Thursday, August 17, 2006

Obnoxious and Cranky? You're Very Intelligent! (If You're 60+)

So the real question is: do our personalities change as we get older? Jacqueline Bichsel and colleagues at Morgan State College in Baltimore say yes. Younger intelligent people explore adventurous avenues to learn new and different things. Older people, according to Bichsel's study, just get cranky. Or maybe impatient. Or maybe really irritated. Maybe when a patronizing person calls a 60+ year-old professional woman "young lady" or raises the voice volume to ear-piercing levels, speaking slowly, as to a child. Maybe then, an intelligent 60+ person may come up with a few choice words, articulate, to the point, OK--cranky! And maybe really intelligent people just have infinitely more word choices available to them to show their displeasure.

I found Mary Blair Immel's "My Turn" in the July 31 Newsweek great for summing up the likely feelings of so many really intelligent people as they get older. Take a look at "I'm Old--And I'm Just Fine With That." The sub-title is even better: "Think I need to hear platitudes and "compliments" to feel good about myself. Think again."

Suppose we could have a study on exactly what incites this crankiness in the 60+ crowd? Which personality traits would those be?

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

How to Get Really Good at Anything

It turns out all our teachers and coaches were right: experts in just about any field are made not born. The people who practice the most learn the most, according to a large amount of psychological evidence gathered together in Phillip E. Ross' "The Expert Mind," published in the August 2006 Scientific American.

But how do they do it? I've always joked that intuition is "compressed experience." I may be right. Some of the key questions involving "expert" minds have revolved around how information is stored in our brains and then retrieved. Those who work hard at becoming experts in a particular area see similar situations come up again and again, whether in chess, music, or I suppose, surgery. The brain begins to chunk the information and build templates to use later, if a similar situation arises again. When it does, our brains fall back on the templates but quickly, using short-term memory, customize our actions--and the template-- by making small changes where needed. This skill enables experts to quickly make correct decisions about chess moves, for example. And a pro tennis player's mind is likely to use the same mechanisms, when she anticipates where a ball may hit and is there ready for it. Ross notes that this "knowledge-guided perception" enables true experts to correctly guess what is likely to happens next and prepare for it. And these mental templates are built through repetition and experience, in other words: time put in on the task, enabling us to store information in long-term memory and customize it when we retreive it.

As Ross points out, there are many more experts and prodigies in many fields today than there were formerly, in great part due to using computers that provide many times more "experience" than humans can. Of course, intense motivation and the ability to focus deeply and immediately are also traits that experts have in common.

Ross leaves us with a compelling question: Instead of asking, "Why can't Johnny read?" we should be asking, "Why should there be anything in the world he can't learn to do?" And I would add: at any age.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Researchers Devise Test to Predict Dementia Risk

Today a team from the Aging Research Center at the Karolinska Institutet in Finland published findings in the scientific journal, Lancet Neurology, which reinforces numerous other studies looking at parts of the Alzheimer's puzzle. After following more than 1400 people for 20 years, the team concluded that multiple lifestyle issues dramatically affect brain power over the years. Poor management of these factors can increase the probabilities of dementia. Or put in a more positive light, paying attention to these lifestyle choices can increase the probability of remaining mentally sharp and agile throughout life. The factors examined include an emphasis on learning from the get-go and throughout life, low blood pressure, low cholesterol, and staying away from the obese zone. Yep, "use it or lose it" is about to become even more of a Boomer mantra.

Regular physical exercise, stress management, good nutrition, social interactions with friends and family, and yes, brain exercise are all part of the prevention picture. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's or dementia. Using these findings, the team has come up with a simple test to gauge a particular person's probabilities of remaining healthy or succumbing to Alzheimer's or vascular dementia. And the test will also, no doubt, be a motivational tool for change in many cases. Most of us see a fit brain and healthy mind as the key to quality of life.

The tantalizing tidbit here is that there does appear to be a link between heart disease and dementia. It is so interesting that the same lifestyle considerations factor so hugely in both.

Great to have a study that puts it all together!

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