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Adult Brains More Flexible Than Previously Thought

Zonk posted more than 6 years ago | from the you-must-unlearn-what-you-have-learned dept.

Biotech 123

stemceller passed us a link to the official site for Johns Hopkins, which is reporting on some research into cognition. Generally, doctors have understood our best learning to be done at a young age, when the brain has a 'robust flexibility'. As we get older, our brain cells become 'hard-wired' along certain paths and don't move much - if at all. Or, at least, that was the understanding. Research headed by the hospital's Dr. Linden has taken advantage of 'two-photon microscopy', a new technique, to get a new picture inside a mouse's head. "They examined neurons that extend fibers (called axons) to send signals to a brain region called the cerebellum, which helps coordinate movements and sensory information. Like a growing tree, these axons have a primary trunk that runs upward and several smaller branches that sprout out to the sides. But while the main trunk was firmly connected to other target neurons in the cerebellum, stationary as adult axons are generally thought to be, 'the side branches swayed like kite tails in the wind,' says Linden. Over the course of a few hours, individual side branches would elongate, retract and morph in a highly dynamic fashion. These side branches also failed to make conventional connections, or synapses, with adjacent neurons. Furthermore, when a drug was given that produced strong electrical currents in the axons, the motion of the side branches stalled.'"

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123 comments

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Where? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304095)

Where are the comments!!

Re:Where? (1, Funny)

fleco (672451) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304131)

Maybe there are a lot of adults at this time. You know... their brains don't work that well...

Re:Where? (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304151)

Where are the comments!!

OMG they stoled teh commants!!

Ron Paul??? (4, Insightful)

pixelfood (973282) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304611)

Why is this article tagged with 'ronpaul' and 'ronpaulisanazi'? I thought this was slashdot, not digg. Why don't we just tag the article with 'omgiphonejailbreak' and '10waystoimproveyourwebsite' while we're at it?

Re:Ron Paul??? (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304713)

Why is this article tagged with 'ronpaul' and 'ronpaulisanazi'?

I've been wondering the same thing. And now I'm wondering why you said that as a reply to my comment..

Re:Ron Paul??? (1)

pixelfood (973282) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304785)

Sorry, I'm relatively new to posting on slashdot, and I didn't know how to post things without replying to another person's comment. I just figured it out though!

Re:Ron Paul??? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21307661)

To the mods: Please remove the ronpaulisanazi tag as it is ad hominem and off topic.

Not true (1, Funny)

SEWilco (27983) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304141)

No, the science is settled. Adult nerve cells don't wriggle around, everyone knows that. There's no need to look. Nothing to see here, move along.

Re:Not true (2, Funny)

rustalot42684 (1055008) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304169)

Damn kids! Get off my lawn!

Re:Not true (1)

vbraga (228124) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304201)

Yes, because our understanding never changes...

Those damn kids never learn. Adult brains more flexible. Earth is a sphere. What a joke.

Re:Not true (5, Funny)

nospam007 (722110) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304399)

I's true. After reading the article I had my old dog learn new tricks.

Re:Not true (1)

blind monkey 3 (773904) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304797)

Turns out old dogs can learn new tricks [kwc.org]

It's also reassuring to know the stuff growing out of my ears these days are just axons growing toward the light and not ear hair.

Re:Not true (1)

kaizokuace (1082079) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305291)

Interesting, my old dog just decided to turn tricks.

Re:Not true (5, Insightful)

Z00L00K (682162) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305001)

Actual truth is that as an adult you become more habit-bound than as a kid, but that doesn't stop you from learning new things. As a kid you are all over testing boundaries but as an adult you skip that part and strive forward in the direction you found were the most ideal when you were a kid. What's ideal for one person may not be for another and depending on the environment and the stimulus received as a kid you get preferences.

And this is also one reason why it may be good for a person to change job now and then to not grow stale in one environment. It may be good to not change too often but if the job stops to develop a person it will result in that the person having the job will get bound to the job and unable to accept changes or the person will change job.

It's important for people to take on challenges now and then - even if failing it's a learning experience. If failing all the time - it's just meaning that this person is attempting things that always are too hard or that that particular person hasn't the ability to know his/her own limits.

Re:Not true (1)

The Spoonman (634311) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306985)

Welcome to Slashdot, Gee Dubya!

Re:Not true (1)

maven_johnson (870682) | more than 6 years ago | (#21307125)

Obviously, my mother in law was not a part of this study. I weekly remind her what a "browser" is, and how to start a "browser". :/ I think the problem is that for most adults, a major hurdle is sparking the desire to learn something new. For obvious reasons, why bother?

Adults can learn... (3, Interesting)

megabarf (1092261) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304163)

They just normally prefer not to do so.

