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External Memory Chips for the Elderly
European Press Network (EPN), Paris

by Daniel Sturm

Berlin - The course of life, as psychologist Paul B. Baltes has shown in his many studies, follows a pattern of gains and losses. As we get older the losses tend to increase, while the gains decrease.

Baltes uses an oft-told story of the philosopher, Thales of Miletus, as an example of this scenario: Thales, walking one night and observing the sky, was said as a result to have fallen into a well. This led, some commentators have suggested, to the idea of the telescope - Thales looking up the shaft of the well at the sky etc.. On the other hand, Baltes, a researcher into the aging process, suggests an alternative explanation: ‚Since Thales could no longer walk and think as well as he could when he was young, he fell into a hole'.

At Berlins Max-Planck Institute for Educational Research, the scientists around Baltes were able to show how the aging process affects the above-mentioned abilities. They tested both young adults and elderly people over a series of obstacles, while simultaneously setting them specific memory tasks. The results showed how increasing age requires people to devote progressively more of their resources to the act of walking. The elderly employ their cognitive faculties less for thinking than walking, simply because in old age walking is a more precarious business, with the increased possibility of accidents. The elderly subjects in the experiment were able to maintain their balance only by concentrating all their mental powers on the physical challenge, at the expense, of course, of the memory elements. It is not for nothing that the great thinkers are usually portrayed sitting down.

Baltes, together with his late wife, Margret, some years ago developed a fascinating theory concerning the pattern on which our life-energy reservoirs function from childhood to extreme old age. An interview with the 80-year-old pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, serves as a good illustration: Rubinstein, in response to the question of how he in old age continued to maintain such a successful concert career, explained that he concentrates on shorter pieces (Selection); these pieces he practises more frequently (Optimization); and above all he plays the faster passages more slowly, in order that his loss of speed does not become so apparent (Compensation). "Everyone must optimize, compensate and concentrate as best they can" says Baltes. The theory lends itself to almost every scenario of modern life, but needs to be tailored to suit the specific personality.
Forever young through lifelong learning? In fact, Baltes and his colleagues in the 1980s experimented with memory techniques which helped even those over 70 to develop astounding powers of recall. After just a few weeks of training, the elderly subjects were capable of remembering series of up to 20 to 30 words or numbers in correct order. "Absolutely made for television!" was Baltes verdict on these mental gymnastics, since the ordinary untrained person can on average recall no more than 5 to 10 words or numbers of a series.

The ability to achieve highly-specific cognitive skills in extreme old age is referred to by the researchers as ‚plasticity of the mind'. Everything indicates that, even with training, the hardware of the mind depreciates in old age. The fact that physically fit people are often more mentally alert is related by Baltes to the indirect effects of exercise, rather than to the direct effect of better bloodflow to the brain. "If I exercise my body and it's more healthy, I have to invest less of my intelligence in my body and therefore I have more left over for intellectual resources."

These resources the 62 year old psychologist likes to associate with a little word called ‚wisdom' - a phenomenon which Baltes believes allows the positive aspects of old age to be better explored. According to previous research carried out by Baltes at the MPIB it is clear that even in old age people "are genuinely good at ‚wisdom-tasks'." Admittedly they often can't solve perception exercises and brain-teasers with the same precision and speed as in their younger days, but those abilities which are built on knowledge and life-experience "can be preserved and even grow in later life-phases" . In their assessment of wisdom as an expert knowledge of successful living and good lifestyle, the researchers use five criteria: factual knowledge, strategies for handling life, a knowledge of life contexts, a discriminating attitude toward values and the overcoming of uncertainty.

In 2030 some 35% of German citizens will be over 60 years old; in 1990 that figure was only 20%. Of course, the percentage of the wise has not increased correspondingly. That would be a false conclusion, says the reknowned psychologist, since wisdom is comparable with exceptional sporting performance - a rare achievement, attainable only through long and arduous training: "Most people's living conditions are not such as allow them 10,000 free hours for the instruction and training necessary for them to achieve an expert knowledge of wisdom - and it would require an intensive training program on that scale."

Since the classical school system will, in view of the rapidly changing structure of the population, increasingly belong to the past, the learning opportunities for older people must be improved, says Baltes. Life should not be viewed - as it has thus far been viewed - sequentially. In future the various life-stages will be more parallel and full of possibilities. Baltes believes that solutions suited to the needs of the elderly are possible, not only for traffic and household problems. He considers that a "communicative head" may also be plausible. The professor of psychology would regard the development of external memory chips for the brain and the creation of a compensatory environment for older people as a true scientific advance "in so far as it offers the society of the elderly a genuine prospect for innovation."

German Version