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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
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
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."