I had to fight them for a long time to use it, but now even my parents (in their 60s) suffer from internet withdrawal if they go without for a few days.

Re:Adults can learn... (5, Insightful)

CrazedWalrus (901897) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304653)

I think you're right. I think adults tend to be reluctant to learn new things for a few reasons:

  • Fatigue. Most adults are overworked, and many tend to avoid taking on any extra effort beyond what's required to get to the next day. Gratuitous learning of a foreign subject matter tends to be difficult, so is about the last thing they want to do when they get home from a hard day at work.
  • Divided attention, or excessive multitasking. Again, a matter of not enough cycles to go around. I find that it's a sheer joy to me if I can spend an hour or two and really concentrate on something. Usually I can't do so without interruption or another obligation getting in the way.
  • Information layering. By the time people are adults, they've built a stack of information that suits them well. The last thing they want to do is start over from the bottom. To use an analogy: Each successive level of math builds on the principles established in previous levels. By the time you're a Physicist using Calculus, why in the hell would you want to go back and learn a new way to add numbers when the one you know works just fine?


  • Granted, most of this comes back to lack of effort, but in most cases, the decision to not put forth the effort is very understandable. It doesn't mean that adults can't learn. It just means they're too busy, have too many distractions and demands on their time, are happy with their current methods, or are simply too damn tired.

Re:Adults can learn... (1)

CrazedWalrus (901897) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304671)

Woops. Speaking of "too damn tired", I meant to hit the preview button, not the submit button.

So... when are we getting the ability to edit posts?

Re:Adults can learn... (1)

SEWilco (27983) | more than 6 years ago | (#21307743)

So... when are we getting the ability to edit posts?
You haven't learned how to edit posts?

Re:Adults can learn... (4, Insightful)

LionKimbro (200000) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305223)

Let me add: "reward systems."

If an adult speaks a second language poorly, people go, "Oh, what an idiot... Will you please just speak in your native tongue?!"

But if a child learning a language speak it poorly, people go, "Wow! You're learning so quickly! You're really doing a great job!" They'll smother the child with attention.

Kids also find other kids who are basically forced to learn to speak a language, and are learning at the same skill level, and so on.

Re:Adults can learn... (3, Interesting)

CrazedWalrus (901897) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306523)

Very true. I'll even add one more: coercion.

When my son comes home from a full day dedicated to the learning of new things and shows me a test result that isn't up to par, two things happen.

First, I make it very clear that I am not happy with the test result, and that I expect better of him. (He tends to be the fool-around-in-class type, but is very bright. Usually he doesn't learn because he wasn't paying attention. As for the fooling around, well, we're working on that.)

Second, we sit down at the dinner table and go over the subject matter until he knows and understands it. He knows at this point that he must learn the material, and that I won't be satisfied until I can randomly quiz him on it a day or two later and get a good result. In other words, he knows he has little choice but to learn. Even if it wasn't for me, his teacher would push him into it to some degree, there's peer pressure, there's the pride of seeing good test results...

Along those lines, adults are constantly learning new things as well. As I mentioned in my original post, though, it doesn't tend to be random, gratuitous learning; it's stuff that they need to do their jobs and excel in their careers. The most common field around the /. is IT. I think most of us would attest to the fact that if you stop learning, you starve. That sounds to me like coercion of the most dire sort. :-)

Re:Adults can learn... (1)

raddan (519638) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305937)

I've always wondered if these factors are the same that make learning a new language difficult for an adult. People always talk about how children's brains are more receptive to new language-- and perhaps they are-- but it seems to me that one cannot discount the factors you mention. I don't know what adult groups researchers studied when they came to that conclusion. Working adults in a stable environment? Immigrant workers? Children are unique in that they are free from many pressures that adults are not. Of course, I can also see the argument that children's brains have fewer established brain structures to begin with, so that learning a new language is simply the same as learning anything else.

Re:Adults can learn... (3, Interesting)

CrazedWalrus (901897) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306669)

It's funny you say that. I'm married to a Spanish-speaking girl from South America, who has learned English in the past 7 years and speaks it very well. She's taken a few classes, but mostly she learns just by living in an English-speaking environment.

On the other hand, you've got me trying to learn Spanish. I've never taken a class, but have had my family trying to teach me for four years. I was apologizing one day for my bad Spanish, and remarked on how much better the kids seem to understand it. We got into a discussion about why that would be, and she brought up the subject of how kids can learn faster than adults. My explanation was exactly what I wrote in the GP, plus the immersion aspect.

Learning a language is the same as learning any other complex topic. There are jargon to learn and rules to be followed, as well as obtaining that finesse that only comes through practice. If the world was such that adults could dedicate the same time and attention as kids can, I don't think this myth would ever have existed to begin with.

