2006). The aging game: improving medical students’ attitudes toward caring for the elderly. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association7(4), 224-229.

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Age and Absent-Mindedness

forgetful image

Donald Broadbent, an intimidating tutor and later a scary boss, used to describe how once, when  shutting up his house for the night, he  carefully set a lettuce on the doorstep for the milkman and put the milk bottles in the rabbit hutch. Also when, going to his bedroom to dress to go out, he found himself in bed in his pyjamas (He was a shy man who did not much enjoy social occasions).  These are just the kinds of slips that comedians attribute to failing memory in old age but desuetude was not his problem. To the great sadness of all who knew him, he died long before his brilliance dimmed. His slips of action were probably due to intense preoccupations with much more interesting things than milk-deliveries, famished rabbits or the prospect of a boring evening

While working in Manchester I was lucky to be a colleague of Jim Reason, a world expert on  how human errors  cause dramatic aircraft accidents, failures of nuclear power stations and  cardiac surgery but also small glitches in ordinary domestic lives .1 As part of this research he developed a “Slips of Mind” questionnaire that had identified individuals whose everyday lives had become particularly error-prone such as women experiencing  problems of menopause or patients undergoing chemotherapy.  To test the folklore that the older we get the absent-minded and unreliable we become we gave this questionnaire to our Manchester volunteers to check what they had to tell us about their own experiences of absent-mindedness.

The results troubled Jim because though his questionnaire had reliably picked up differences between many groups of people our volunteers’ reports of their everyday errors did not increase with  age or reduce with higher intelligence. Scores on his questionnaire were also unrelated to scores on simple laboratory memory tests.  We were less puzzled  because this had become a familiar result in our laboratory and in the general literature on mental ageing.  As people grow old most do not report making more memory errors. People of all ages, but perhaps especially if they are old, tend to be diffident about their own abilities if they are depressed 2 but, surprisingly, differences in their ages or intelligence test scores or on objective memory tests do not seem to affect their confidence in themselves one way or another.


One reason  is that we have no absolute standards against which to judge our mental abilities. We can only compare ourselves against others, or against the demands that our lives make of us. If we share demanding jobs with extraordinarily able colleagues, or if we live with formidably competent partners, we are likely to become pretty humble about our competence.  If we are lucky enough to be surrounded by   less competent people we can become overweening. Age does not just affect our brains and so our mental abilities; it  alters our daily lives. As we grow older our lives become less demanding and more predictable; routines and habits become simpler and more reliable; there are fewer observers to bring our lapses to our attention and perhaps those that remain have become used to us, and have grown more lenient.  Our slips are mostly unimportant and leave no scars on our relationships or our memories. The complacency with which the oldest volunteers answered Jim’s excellent questionnaire simply means that, unlike the exceptional young people he had studied, they were never  tested by demands  to run nuclear power stations, fly aircraft, drive trains, be responsible for safety on oil rigs, manage complex surgical procedures or care for demanding young families.

If we are lucky our lapses may amuse rather than exasperate our families and friends but there is some evidence that, in general, young adults regard slips by older people as sad signs of mental decline while older people are more sympathetic with each other’s lapses and do not regard them as being omens of irreversible and malign change 3.

One exception to the tolerance of the young is that they may find it hard to suppress irritation when we repeat a comment, or a story many, many times, or forget that we have already taken our daily medicine and overdose by having  more.  Asher Koriat and his colleagues pointed out that this highlights a distinction between remembering things that are said to us or  happen to us (“input monitoring” ) and things that we ourselves have done or said (“output monitoring”)4. They compared how well old  and young adults  remembered  words that they were asked to remember (input monitoring) and other words that they had categorised  as being, for example, the name of a living or inanimate thing (“output monitoring”). Older volunteers were worse at remembering words about which they had made decisions than those that they had  intended, and tried, to remember. Perhaps this is the key: an active decision to remember improves recall more than simply having to do something about a word or event without feeling any obligation to later recall it. Gill Cohen and Dorothy Faulkner expanded this theme by showing that older people are quite poor at remembering things that they themselves have done and even confuse these with memories of things that they had only thought of doing 5.  As often, T.S. Eliot got it first : ”between the act and the intention there falls the shadow”.


