Can you run out of brain space? That’s the provocative question we encountered as we read this recent NBC News article by reporter Sarah Sloat. We’ve certainly had many moments when it feels like our minds are overtaxed, and we use phrases like “too little bandwidth” to illustrate how it feels. But, says the article, that’s the wrong way to visualize memory. The problem as we age is not that our brains lose capacity: instead, older people face the challenge of sifting through too much information. Take a look at Sloat’s article and see if it resonates.
More Knowledge, Poorer Recall – Why?
Sloat poses an interesting question to begin her article: “Empirical evidence and life experience both suggest older adults have more knowledge of the world. However, in laboratory settings, they generally perform worse on memory tests than younger adults. What can explain the disparity?” The answer? A dreaded word for any adult: “clutter”.
According to Sloat, “Some scientists think that as adults grow older, they begin to form ‘impoverished memories’ — memories that contain less information relative to the memories of younger people.” But in a recent review of memory studies from the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, postdoctoral fellow Tarek Amer poses a different theory. Instead, “older adults might actually be forming too many associations between information” This marks a shift in the way scientists thinks about memory.
Too Much Information with Too Little Control
“Compared to young adults,” Sloat writes, “healthy older adults (defined in the paper as 60 to 85 years old) process and store too much information, most likely because of greater difficulty suppressing irrelevant information.” This is what is meant by “clutter,” and it is due to what the researchers call “reduced cognitive control”.
Amer explains, “It’s not that older adults don’t have enough space to store information. There’s just too much information that’s interfering with whatever they’re trying to remember.”
But while relatively new, this isn’t a fringe theory. As other behavioral and neurological researchers review and weigh in, the paper from Amer and his colleagues “makes a compelling case,” according to Sloat’s expert sources.
Recalling the Right Data When We Need It
Charan Ranganath, a neuroscience professor at the University of California, is one of the experts who finds that Amer’s review—and the “clutter” theory—holds up under scrutiny. “A great deal of everyday forgetting is not necessarily because we cannot form new memories,” Ranganath says, “but rather, we can’t find what we want when we need it.”
As an example, Ranganath explains it another way: “Many of us have the experience of being unable to recall a person’s name or locate where we left our keys, only to have that information pop into our head later. This happens because people form many similar memories, such as all the people they have recently met or all the places they could have put their keys. That makes it challenging to select the correct information.”
Amer and his colleagues have an explanation for this. They argue that this happens as people get older not because their brains are deteriorating, but because of “cluttered memoryscapes.” As Sloat puts it: “Memories include the target information — what one is being asked to recall — and irrelevant information.”
Sorting Relevant and Irrelevant Facts
The fact that memory contains both relevant and irrelevant information is the toughest part of remembering for older adults. Sloat writes, “These distractions are bound to what the person is trying to remember and can ultimately impair memory if one is asked to recall something specific.”
Amer uses this illustration: “A person knows several people named Mike, but they are trying to remember the last name of just one of the Mikes. As they think through all of the Mikes they know, they have to filter through everything they know about these people and suppress all the information related to the wrong Mikes. This internal navigation becomes especially difficult when one is older because it becomes more challenging to suppress irrelevant information.”
Though scientists have often though of distractions in memory as coming from external sources, it makes sense that some of those distractions could be fully internal. And one scientist who reviewed the paper even said, “I would argue that internal distraction is far greater and always more challenging than external distraction.”
Clutter Can Actually Boost Creativity, Aid Learning
Just like some of us thrive in cluttered environments, memory cluttering “isn’t entirely bad,” according to Sloat. “While ‘cluttered’ is the favored phrase in the paper,” she writes, “its authors write that the word could be substituted for ‘enriched’ or ‘elaborated.’”
True, irrelevant information can make the recall of specific memories more difficult, but “excessive knowledge can also help an individual in certain situations—such as when there’s a need to be creative, make a decision, or learn something new. These moments benefit from comprehensive knowledge,” Sloat writes.
And what’s true in schools is true in science: sometimes the tests themselves are the problem. Amer explains: “There’s this prevalent idea in the literature that, as we age, we tend to perform worse on memory tests, which is true, but it’s also a result of the types of tests that we tend to use in the lab. Those usually require a narrow focus of attention on one piece of information: You have to focus on the information, remember it, and then remember it again later on. Those are the types of tests that older adults don’t perform well on.”
But older adults do perform better than younger adults on other types of tests: “those that focus more on creativity and decision-making,” Sloat asserts. “This suggests the relationship between aging and performance should be viewed with more nuance,” Amer said. “Cognitive ability isn’t necessarily declining with age; it depends on the context.”
Regardless, Amer, Ranganath, and other experts agree that these findings should be an encouragement to older adults. The focus doesn’t have to be on “deterioration” or “decline”, but on the unique ways that seniors can connect the wealth of information that they have, rearranging the “clutter” into complex patterns that younger people simply don’t have access to.
As Ranganath says, “It changes the discussion from ‘aging sucks’ to ‘how can I keep my brain healthy as I get older?’”
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(originally reported at www.nbcnews.com)