Re:Adults can learn... (1)

danlock4 (1026420) | more than 6 years ago | (#21307781)

[...]for my bad Spanish[...]
Try emulating with your mouth and tongue the sounds--vowel lengths, etc.--that native speakers of Spanish use and you are likely to improve! Copy the way the native speakers talk...

I've had speakers of other languages (specifically, German and Spanish) tell me that my pronunciation is very good. I use a completely different mouth shape and tongue position for German than for Spanish. I can speak better German with my mouth open wide (for correct enunciation) and my tongue "back" (so that I can correctly pronounce the "r" sound in my throat). Spanish is much easier to pronounce more correctly with my lips forward and a little pursed (largely because it allows me to more accurately trill the "r" sound in the front of my mouth).

Re:Adults can learn... (4, Informative)

Alioth (221270) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305473)

I've always thought this - of course, I didn't have any scientific evidence, but my personal experience is I find learning easier now as an adult than I did as a child - the easier learning now because I have a more disciplined approach to learning and I'm much better able to stay the course. But the actual mechanism of learning something new, at least for me, doesn't appear to have faded at all. (In fact I enjoy it - my best days at work are when I'm doing something completely new and having to discover new things, and my hobbies all include learning new things).

That and the anecdotes of retired people learning new things with all the time they now have - such as a friend's father, who's a retired air force officer - doing a computer science degree in his 60s, and doing it as well as any college kid.

apples are for faggots. die homos die! (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304187)

if you're a mac fanboi you're a fag. go suck on steve jobs dick elsewhere faggot.

Similar to neural net entropic topography. (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304193)

There's a branch of neural net studies that focuses on a technique called entropic topography. Essentially, it involves random evolution of just the fringes of a digital neural net. That is, much as this John-Hopkins study has found, a rigid core is kept. It is only the neural subnets branching off that undergo synthesis and morphing.

While there are various deterministic algorithms that are used to evolve neural nets, it's only recently that we've begun seeing randomness used. This has an added benefit of bringing in unexpected mutations, which really don't happen with the deterministic algorithms.

Some advances from the study of Lei topographies have also lead to breakthroughs recently, where some of the more complex, yet deterministic, algorithms have had entropic terms introduced in order to bring in an element of randomness. These neural nets are probably the closest to the human brain, as they introduce the random mutation that is so prevalent within the human species, while also following the constraints of this new-found core neural path.

Re:Similar to neural net entropic topography. (2, Funny)

eclectro (227083) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304271)

Some advances from the study of Lei topographies have also lead to breakthroughs recently, where some of the more complex, yet deterministic, algorithms have had entropic terms introduced in order to bring in an element of randomness.
I take it that you slept at a Holiday Inn last night?

Re:Similar to neural net entropic topography. (1)

pwolk (912457) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305715)

Although the parent post combines a series interesting sounding concepts, it fails to be clear enough to be as interesting as its moderation suggests.
An artificial neural network (digital or not is irrelevant) has an architecture (lay-out; topography?), which defines a blue-print of its connections and its parameters. Usually, these parameters are optimised with a process called learning for neural networks, and fitting in statistics. Randomness is used to assist this process since the 1950s. One learning algorithm is called simulated annealing, which uses an entropy concept, and was discovered in 1953, heavily using random optimisation steps.

Advanced tinkering has resulted in neural networks that change their architecture to some extent during the learning process; my guess is that this is what is meant with "evolving", but I can't really tell from he post. Maybe the changes in architecture now use a more random approach. Maybe this has been labelled "morphing". And maybe the synthesis is another name for defining a new sub-network. And maybe not.

Most artificial neural networks do not have fringes or cores. Cascading neural networks may have; and other more advanced may have those as well. To me it seems the parent post discusses these, or a hybrid expert system-neural network approach, and they are indeed close to the brain if you place your head right on top of your CPU.

FAKE (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21306083)

There is nothing on google other than this comment about "lei topographies" or "entropic topography".

Humans (0, Redundant)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304197)

This whole thing is about mice brains actually, how do we know how that applies to adult human brains? The RTFA doesn't seem to say much about that..

Re:Humans (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304221)

The RTFA...

Err crap, I mean "TFA" of course..

Re:Humans (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304267)

shut up moron. you should just shut your cake hole and go back to playing with yourself while fantasizing about steve jobs.

Re:Humans (1, Insightful)

timmarhy (659436) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304245)

I hate this view that some how results of tests on animals don't apply to humans at all.

it's simply not true, almost every major medical advance has been tested or researched on animals like mice first.

the simple fact is mammals bodies all work in very similar ways. if you were to tell me you tested this on a FISH brain i might be more scpectical.

usage of brains (4, Interesting)

SuperBanana (662181) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304439)

I hate this view that some how results of tests on animals don't apply to humans at all. It's simply not true, almost every major medical advance has been tested or researched on animals like mice first. the simple fact is mammals bodies all work in very similar ways.

