17:54 Monday 27th January 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[C]HRIS MANN: Now it’s time to join the Naked Scientists. .. Ginny Smith has a story about the ageing brain. It’s not all bad news. It’s about those moments when you think your memory is letting you down.
GINNY SMITH: Well a lot of people will have experienced this idea of going upstairs and forgetting what you’ve gone for. It happens to everyone, even young people. But it does seem to happen a bit more as we get older.
CHRIS MANN: Losing your specs.
GINNY SMITH: Exactly.
CHRIS MANN: Where have they left the slippers.
GINNY SMITH: Although the problem with glasses is once you put them down you haven’t got them on, so you can’t see to find them.
CHRIS MANN: Yes. But that going into a room to get something, and realising you can’t remember what you went there for, I think everyone has felt that.
GINNY SMITH: Yes. And up till now, everyone thought that basically your brain wasn’t working quite as well as it was when you were younger. It seems quite intuitive. We’ve got this brain. It works very hard all the time. As you get older perhaps it doesn’t work quite as efficiently, in the same way that often your joints don’t work quite as efficiently when you get older. But this research is actually suggesting that that’s not what’s going on. They think that your brain is still working just as well, but there’s just more information in there, so it’s more difficult for it to retrieve any of that information.
CHRIS MANN: So through the years you’ve been accumulating knowledge if you like, which is what we like to tell younger people, and that your brain is full up. It’s almost like having a library with many more books, so it takes longer to find what you want.
GINNY SMITH: Exactly. So this research, which was done by Dr Michael Ramscar of Tübingen University and colleagues, they actually used a computer simulation to simulate just that, learning. So they had a computer that had only been learning for a short amount of time, the equivalent of a young person, and they compared it to a computer that had had to learn a lot more information. And they found that the older computer, the one with more information, took longer to retrieve answers. But that makes sense when you think about it. It had a lot more to look through.
CHRIS MANN: A couple of questions here. One is obviously computers have different capacities. Obviously they have more memory. It’s like having a bigger memory on your laptop or your iPad or whatever else. So is it the same for humans?
GINNY SMITH: Well that’s actually quite a difficult question. We don’t know exactly how human memory works. But what this team did do is they compared some examples that had been done on humans of different kinds of memory test, where they compare young people and old people. And they did the same kinds of memory test on their young and old computers. And they got quite similar results for some of them, which suggests that it might be a similar kind of process.
CHRIS MANN: And the other thing is if you don’t use your brain when you’re younger then start to use it when you’re older, is there more capacity to play with? Or is it like your body? Is your brain trained? Is it fitter because it’s been used more?
GINNY SMITH: That’s a fantastic question, one I’m not sure we know the answer to. If it is purely a capacity thing, then you’d be right. Someone who hadn’t learned very much when they were young would be better when they’re older. I’m not sure that’s the case. I think we need some more research into that one. But some of this is stuff you would have learned without even trying, things like language, vocabulary. An older person’s going to have a broader vocabulary than a younger person, just because they’ve experienced more words in their lifetime.
CHRIS MANN: I think it’s like someone who does the crossword every day, and always has, is better at doing crosswords.Mozart was an amazing composer at the age of twelve, because he’d been doing it since he was three. It’s practice, isn’t it?
GINNY SMITH: There’s a huge element of practice. And all these brain training games. people like the idea you can improve aspects of your memory. Actually, all you seem to improve is your ability to do whatever game it is you’ve practiced doing. Most people can become experts at most things, if you just do enough practice at them.
CHRIS MANN: So what can we be sure of in this case?
GINNY SMITH: Well I think the take home message is don’t be disheartened if you do have memory problems at some stage during getting ..when you’re getting older. It’s not necessarily all a negative thing, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have a lot of wisdom to give. It just might mean it takes a little bit longer to get there.
CHRIS MANN: Ginny Smith, thank you very much indeed,.