Keeping Your Brain Agile With Age

Keeping Your Brain Agile With Age

Science January 23, 2014 / By The Connectome
Keeping Your Brain Agile With Age

The fast pace of social networking can serve as a working memory aerobics class as we age.

Have you ever wondered how you'd explain the Internet to a gentleman from the 1800s? Where would you start - by comparing websites to newspapers? Emailing to letter-writing? Wi-fi to telegraph cables?

Not impossible, perhaps - but the task would get harder as you tried to explain things without clear historical parallels: Trojan viruses; Twitter feeds; BitTorrent. The farther your explanations wandered from the concrete realities of nineteenth-century life, the more metaphors and abstractions you'd have to pile on - until, no matter how eagerly your friend nodded in agreement, you'd have to wonder how closely his mental picture really matched up with your online reality.

New technologies develop quickly, and new approaches to science and business integrate these emerging concepts in ways that can be tough to follow - even for us tech-savvy folks of the twenty-first century. Generation gaps always seem to emerge, given enough time. Which is why that question about the nineteenth-century gentleman always gets me asking a follow-up: How long until my fellow Gen-X-ers and I start falling behind on the future?

As we settle into positions of expertise in our chosen fields, it's easy to dismiss new ideas - especially challenging ones - if they don't seem relevant to our interests. But if we ignore too many new ideas for too long, we can suddenly find ourselves feeling like that top-hatted gentleman above: Grasping for clarity in a whirlwind of unfamiliar concepts.

The good news is that plenty of research has found clear links between mental practice and nimble thinking, well into our elderly years. Take, for instance, a recent study on senior citizens who've learned to use Facebook. A team of researchers led by University of Arizona's Janelle Wohltmann tested men and women between ages 68 and 91 on their ability to quickly add or delete items from their working memory (very short-term memory of the last few seconds).

Wohltmann's team then taught one group of seniors how to use Facebook, while they kept another group on a "waiting list" for Facebook training that never materialized, and also trained a third group of subjects to post entries to a blog or online diary. After a few weeks, the results were clear: Facebook practice improved seniors' working memory performance by 25 percent - while seniors who just blogged, or who missed out on the training altogether, showed no memory improvement over the same period.

Wohltmann has a theory about why social networking boosted mental performance so much more than blogging: "The Facebook interface is actually quite complex," she says. If you're just posting to a blog, she explains, you're mostly focused on your own thought processes - whereas Facebook constantly bubbles with new threads and memes. "You're seeing this new information coming in," Wohltmann says, "and you need to focus on the new information and get rid of the old information, or keep it in mind if you want to go back and reference it later, so you have to constantly update what's there in your attention." The fast pace of social networking, in other words, can serve as a working-memory aerobics class.

The lesson here, Wohltmann cautions, isn't that Facebook itself promotes brain health, but that stretching your mental muscles keeps your brain sharper overall. The important thing, she says, is to keep learning new activities that keep you mentally engaged. Keeping up with your social network offline - and even participating in some friendly coffee-shop debates - can also be crucial pieces of the memory-maintenance puzzle.

Whether you're a software engineer or a relaxed retiree, though, the message is the same: The more you cultivate your own curiosity, the more up-to-date you'll feel, no matter how quickly our culture and technology continue to evolve. Soon enough, you might find yourself keeping friends in your own generation up to date.


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