Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Hot Topic: The Myth of Cognitive Decline

We all start to forget things, have word finding problems, and generally slow down cognitively once we get older, right? Wrong, says a recent paper by Ramscar et al. (2014), The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning [free PDF].

Well, the real answer is more like, “it’s complicated,” as the first author explained in a blog post on the the paper. A giant in the field of cognitive aging quickly retorted, oh no it's...
...“Clever-Silly” comes irresistibly to mind, but this must be inadvertent fall-out from an elderly brain overstuffed by failure to assimilate the vast literature on cognitive aging.

The Rise of Academic Blogging

In the last post, I noted the potential Decline of Neurocriticism. At the same time, more and more people have started their own neuroscience and psychology blogs (which magnifies the channel factor, as Roger Dooley noted). And it's not only the SciCom crowd, which includes science journalists and aspiring science writers who aim to leave lab work behind. Some professional societies like the Society for Neuroscience are getting into the game (BrainFacts.org Blog in 2012), while some like APS We're Only Human (2010) and the venerable BPS Research Digest (2005) have been around a while longer.

An increasing number of academics are starting to blog as well. The Myth of Cognitive Decline provides a perfect example of the rapid (and serious) exchange of ideas that's possible in a "non-peer reviewed" format. Certainly, heavyweight academic blogs such as Language Log, and Statistical Modeling have existed for 10 years, but I think academic blogging is on the rise, perhaps even more so in psychology than neuroscience.

The latest exciting entrée is distinguished Professor Emeritus Patrick Rabbitt, a self-described “grumpy gerontologist.” A tribute volume of essays published in 2005 had this to say:
For over almost five decades, Professor Patrick Rabbitt has been among the most distinguished of British cognitive psychologists. His work has been widely influential in theories of mental speed, cognitive control, and ageing, influencing research in experimental psychology, neuropsychology, and individual differences.

So if someone makes a bold new claim about cognitive aging, they really should listen to what he says.

In his inaugural post, Age and the overstuffed mind, Prof. Rabbitt lightly and humorously skewers Ramscar et al.'s (2014) claim that cognitive decline is a myth (which received extensive coverage in the press). He unfavorably compares their model to the Homer Simpson model, summarized as, “Every time I learn something new it pushes something out”:
The Simpson model makes no prediction for decision speed because it posits finite data capacity beyond which no increment, and so no further slowing, can occur. In this respect it is more elegant than the Ramscar model which makes no allowance for stabilisation or even shrinking of the data store by data attrition (forgetting) or displacement.

However, Rabbitt makes the astute observation that the paper may have been deliberately provocative:
In conclusion: unlike the Simpson model, which was arguably first empirically tested seventy years ago and still offers a touching insight into the human condition, the Ramscar model may be intended only as a provocation and to stimulate discussion. The boundary between provocation and exasperation is narrow, and is shifted by the experiences and intellectual commitments of an audience.

Two weeks earlier, Michael Ramscar started a blog called The Importance of Being Wrong. The first post, What happens to our minds and memories in healthy ageing?, provided an in-depth explanation of his paper. I'll be curious to see if he responds to Rabbitt.

...and in the time this post has lain dormant, Prof. Ramscar has responded to Prof. Rabbitt: Cognitive Ageing or Cognitive Decline? An FAQ. The entire exchange makes for great reading, so I won't try to summarize it here.

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At February 06, 2014 3:25 PM, Anonymous Ricardo Araujo said...

As a mature student (24y/old) preparing to start a Psych degree and dedicated to self-study, I think academic blogging's value cannot be overstated. In the current paradigm, it isn't enough to know the main theories and principles that surround your field of interest/expertise: constant actualization is more and more a requirement and not an advantage. In this sense, blogs can be of great help when it comes to develop critical-thinking skills, especially those who can interact with other writers, making the exchange extremely rewarding to people (like me) who are still building an academic identity throughout their first years of undergraduate degree. Thanks to blogs like yours (which improve the knowledge I build from textbooks, self-study courses and MOOC), my experience throughout university will be much less about learning "this is it" and much more about discussing "is this really it?".

At February 07, 2014 12:40 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Ricardo - Thanks so much, it's gratifying to hear that my blog is educational (and useful in developing critical thinking skills!).


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