A key is that memory  is more about prediction than reminiscence. Our memories of the past may be pleasant, interesting or distressing but, without them, we would be at a loss to anticipate our tomorrows or plan ahead to manage or avoid future events. Suzanne Corkin touchingly illustrates this  in the first paragraph of her account of the famous neuropsychological patient, Henry Molaison6 who, during more than twenty years after bi-lateral damage to his hippocampus could never again remember what had happened more than ten minutes ago. When asked what he would do tomorrow he replied, with characteristic good nature “whatever is beneficial”. Without any guide from his yesterdays he could anticipate nothing about his tomorrows. As Sue implies by the title of her book he lived in a “Permanent Present Tense” without a past or future.

Older people become keenly aware that memory is about prediction and planning when we find ourselves standing baffled in a room we have just entered trying to remember what we meant to do in it. We have successfully initiated a plan but, halfway through it, have forgotten the goal. Often we fail to resolve this dilemma and do whatever we most often do in that particular location – like Donald Broadbent who successfully got to his bedroom to dress but was sidetracked by his bedtime routine. My colleagues refer to this aspect of memory for the future as “prospective memory” and study it in laboratory tasks in which volunteers are asked to break off activities at specified moments to do something else – such as checking the time on a clock – or to change activities when some particular event occurs. It will not surprise many of us to hear that we become less good at both these kinds of tasks than when we were young but there is encouraging evidence that our failures force us to find new ways of coping that they young do not yet need and so have not yet discovered.  Elizabeth Maylor asked elderly Manchester volunteers to telephone her at specified times and found that some of them did this remarkably efficiently, but apparently only because they found elaborate ways to cue themselves  – such as piling up furniture about the table on which they kept their telephone 7 . Obviously those who have simple fixed routines into which they can build reminders to trigger any plans that they make have an advantage over others, especially the  busy young, who have chaotically unstructured lives.  Difficulties in coping are greater for people with such considerable memory losses that they lose track of even comfortably predictable routines and cannot remember to use even simple memory aids. For them new technologies can provide solutions; from electronic diaries providing alerts to do things at particular times to permanent connections with manned “control centres” from which health professionals continuously monitor, update and steer them through their days.

It is alarming to think how easy it has become for our memories to move outside our heads to vast server farms in which our lives, our plans and so our aspirations and hopes can be stored long after we have any use for them. Wearable devices such as miniature cameras already document the patrols and encounters of  policemen and soldiers. Devices, such as Google Glasses  can already provide very accurate and complete, but numbingly tedious permanent records of entire existences that expand and contradict  the dim biological traces on which we depend. This may not do any more for us than the vast collections of un-inspected digital photographs and sound recordings that we already have. I am not excited by these possibilities and do not look forward to spending my last days like Beckett’s sad Krapp, obsessionally playing over his Last Tape, or editing my external electronic memory. No more than I presently feel the need to get my digital photo collection in order at long last. The possibility of having an external virtual memory of remorseless precision and infinite capacity only highlights the advantage of the limited, fuzzy, unreliably self-edited biological record from which I have constructed the little life story with which  I have become content. Again Eliot is fast on the ball “Human beings cannot bear too much reality”.  Or too much unreality if memory hacking  becomes feasible and horrible electronic crimes begin to be committed against our natures.

It may be that if I had an external memory I should be less tedious company because alarms would go off when I  once again tell the same story or use the same dull phrase. My patient family would no longer be irritated by my sudden pauses in the kitchen, bewildered whether I came in to make a sandwich, get a drink, check the dishwasher or move on to the lavatory next door.  If this happens I shall have lost control of the dimming and fallible recollections that are all that I have with which to work out what it is to be human.  I shall  become a  biological appendage to a huge computer in some other continent.  The natural decay of my memory, like a pile of autumn leaves, briefly and gorgeously discolouring as they compost into  rich undifferentiated tilth, is a far, far better fate.

