Researchers Argue Older Brains May Slow From Processing Increasing Amounts of Knowledge

Posted on January 21, 2014

Researchers say older brains may slow from processing increasing amounts of knowledge and not from cognitive decline. The Telegraph reports that the idea behind the theory is that an older brain may act like a "full-up hard drive." If brains do "fill up" then this would suggest that if there were a way to dump unneeded information they might speed up again.

A team led by Dr. Michael Ramscar of the University of Tuebingen used computers programmed to act like humans to test their theory. When the researchers gave the computers a limited amount of information to process its performance on cognitive tests resembled that of a young adult. However, when the same computer was exposed to data representing a life of experiences its performance resembled that of an older adult. The researchers say in a release, "Often it was slower, not because its processing capacity had declined, but because increased 'experience' had caused the computer's database to grow, giving it more data to process, and that processing takes time."

Dr. Ramscar says, "What does this finding mean for our understanding of our ageing minds, for example older adults' increased difficulties with word recall? These are traditionally thought to reveal how our memory for words deteriorates with age, but Big Data adds a twist to this idea. Technology now allows researchers to make quantitative estimates about the number of words an adult can be expected to learn across a lifetime, enabling the team to separate the challenge that increasing knowledge poses to memory from the actual performance of memory itself."

Dr. Ramscar also says, "Imagine someone who knows two people's birthdays and can recall them almost perfectly. Would you really want to say that person has a better memory than a person who knows the birthdays of 2000 people, but can 'only' match the right person to the right birthday nine times out of ten?"

The research was published here in Journal of Topics in Cognitive Science.