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Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong

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Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes in The New York Times:

Short-term memory contains the contents of your thoughts right now, including what you intend to do in the next few seconds. It’s doing some mental arithmetic, thinking about what you’ll say next in a conversation or walking to the hall closet with the intention of getting a pair of gloves.
Short-term memory is easily disturbed or disrupted. It depends on your actively paying attention to the items that are in the “next thing to do” file in your mind. You do this by thinking about them, perhaps repeating them over and over again (“I’m going to the closet to get gloves”). But any distraction — a new thought, someone asking you a question, the telephone ringing — can disrupt short-term memory. Our ability to automatically restore the contents of the short-term memory declines slightly with every decade after 30.

But age is not the major factor so commonly assumed. I’ve been teaching undergraduates for my entire career and I can attest that even 20-year-olds make short-term memory errors — loads of them. They walk into the wrong classroom; they show up to exams without the requisite No. 2 pencil; they forget something I just said two minutes before. These are similar to the kinds of things 70-year-olds do.

In the absence of brain disease, even the oldest older adults show little or no cognitive or memory decline beyond age 85 and 90, as shown in a 2018 study. Memory impairment is not inevitable.

Some aspects of memory actually get better as we age. For instance, our ability to extract patterns, regularities and to make accurate predictions improves over time because we’ve had more experience. (This is why computers need to be shown tens of thousands of pictures of traffic lights or cats in order to be able to recognize them). If you’re going to get an X-ray, you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one

(click here to continue reading Opinion | Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong. – The New York Times.)

Good to know as my brain and yours continues to age. Our brains might be slightly more crowded with experience, thus it might take a bit longer to access some memory, but it isn’t due to the brain deteriorating. My spelling is as poor as it ever was, more due to utilizing the crutch of computer spell-check than my brain turning to mush because I drink wine.

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Written by Seth Anderson

January 14th, 2020 at 8:48 am

Posted in science

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