  1. Reason, J. (1990).Human error. Cambridge university press.
  2. Rabbitt, P., & Abson, V. (1990). ‘Lost and Found’: Some logical and methodological limitations of self‐report questionnaires as tools to study cognitive ageing.British Journal of Psychology81(1), 1-16.
  3. Bieman-Copland, S., & Ryan, E. B. (1998). Age-biased interpretation of memory successes and failures in adulthood.The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences53(2), P105-P111.
  4. Koriat, A.Ben-Zur, H., & Sheffer, D. (1988). Telling the same story twice: Output monitoring and Age. Journal of \memory and Language, 27, 23-39.
  5. Cohen, G., & Faulkner, D. (1989). Age differences in source forgetting: Effects on reality monitoring and on eyewitness testimony.Psychology and Aging4(1), 10.
  6. Corkin, S. (2013).Permanent present tense: the unforgettable life of the amnesic patient (Vol. 1000). Basic Books.
  7. Maylor, E. A. (1990). Age and prospective memory.The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology42(3), 471-493.
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How did I get so late so soon? Age and the passage of time.

magritte time


In his last years, when he was sadly bewildered about many things, my father used to annoy his family by ceaseless sighing about his remembered past: “How has it all gone so quickly? It seems just like a dream”.  We should have listened more intelligently because this implies the shrewd point that we have no subjective measure of time except what we infer from our memories of the events that we can recall. Einstein was brilliant at suave deepities1: “Time is what prevents everything from happening at once”. In my father’s elderly memory all the times of his life did happen almost at once because they were logged next to each other, equally accessible, so that he could flip as fast between decades as between days. His dream of an unnervingly accelerated history was a construct of the way his memory worked.



There are many ideas about why time seems to pass quicker as we grow old. I am notorious for having spent most of my working life dully puzzling why our decisions, of any kind, become slower as we age. Because of this, when a much loved teacher and friend reached his 80’s he began to ring me up to tell me that he had solved the problem of why time was passing so quickly in his old age: since he was 20 his reaction times had slowed by 15% and he deduced that this was why things now seemed to happen faster. If I would make the right experiments I might write a more useful paper than those I usually managed ? With experts in Time Perception, Alison and John Wearden I eventually did make some experiments asking volunteers to compare  intervals as short as their reaction-times – a second or less,- and found that the older were , on average, just as accurate as the young  but had become more variable.2 At least on the scale of a second or less unfilled moments do not seem to grow shorter in old age.

This was not the sharpest way to test my mentor’s hypothesis. In the 1880’s, at the very beginnings of human experimental psychology in Wilhelm Wundt’s laboratory in Leipzig, Muniz asked volunteers to estimate durations of brief intervals when they were empty of events or filled with strings of fast or slow and soft or loud clicks. He found that the faster (or louder) the click stream the longer young adults judged the intervals to be. It seems that we calibrate even very brief periods of time by the number or intensity of events that fill them.  We can argue that this is because we cannot directly perceive time. We can only perceive  events that occur in time and the order in which they happen. It may be that because older people process information more slowly they register fewer changes and so underestimate durations. Though Alison, John and I found no evidence that this works for very short empty intervals, during which there is little or nothing to perceive it seems plausible that when slightly longer intervals are filled with events age-slowing of our perceptions may cause us to miss some events and time will seem to pass more quickly than it did during the crammed moments of youth.

