Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Thursday, January 23, 2014

You May Be Smarter Than You Think

     My wife gets on me for being too “negative.”  I usually respond by saying, “I’m not negative,” which makes her case.  So I decided to find something positive to write about and I found an article that those of you in my generation may find encouraging.

            When a person’s name doesn’t come to you or you can’t remember a place you visited on vacation or you can’t recall the name of a movie, don’t worry.  It happens to everyone who has lived a few decades past puberty. It’s funny how the information may pop into your mind when you stop trying and move to something else.  But sometimes it never “pops.”

            Sarah Knapton is a Science Correspondent.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read her article (See? That’s what I mean.), but I’ll give you the essence of her research.  She states that scientists now believe that the brains of older people only appear to slow down because they have so much information to compute.  She relates it to a computer hard drive that gets filled up and slows down in the course of processing information.

            In my studies of psychology way back in college, I remember “retroactive inhibition” and it’s opposite, “proactive inhibition.”   Retroactive inhibition is the idea that retention of learned skills or material is impaired by subsequent learning.  This is especially common when the material is similar in kind to the new material learned. In other words, things you learn now are contributing to further burying or altering related information you may have learned years ago.

            Proactive inhibition is the tendency for earlier memories to interfere with the retrieval of material learned later. So information you have stored interferes with new information. 

            Think of it as facts and information piled on top of each other with old stuff more difficult to access having been buried by new stuff. The longer you live, the more information you’ve accumulated and the less readily available old information becomes or maybe the more it interferes with new learning and recent memories.  Both processes create cognitive “inhibitions.”

            Dr. Michael Ramscar, a researcher in this field, says that this normal slowing down is not the same as cognitive decline.  The brain just slows down in older people and he claims that the brains of older people don’t get weaker.  It’s just that they simply know more.  He says older people are actually smarter.  I love that part.

            Scientists at a German university used computers to compare the accumulation of information to the human brain.  They found that the computers also slowed down as the data base increased. More data requires more time to process.  Young people, for example, do better pairing unrelated non-sense items than older people.  This is due to the fact that older people have learned that such pairing is illogical based on experience.

            I’ve also read that when you pass from room to room, in your house for example, thoughts are sometimes left in the room you just left.  It’s some sort of “doorway” phenomenon. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember where the car keys are when I walk into my den and leave the keys in the kitchen.

            Then this morning I read about brain shrinkage in older people.  I guess you start to worry when you can feel your brain bouncing around inside your skull.  Who knows what to believe?  I know people actually shrink in size as they age.  I’m not as tall as I used to be.  I literally ran into a friend I haven’t seen for many years and knocked him over. He had shrunk to the point that I thought he was further away when I ran right into him. 

            Without going further, just rest assured that when names, dates, places, and things don’t immediately come to mind, you’re not losing it.  In fact, you may just know too much.  As you age, you can’t run as fast as you once did, but you learn shortcuts to get to your destination.

            Getting older can actually be fun.  No one freaks out if you have socks of a different color or forget to zip up your fly. (That actually happened to me once.)  When you’re a certain age, people expect you to have your pants on backwards. Having gray hair is liberating.

            In short, I was looking for something positive to write about today and I thought this article by Sarah Knapton was encouraging.  I just wish I could remember where I read it.


  1. I tend to believe the brain gets overloaded over the many years. I remember Albert Einstein once said he didn't know his phone number because he would never call himself and he doesn't like to fill his brain with useless information. That's probably why I'm so screwed up, I not only know my phone number but my address too.
    Your ole pal,
    Jimmy Loar

    1. Jimmy -
      I had a teenage trumpet student once who never learned his lessons because he wanted to save space in his brain for other things. I thought it was a pretty creative excuse for not practicing his trumpet lessons.
      There sure isn't anything wrong with your brain, old buddy. If you can remember my phone number, email it to me. I can't remember jack.

    2. Someone sent me my phone number as a "comment." When I said I couldn't remember my phone number, I was only kidding. I decided not to publish my phone number for obvious reasons, but "thanks" for trying to help.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your article Ralph. It was not only educational, but made me laugh as well. Now I don't feel so bad regarding my incident. We had gone to see the movie "Lone Survivor", and on our way to the movie theater, we talked about making sure our cell phones were turned off. Remember the cell phone incident during that movie which recently made the news? Well, I forgot to turn off my cell, and it rang in the middle of the movie. I thought I was never going to find it, to turn it off quickly enough.. However, I forgot to turn it back on for two days, missing a call from a very old friend. Maybe I should start being a little more selective in what I put in my memory banks, to prevent an overload. .

    1. Sharon -
      That seems to be a common problem. I remember it happening during a press conference and I'm sure it happens in more sensitive venues, like church, funerals, speeches, symphony concerts and places like that.