Wisdom and Wizardry
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
By Wray Herbert
When Harry Potter first arrives at the Hogwarts school of wizardry, the “sorting hat” is torn about whether to send the boy-wizard to the noble house of Gryffindor or to evil house of Slytherin. Harry wants to follow his noble impulses, but he is wracked by self-doubts over whether he is “truly Gryffindor” or “truly Slytherin.” At a critical moment of soul-searching, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore counsels Harry: “It is our choices . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Dumbledore could also be counseling any aging human, says psychologist Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, who borrows from the popular J.K. Rowling books to name her Dumbledore Theory of Cognitive Aging. Like the insecure Harry Potter, Stine-Morrow believes, men and women face a critical choice as they enter old age, a choice between engaging new and different mental challenges—or disengaging and retreating out of fear. According to her model of aging, some losses and declines are inevitable in our later years, but some are not, and still others can be offset by the strengths that come with maturity. The choice is ours.
Stine-Morrow has spent the past several years exploring this theory in her University of Illinois laboratory. Much of her work involves minute and precise measurements of how people, young and old, allocate their brain power as they pursue various cognitive activities. Consider reading, for example. Reading is one of the mental activities that can decline with age, as basic mechanics like word processing and memory slow down. But it doesn’t have to, and Stine-Morrow has shown that sharp elderly readers actually read differently than poor readers. They are much more likely, for example, to create a mental model of a book when they first start reading—getting all the characters straight, the setting clear, and so forth. They also pause more, often mid-sentence, to integrate new information into their understanding of a story.
If these sound like small things, they are. Indeed, these “micro” pauses would not even be noticeable to a casual observer outside the lab, but they are very important indicators of mental function. Basically the people who remain good readers in old age—that is, they comprehend and remember what they’ve read—are making an unconscious choice to compensate for the cognitive losses that come naturally with senescence. They have adopted a habit of mind that is attentive and effortful when it comes to new mental challenges.
Why do some aging men and women choose to allocate their cognitive resources for new learning, while others do not? Why do some step up while others shy away from the challenges of aging? Stine-Morrow suspected that the choice involves more that mere capacity, that the choice to engage is influenced by cultural baggage and beliefs. She decided to test this idea. As described in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, she had adults of various ages read and remember a text as accurately as possible. You would think that older readers, because they have somewhat diminished capacity, would make a greater effort than younger readers in the task, but this was not the case. Younger readers actually showed keener concentration and enhanced effort. Older readers, regardless of their actual ability, were backing off from the challenge because of their own doubts about the effectiveness of their memory.
Stine-Morrow has some preliminary evidence that older readers can be encouraged to engage in more effortful reading, that they can be taught some of the micro strategies that successful readers seem to find on their own. It is also possible that some elderly men and women choose intellectually rich environments, environments that invite attention and effort, and thus stimulate vitality. This “use it or lose it” debate is longstanding, and Stine-Morrow’s findings will not resolve it now. But they do suggest strongly that raw ability is far less important than intellectual engagement, which sculpts the mind. Or to paraphrase the wisdom that Dumbledore shared with Harry Potter: Our choices in life shape who we truly are.
For more insights into human nature, visit "We're Only Human . . ."
posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:04 PM