26 January 2012


I've been gathering resources relating to how we think, how the process is changing, and what we can do to enhance our mental functioning.  Here are two items of interest ~

In A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond, Patricia Cohen writes about the apparent decline in creativity, and learning capacity after about the age of 40, and memory after about the age of 50 ~ and how that perceived decline is coming under new scrutiny as we learn more about the nature of intelligence.  "Many researchers believe that human intelligence or brainpower consists of dozens of assorted cognitive skills, which they commonly divide into two categories.  One bunch falls under the heading 'fluid intelligence", the abilities that produce solutions not based on experience, like pattern recognition, working memory and abstract thinking, the kind of intelligence tested in IQ examinations.  These abilities tend to peak in one's 20s.

'Crystallized intelligence, by contrast, generally refers to skills that are acquired through experience ans education, like verbal ability, inductive reasoning and judgment.  While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity, and culture .... One of the brain's most powerful tools is its ability to quickly scan a vast storehouse of templates for relevant information and past experience to come up with a novel solution to a problem.  In this context, the mature brain is especially well equipped, which is probably why we still associate wisdom with age.

" .... Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.  Most important, they discover that despite a decline in fluid intelligence, complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improved with age."

So the question becomes, can anything be done about the decline in fluid intelligence with age?  The author describes several studies which explore this very question, and "The most consistent results involved education.  All other things being equal, the more years of school a subject had, the better he or she performed on every mental test.  Up to age 75, the studies showed, people with college degrees performed on complex tasks like less-educated individuals who were 10 years younger."

It doesn't end there.  Even absent a college degree, "Into middle age and beyond, people could make up for educational disadvantages encountered earlier in life.  Everyone in the study who regularly did more to challenge their brains ~ reading, writing, attending lectures or completing word puzzles ~ did better on fluid intelligence tests than their counterparts who did less."

Another study showed that "adults, particularly men, with low levels of education could also improve mental function by using a computer.  Although researchers are not sure why, they speculate that computers require users to switch mental gears more frequently or process information in a new way, which quickens reaction time."

Finally, researchers "noticed other similarities among people with the strongest cognitive skills.  Senior citizens who performed as well as young adults in fluid intelligence tended to have four characteristics in addition to having a college degree and regularly engaging in mental workouts ~ they exercised frequently;  they were socially active, frequently seeing friends and family, volunteering or attending meetings;  they were better at remaining calm in the face of stress; and they felt more in control of their lives."

More research remains to be done.  For now, it is encouraging to understand that both college education and continuing education can help keep us sharp well into our golden years.

In What You (Really) Need To Know, Lawrence H. Summers suggests that while part of universities' function is to keep alive man's greatest creations, passing them on from generation to generation, it is interesting to speculate how the university experience might be different if the educational system is altered to reflect the structure of society and our evolving understanding of how people learn.  He offers the following "guesses and hopes ~

~  Education will be more about how to process and use information, and less about imparting it.
~  An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration.
~  New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed.
~  'Active learning classrooms' (which cluster students at tables with rearrangeable furniture and integrated technology) will help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences.
~  The world is much more open .... and it will be essential that students have international experiences.
~  Courses of study will place more emphasis on the analysis of data.

"A good rule of thumb for many things in life holds that things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then happen faster than you thought they could."  

To be continued tomorrow ....

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