There are two different kinds of explanations for age-changes in time perception. As we have noticed one is based on changes in how much of what happens to us we can perceive and recall: explanations based on the content and organisation of memory. The other is that some physiological change slows an internal time-keeping system, a  “biological clock”. A touching metaphorical illustration of the “failing clock” explanation is Ernst Junger’s 3 description of an antique hour glass that he kept on his writing desk as a memento of a lost friend. As years passed hourglass-time ran faster because the sand moving from the top to the bottom bulb wore and widened the funnel between.



We do seem to have a variety of biological clocks, some timing the cycles of night and day others the wheeling seasons and others brief intervals such as seconds or minutes.  Many factors can affect their accuracy.  For example brief intervals of seconds seems to pass more slowly when we are cold than when we are warmer 4 . So accuracy at estimating very short periods of time is  possibly slowed as the number of events that we can notice declines, and time perception certainly varies with physiological changes.  But these explanations do not account for my father’s feeling in his old age that his past and present were accelerating to vanishing point.  I think that his feelings depended on how he remembered his past and compared it against his present.

The comparisons he might have made could be of several different kinds.  An early 19th Century idea was that we gauge the speed of present time by comparing the numbers and durations of our recent experiences against our entire lifespan up to the present. So, for a child of 10, the past year would be 10% but for my father at 70 only 0.011% of total life experience. William James 5  dismissed this idea as “a description rather than an explanation” but, though I am intimidated that Claudia Hammond 6  agrees with him in her excellent book on time perception, I do not think that they are right. This is because comparing  an immediately past interval against an entire lifespan is only  one of many plausible comparisons, any and all of which we can make if we choose. James’ seems over-influenced by the fact that he had a rival explanation that he expressed in one of the most elegantly lush paragraphs in any textbook of psychology:

“[When we are young] ….apprehension is vivid, the retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that period , like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous and long drawn-out. But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to content-less units and the years grow hollow and collapse”.

It might seem that this could not possibly be said better (though I do not recognise, for myself, the “hollow collapse” of  “content-less” years of my old age).  It certainly could not be expressed more sonorously but I think that Thomas Mann’s novel, “The Magic Mountain”7, a staple of all discussions of the elastic properties of subjective time, says the same thing more clearly. At the top of Mann’s mountain is a tuberculosis asylum that his protagonist visits only to discover that he, himself, has the romantic malady and must become a patient.  At the summit he compares the dragging passage of any current day with the speed-blur of remembered past weeks and months and time passes achingly slow because of this contrast, and because of his longing for something, anything at all, to happen. When remembered at the foot of the mountain, the same spell of summit time seems to have been remarkably brief because so few remembered events marked its passage.

Mann’s insights also show why the answers that we get from people will depend on the precise questions that we ask them: for example, how fast do you think that time is, currently, passing? How fast did it pass yesterday? How rapidly did it seem to pass in Warsaw or Shanghai ? During different periods of your life? etc. etc. It is hard to think of any experimental methodology that would give us sensible numbers with which to compare differences in subjective speed of time experienced by younger and older people in any and all life situations. Documenting peoples’ subjective judgements of the speed with which they feel that time passes can tell us whether and under what circumstances and in what times of life  they feel that it is passing quicker or slower  but gives us little idea by how much old age, or any other life circumstance, distorts their judgements. Perhaps it is only useful to try to put numbers to our  experience when we are judging  intervals that are so brief that whatever else we can experience and remember during them is irrelevant. When our time judgements depend on our memory of  the number and quality and order of events that we have experienced the variety, the importance and the emotional impact of these events can make all the difference  and it is dubious how trying to quantify changes in terms of speeding or slowing of clock or calendar time can help us.

It seems to me that when people become disgruntled at the remorseless passing of time they tend to comfort themselves with the idea that because we do not understand “what time is” our present experience of it may be wrong, or very limited. What time “is” in terms of the physics of the cosmos is one thing and how we experience it is quite another. Nevertheless mysteries can be comforting as well as threatening .  T.S Eliot 8 echoes the  mysticism of High Anglican Christianity :

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”

W.G. Sebald9   is just as satisfyingly mysterious, but without resonance of religious overtones:

……“It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time.”

