Last month, Tubingen University cognitive scientist Michael Ramscar and his colleagues mounted a frontal assault on the idea that seniors’ brains slow down as they age. 

Michael RamscarIf seniors seem to struggle with memory and data, Ramscar argues, it’s because they’ve already learned so much and—like any data system—the bigger the memory banks, the longer it takes to scan them. In fact, Ramscar goes so far as to say that the notion of senior decline is a “myth,” and, barring a properly diagnosed pathology such as dementia, caregivers and the lay public ought to abandon the notion of cognitive decline altogether.

Ramscar’s work made international headlines and has also opened a new debate on aging and the brain. He took a moment to chat with Provider, via email, about how the notion of cognitive decline took hold in the first place, about the need for seniors to mix things up a bit, and the implications of his findings for those who care for the elderly.

Provider: The way you and your team presented your findings made it seem perfectly obvious that there were “myths” behind conventional notions of seniors’ decline. Why do you think this myth has become so pervasive? Where did it take root?

Ramscar: I think that answer to this one is, “It’s complicated.” In some ways, it seems to go back to folk ideas about spirits—if you think of your mind as an abstract “spirit,” there is no need to think about the way the mundane factors we describe in our paper affect the way we think across our lives.

If, on the other hand, you think of your mind as being a product of your brain, then the kinds of processing constraints we describe seem like obvious things to think about. (Note, this doesn’t mean people have to give up thinking about themselves as spirits, it just means that our spirits appear to be more constrained by our bodies than we might often tend to believe.)

Which is to say that the myth has its roots in the way people have tended to think about our minds historically—and in the way that people often still tend to think about their minds. The hope, I guess, is that just as learning to think about our bodies as part of the natural world has helped people understand how to better take care of their physical health, thinking about our minds as part of the natural world can help us make sense of the changes we experience as our minds grow older.

Provider: One of the things your study talks about is discriminative learning being context-driven. If I’m reading you correctly, you’re saying that one’s environment (job, home, hobby) helps inform which data are important to retain. Are there any lessons there for caretakers in senior homes who are dealing with older folks who are suddenly thrust into a new context?

Ramscar: I think that, in many ways, older folks find being suddenly thrust into a new context easier than younger folks.

The effects we point to in our article suggest that it is a lack of contextual variety that seniors have to worry about. Detuning to irrelevant information is one of the functions of discriminative learning, and it naturally predicts the finding that older folks tend to encode less contextual information in memory experiments than younger folks. They are better at discriminating relevant information from irrelevant information.

A possible problem comes here when we repeatedly do the same thing. The less contextual information someone encodes, the less they will be able to discriminate the different times they did the same thing. One way to think about this is to think about how much specific detail you can recall from the last time you took a trip, versus last time you spent a day at home: I’m betting most people can remember far more about the day they were traveling, and that’s because when we are travelling and encountering new contexts, our minds are less adept at discriminating exactly what is relevant and what is irrelevant. So we encode more stuff about each experience, and that extra stuff is useful in individuating those experiences.

Taken together, what we know about learning and memory suggests that contextual diversity is going to be of particular help to healthy seniors when it comes to organizing their memories, which suggests that getting out and about, changing décor, moving the furniture, etc., are going to be pretty helpful in helping us keep track of events as we get older.

Provider: If you and your colleagues successfully convince people to rethink cognitive decline in seniors, what will be different in how seniors are cared for/talked about? What tangible steps can caretakers take to rid themselves of their bias and harness the intelligence of seniors?

Ramscar: This is a great question. I think the most important tangible thing seniors can do is to try to get a handle on is the idea that their minds are natural information processing devices. This can help them understand that there are things they can do to help their minds organize the world (see my comments on context above). And it can also help them get a handle on why some things that might seem frustrating as we grow older (like remembering names!) are a function of the amount of stuff we have to sift through as we get older, and are not necessarily a sign of a failing mind.

The Psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that children who believe that their ability to master new things can be improved through hard work learn far better than kids who think their abilities are fixed, or somehow given to them by nature. It is clear that people’s ability to learn stays with them at all ages, but if kids are often tempted to think of their abilities as fixed, what must the mythology of “healthy cognitive decline” be doing to seniors’ faith in their ability to improve their minds with work? If we can get older adults to understand that a lot of what is currently called decline is simply learning, and to make them understand that the ability to change the way one thinks stays with us across the lifespan, we can begin to properly harness the intelligence (and experience!) of seniors.

Provider: What has been the reaction to your study? Are you satisfied with the level of conversation you have generated? What do you think is missing from the public discussions of your findings?

Ramscar: On the whole, I have been delighted. There has been some pushback from researchers wedded to the old story, but the surprise for me has been how mild that has been. Change takes time, and our paper is just a step on a much longer journey.

There are still several things missing, but some of this is our “fault”—we could only cover so much in one paper. One thing that I want to address next is changes that happen in early adulthood (like, even, before 30!), that mirror many of the changes that are often lumped together as cognitive decline. By showing how learning changes cognitive performance in younger folks in exactly the same way as it does healthy seniors, we hope we can help people to understand the central message of our work without dragging in confusing ideas about age-related disease.