NeuroNation \ Intelligence and IQ, Mind and Brain

Wisdom: What we gain with age

In our youth-obsessed culture, the advantages of getting older are often overlooked. One of these advantages is that with age comes a better memory. This may sound strange as generally the opposite is believed to be true. But maybe we should stop giving aging such a hard time – and start seeing its benefits. 

It is safe to say that our society has become obsessed with everything youth-related. While we associate youth with health and vitality, everyone tries to delay the dreaded process of growing older as if it is something we should be scared of. This is particularly evident in advertisement. Just look at a fresh-faced actor in their mid-30s trying to sell the latest anti-aging facial cream made for people in their 60s. Why not hire an actor in their 60s, we wonder? Additionally, in many sectors, older job applicants are often ignored from the start as opposed to their younger competitors. And when an elderly person looks good and fit, we act surprised as if it is a miracle that they ‘still’ look good. Against this background, it is no wonder why getting older is so feared. At the same time though, when a renowned older person shares their experience, we tend to look up to them and eagerly absorb what they share, convinced that we can learn from them. This seems ambiguous: Why do we fear old age, but admire it at the same time?

Implicit vs. explicit learning

The Canadian researcher Lynn Hasher has been examining this question for several years now. In particular, she wants to find out in what way our mental performance changes throughout life. In a 2013 study, she and her team of the University of Toronto instructed 38 younger and 40 older participating individuals to memorize a list of 16 words. Afterwards, they were asked to recite as many memorized words as possible.  

Alleged distraction

Hereafter, participants received another task – an ‘in-between task’. They were shown different images one after another on a computer screen. With every new image, they had to decide whether this was the same as the one shown just before. Meanwhile, 8 of the 16 words they had memorized earlier popped up occasionally at the side of the screen. But participants were instructed not to look at them and let themselves get distracted by them, but to only pay attention to the images on the screen. After this exercise, they were once again asked to recite the 16 words they had memorized earlier. 

Different strengths in young and old

So what were the results? What became clear was that there were significant differences in the performance of young and old. The younger participants achieved better results in the memory tasks than their elderly counterparts (both before the ‘in-between task’ and after). However, when only the memory of the words popping up at the edge of the screen during the ‘in-between task’ was tested, it was found that the elderly participants were able to remember these words much better than the younger ones. This means that the older participants had been memorizing them unintentionally, without meaning to. They were told not to pay attention to the words on the screen but they had still learned and memorized them. Science calls this type of learning ‘implicit learning’. In contrast to this is the so-called explicit learning, which describes the process of intentionally storing and memorizing information.

Automatized learning

Based on the findings, it shows that younger people are better at active (explicit) learning and memorizing information in a short amount of time. But when it comes to implicit learning, which is just as important in our everyday life, it seems as though elderly people have a clear advantage compared to younger individuals. Apparently, what gets overlooked in our youth-craving society is that we get better at implicit learning, the older we get. Meaning that without actively trying to, we still learn and memorize new information. On top of that, the fact that young people do better in conventional memory tests could potentially also stem from them being used to absorbing a large amount of information in a relatively short time span at university and in school.  This study just scratches the surface of how precious the skills of the elderly are for our society. Instead of fearing them, we should welcome them with open arms and give them the chance to contribute with their qualities. This would not only benefit them, but also our entire society.  

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1: Biss, R., Jan Ngo, K. W., Hasher, L., Campbell, K. L. & Rowe, G. (2013). Distraction Can Reduce Age-Related Forgetting. Psychological Science, 24(4), 448-455.

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