Einstein, as usual, found just the aphorism to condense the incomprehensibility of physics when lay-persons’ understanding fails leaving them with a satisfying sense of numinous ignorance:

“Time is an Illusion”


melting clock

It is precisely because all  these and many other similar statements are both authoritative and incomprehensible that they bring old people like myself vague, bewildered comfort.  Though we  persist in consoling ourselves with this belief, things are not unreal just because we do not understand them. Others, like the eminent physicist Lee Smolen, who understand them better than most of us, derive robust common-sense counter arguments from equally impressive and impenetrable mathematics:

“Time is Real”10

It is obvious why most oldies would like to escape time but, of course,  I have found no way to do this. The best dodge that I can offer is that while we cannot ignore its remorseless effects on our bodies and minds and on the world about us we are free to think about time in many different ways and some of these are more comfortable or more amusing than others. Our brains manage our realities by constructing models, or maps of the world in which we live. All of these different kinds of maps are, to some extent, arbitrary, though those that scientists try to draft are at least continually checked against new evidence and for internal consistency.  Most of the maps that we build to interpret our everyday experience are much less rigorous than formal scientific theories and some depend on the limitations of the languages that we have to describe things to others and to ourselves.   As a very young child learning to communicate in basic Hindi I became upset because the word for yesterday and for tomorrow is the same – kal. To feel that there might be no difference between these opposite directions from the present weakened my vague grasp of causes and effects. I still may not have worked this out. Other cultures, and the languages that they have developed to describe their world views have other quirks, quite different from everyday English. For instance the Navajo are said to have a circular, rather than a linear concept of time with passage marked in terms of the starts, progressions and ends of particular activities rather than by clocks or calendars 11.

Since most of what we know about time is derived by mental orderings of things that happen to us along an invisible dimension I think that we should try to expand our freedom and enlarge our maps of our subjective experiences by expanding the ways in which we think and talk about time.  Why discuss time only as an ordering of markers on a dull linear track when we can invent constructions that include the relative probabilities of events along different time paths ? (e.g. for the implausible future “Far left of tomorrow”), or that signal their relative desirability (e.g. for the regrettable past “Way down below Yesterday”)   or  signal their distance from our present locations both in space and in  time (“Miles away from last year”), or their distance and significance in space and time ( “But that was long ago, and in another country and, besides, the wench is dead” 12 ). This will not alter, or improve, our understanding of the reality of time, or help us to decide which physicists have more nearly got it right, but it might substitute amusement for numb awe whenever we catch ourselves, once again, futilely trying to eff the ineffable.



  1. Daniel Dennett in his 2009 speech to the American Atheists Institution conference,  coined by the teenage daughter of one of his friends. The term refers to a statement that is apparently profound but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another. Generally, a deepity has (at least) two meanings: one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true.(see Wikipaedia)


  1. Wearden, J. H., Wearden, A. J. and Rabbitt, P. M. (1997). Age and IQ effects on stimulus and response timing.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 23(4), 962–979.
  2. Junger, E. (1954). Das Sandhurbuch. Frankfurt am Main Springer Verlag
  3. Baddeley, A. D. (1966). Reduced body temperature and time estimation. American Journal of Psychology, 79, 475–479.
  4. James, W. (1890) Principles of Psychology. Available Digireads com. 2011.
  5. Hammond, C. (2013) Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.
  6. Mann, T, (1924) The Magic Mountain English transl published 1927 by Albert Knopf NY.
  7. Eliot, T. S. (1936) First lines of “Burnt Norton” , in Collected Poems, Faber, London.
  8. Sebald, W.G. (2001). Austerlitz. C. Hanser (available on Amazon Kindle)
  9. Smolen, L. (2013). 0-0-0. Time Reborn. available from Amazon inc. digital books for Kindle.
  10. Charles, M., et al. (2011) Time Perception among Navajo American Indians and its relation to academic success. Paper at the 119th Annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.
  11. With apologies to Christopher Marlow “The Jew of Malta”, circa 1590.







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Old Dogs, old tricks and reaching one’s prime.


Studies of outstanding achievements show that innate or “natural” ability is a crucial entry qualification for a distinguished career playing music 1 or chess 2 but that most of the vast differences in achievement between excellent and internationally outstanding players are due to tens of thousands of hours of deliberate practice over decades.


This distinction between “natural” and “acquired” abilities applies to species as well as individuals. It took Newton and Leibniz, two of the most creative mathematicians who ever lived, years of effort to invent the calculus, but this has become part of our common intellectual heritage so that schoolboys now master it in a few weeks. As we grow older we sadly find that unfamiliar problems are becoming harder to solve and new skills take longer to learn. On the other hand longer life brings a larger repertoire of useful information and learned skills. We must suppose that we shall reach our lifetime peak performance on the things that we do best, most often and most enjoy when the trade-off begins to work against us and we start to lose old abilities faster than we gain new ones.

A different issue is that retaining useful skills and information is one thing and deploying them is another. Additional years of practice  preserve, and even increase our vocabularies but this does not mean that we continue to use words as dexterously as ever. Susan Kemper 3 analysed a remarkable collection of diaries preserved by an enlightened public library system in Kansas. Many covered 40 or 50 years of their authors’ lives. Sue found that  diarists’ vocabularies only slightly reduced as they aged but their writing styles became less varied and flexible. As young adults they often used long and complex sentences and deftly handled multiply embedded subordinate clauses but, in old age their sentences became much shorter and simpler. To use  complicated grammatical constructions we require an efficient working memory. When we have to hold a tortuously unwinding sentence in mind until we reach a word that, retrospectively, makes sense of the rest.  (Recall the legendary simultaneous translator who screamed during a particularly long and tortuous German sentence – “a Verb,…a Verb…For God’s Sweet Sake give me a verb.”).  Keeping and increasing our stock of words is one thing, but keeping the computational efficiency that allows us to assemble them into the most appropriate and meaningful orders is another.

One way to find out when our combined assets of declining innate “smarts” and improving learned skills bring us to our personal peaks is to track lifetime career paths of outstanding individuals. A study of 43 financial experts aged from 24 to 59 found that while the older now had slightly lower intelligence test scores than their juniors their longer experience compensated for this in work-related decisions 4. A similar study included a questionnaire of “tacit”, often unexpressed and un-documented, knowledge relating to their work and found that  more experienced older managers still performed well on this5.

During the 1930’s and 1940’s  H. C. Lehman compared the ages at which outstanding figures in mathematics, science, literature, and history6, the visual arts7   and music8 made their greatest contributions.


Mathematicians, physicists and chemists peaked in their twenties and thirties,   historians and philosophers in their forties and fifties, novelists and essayists in their twenties and thirties, but more often in their forties and fifties and sometimes even in their sixties and seventies. Interestingly, poets tended to peak in their thirties, much earlier than novelists and other literary figures. Graphic artists, such as Titian could still produce remarkable work in their seventies or even their eighties, as could musicians, particularly executants such as Pablo Casals. One interpretation might be that great new discoveries in mathematics and science depend on original and innovative thought and are not necessarily derived from very wide and detailed knowledge of a field. In contrast, in history and literature years of study are necessary to master huge bodies of information before original new interpretations become possible. We know from studies of outstanding pianists, and chess players that exceptional skill requires long, continuous and deliberate practice1,2 .This is probably also true for writing, painting, etching and sculpture.

It is not surprising that even the most able of us  become less productive as we grow old because we all eventually die and will probably not be at our intellectual best for some while before this event. A study of correspondence by eminent literary figures found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the quality of their writing began to wane up to ten years before they died 9 A different way in which mortality statistics may affect surveys of career trajectories (or vice-versa!) is suggested by a disconcerting report that 2102 exceptionally creative or “versatile” literary figures and scientists died, on average, from 2.7 to 8.2 years before their less high-achieving peers 10. I know of no convincing explanation for this apparently well-documented fact but, if the good indeed die young, this would certainly nudge statistical counts to favour an “early achievement” hypothesis.

It is hard to interpret evidence that age and terminal pathologies affect some kinds of mental skills such as mathematics, hard science and poetry earlier than others such as philosophy, painting and music. For example, there is the difference between a person’s age when she first has a remarkable new insight and when she eventually gets round to publishing it, perhaps after many years of analysis and checking. Many authors and philosophers have spent decades revising their major works. Perhaps achievements in the humanities are less immediately based on competition of ideas than in science because they do not require accepted theories to be challenged and refuted before they are replaced. In science there has always been fierce competition to be the first to solve problems that have long been identified as crucial goals for research and solutions are triumphantly published as soon as they are found. In literature, people compete in different ways and usually not against such severe time pressures.

Lehman pointed out that his data were not ideal because some of the careers he studied were during the nineteenth and even the eighteenth century when early deaths brutally curtailed productivity. Even in the young and middle aged, illnesses ending in death accelerate trajectories of cognitive decline, even over periods of eight to eleven years. Contrasts are only valid if they are based on the entire careers of equally long-lived geniuses in different fields. Another factor is differences in  economically feasible career trajectories in different disciplines. Among twentieth and twenty-first century scientists those who made remarkable discoveries when young may be rapidly tempted into heavy administration either by promotion within institutions or by pressures to compete for grants to support bigger research teams that become managerial burdens. Their personal research creativity inevitably suffers. The funding structure of contemporary science also confuses assessments of lifetime productivity in other ways. The recent increase in publications by successful older scientists often reflects the talent and energy of outstanding young professional dependents rather than their sustained personal brilliance.

Recent studies confirm that declines in scientific productivity do  occur but also suggest that they now happen much later than data available to Lehrman suggested. Studies of British psychologists in the 1970s and 1980s [11], of large groups of less eminent, physicists, geologists, physiologists and biochemists published in 1989 [12  ]  and of recently eminent economists   [13]  all found that, as they grow older,  academics do publish less, and in less prestigious journals. Nevertheless, plateaus of greatest scientific productivity now seem to last more than a decade longer than in Lehman’s day and have become less different from those in the arts. Arts practitioners now seem to peak earlier . A 1999 analysis of the number of paintings produced by 739 graphic artists, works by 719 musicians and books by 229 authors found that, like most contemporary scientists, their periods of maximum output were in their thirties and forties [14 ]. There are also hints of sex differences because the time of greatest productivity for female writers was in their fifties. This may reflect either the longer cognitive preservation of women or their late release from family pressures or, of course, both.

One problem in assessing differences between occupations is finding comparable standards for assessments.  In the arts these differ sharply between various kinds of achievement, with standards of comparison and even with changes in fashion. For example, a tally of the year 2000 market value of paintings by 51 modern US artists found that for painters born before 1920 the average peak age for the valuation of their paintings was 50.6 but for those born after 1920 it was only 28.8. If we only compared data for current sale prices, we might conclude that artists who are now elderly once  painted much better (or at least much more profitably) than their young contemporaries or, indeed, than they themselves did when they were young 15.

The lifetime performance of humbler, but nevertheless high-functioning, careers in industry, business and commerce is also not straightforward to interpret. Jobs require very different skills and make demands that are more or less stressful for older workers. For example, productivity at heavy manual work markedly declines between 18 and 50 and individuals older than 50 must change jobs or retire. So most of the data available for the middle aged have been collected on middle- and upper-level managers. A powerful determinant of these people’s careers has been the rate and extent of technological changes in their professions. Rapid and radical changes decrease productivity in older employees who learn more slowly. Another issue is how performance is assessed. When productivity is rated by colleagues, such as senior managers, assessments for older workers tend to be favourable. There is also evidence that older workers tend to be more poorly rated in organisations in which the average age is young than those in which it is older. Comparisons of salaries tend to favour older workers, but this is a questionable index because most studies show that job productivity is only weakly linked to salary. The general picture seems to be exactly what common sense would suggest: learning necessary skills takes time proportional to how difficult they are to acquire. More intelligent and younger people can acquire skills faster; older and less intelligent people take longer. Once skills have been learned, and particularly if they are continually practised, they can remain relatively stable into late middle age or early old age. So, if job demands do not radically change, productivity can also be maintained through the fifties and sixties and, even at this later time of life, new knowledge and competencies can be acquired, albeit more slowly and with greater effort but, hopefully, also with even greater personal satisfaction.

A broader point is that, as in all aspects of mental life, the changes that age brings about in our everyday efficiency are not only due to changes in our brains that impose new limits on our mental performance. They are also due to shifts in the resources of time and opportunity that our changing lives allow and in the particular challenges that our lives impose on us. It is not news to any of us that, in the current state of medical science we will, most likely, eventually experience illnesses that affect our mental abilities. A more interesting point is what steps we can take to delay this process so that our inevitable final periods of mental decline is as short as possible. The essential thing is to stay well and so to live long and, while we enjoy this good fortune, to continue to practise and furbish the skills that we have acquired throughout our lifetimes. This does becomes harder as we age but, if we can put up with this inconvenience we may continue doing the things that we like well enough to bring us satisfaction and happiness.

  1. Krampe, R. T. and Ericcson, K. A. (1996). Maintaining excellence. Deliberate practice and elite performance in young and older pianists. Journal of Experimental Psychology, General, 125, 331–359.
  2. Charness, N., Tuffiash, M., Krampe, R., Reingold, E., & Vasyukova, E. (2005). The role of deliberate practice in chess expertise. Applied Cognitive Psychology19(2), 151-165.
  3. Kemper, S. (1990). Adults’ diaries: Changes made to written narratives across the lifespan. Discourse Processes, 13, 207–223.
  4. Colonia-Willner, R. (1998). Practical intelligence at work. relationship between aging and cognitive efficiency among managers in a bank environment. Psychology and Aging, 13, 45–47.
  5. Colonia-Wilner, R. (1999). Investing in practical intelligence: Aging and cognitive efficiency among executives. International Journal of Behavioural Development. 23. 591–604.
  6. Lehman, H. C. (1935). The chronological years of greatest productivity; chemists, inventors, poets et altera. Psychological Bulletin, 32, 676–693.
  7. Lehman, H. C. (1942). The creative years; oil paintings, etchings, and architectural works. Psychological Review, 49, 19–42.
  8. Lehman, H. C. and Ingerham, D. W. (1939). Man’s creative years in music. Science Monthly, N.Y., 48, 431–443.
  9. Suedfeld, P. and Piedrahita, L. E. (1984). Intimations of mortality. Integrative simplification as a precursor of death. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 848–852.
  10. Cassandro, V. J. (1998). Explaining premature mortality across fields of creative endeavour. Journal of Personality, 66, 805–833.
  11. Over, R. (1982). Does research productivity decline with age ? Higher Education, 11, 511–520.
  12. L. E. (1991). Size, age and productivity of scientific and technical research groups. Scientometrics, 20, 395–416.
  13. Levin, S. G. and Stephan, P. E. (1989). Age and research productivity of academic scientists. Research in Higher Education, 30, 531–549.
  14. Bayer, A. E. and Dutton, J. E. (1977).Career age and research-professional activities of academic scientists. The Journal of Higher Education, 48, 259–283.
  15. Galenson, D. W. and Weinberg, B. A. (2000). Age and the quality of work: The case of modern American painters, Journal of Political Economy, 108(4), 761–777.
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