Having worked in a lab (disclaimer: not as a scientist) I learned that there are loads and loads of promising treatments for cancer and such that work great in mice, and never translate beyond. Even a casual glance at immunology from a layman's perspective reveals your statement to be utter bullshit; there are many, many diseases and afflictions that are species specific, sometimes highly so.

Anyway...it is entirely plausible that this ability to re-purpose brain cells is a plus for mice in survival/adaptation, where they have very little brain capacity at their disposal. We have loads at our disposal, and tend to build a lot of generally useful knowledge..ie, we build tools, literally or figuratively, and apply those 'real' tools or knowledge/skill 'tools'. Mice do not do either. We're more "general purpose", so maybe we don't *need* the ability to re-learn, since our learned skills are so broadly applicable in a survival sense.

bullshit? (4, Insightful)

foreverdisillusioned (763799) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304625)

Even a casual glance at immunology from a layman's perspective reveals your statement to be utter bullshit; there are many, many diseases and afflictions that are species specific, sometimes highly so.

He stated that it's "not true" that animal tests don't apply to humans at all (true), that almost every major medical advance has been tested or researched on animals like mice first (true, at least since the mid-twentieth century), and that mammal bodies work in very similar ways (true).

What you said is also true--that despite the huge similarities there are also significant differences--but that doesn't make his statement "bullshit"... perhaps merely "incomplete."

I support your point in general, especially because brains is obviously one of the organs in which humans differ the most, but I don't think that gives you the right to call a bunch of essentially truthful statements "bullshit."

Yes, bullshit! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21305071)

Yes, his objection to the question of whether this research in mice is relevant to humans is bullshit. Period.

Re:Yes, bullshit! (1)

foreverdisillusioned (763799) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305199)

No, the objection isn't bullshit because research in mice IS relevant to humans. Period. The question is merely HOW relevant this particular piece of research is.

Re:usage of brains (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21305079)

Youngsters these days...know-it-alls...youth is indeed wasted on the young! :-)

Here's one of a myriad of examples of significant differences between human, mouse and monkey brains.
http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v4/n9/full/nn0901-860.html [nature.com]

It is indeed correct to call 'bullshit', when extrapolating ANYTHING from one species to another without evidence! BASIC SCIENCE!!!!

Consider something far, far less complex than neurons, neural nets, etc., i.e. blood across species:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood [wikipedia.org]
Yours is red (iron base) in the arteries...in some species, it is blue (copper base)! (And Spock may have been a genetic mutant leading to Sulphemoglobinemia!) :-) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfhemoglobinemia [wikipedia.org]
http://space.newscientist.com/article/mg16121747.600-the-last-word.html [newscientist.com]

And then of course, there is nearly colourless penguin blood! ;-)
http://www.exploratorium.edu/imaging_station/gallery.php?Asset=Magellan%20Penguin%20blood&Group=&Category=Blood%20Cells&Section=Introduction [exploratorium.edu]

So, to say that ANYTHING is similiar across species without evidence (i.e. SCIENCE!), is bullshit.

Re:Humans (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304459)

I hate this view that some how results of tests on animals don't apply to humans at all.

Hey slow down, it's not as if I was claiming "hey this thing doesn't apply to humans!". I'm just asking, and I believe this is a legitimate question, does that very thing apply to us, as it hasn't been mentioned, and you're not even answering to that. It's not because something works one on on mice that it's automatically working the same way in humans, mostly that our human brains have quite different capabilities and characteristics than mice brains.

Re:Humans (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304699)

Posting as AC as this is off-topic, but I wanted to thank you for your sig - I've been contemplating writing something exactly like that for a bit, but never got around to it. Thanks!

Re:Humans (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304741)

Haha thanks for your comment. By the way I'm working on a rewrite of the program to make it much faster (and also a bit more ergonomic and polished), and I plan on releasing it within the next few weeks.

Re:Humans (2, Interesting)

cynicsreport (1125235) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304535)

This whole thing is about mice brains actually, how do we know how that applies to adult human brains? The RTFA doesn't seem to say much about that..

That is actually an important observation that often goes unexplained. The fact is, mice are genetically very close to humans, but they reproduce quickly, are cheap, and their genetics and physiology are very well understood. That makes them a great animal to experiment on.
At the cellular level, most mammals are very, very similar to each other. In fact, we know so little about neurology in the first place, any understanding we can draw from mice helps us understand the basics of the vertebrate nervous system.
Most importantly, we cannot breed and sacrifice humans for the purpose of experimentation. The best we can do is use animals and hope that they are close enough (usually they are, by the way).

Re:Humans (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304729)

I know all of that, but thanks anyways. But do we know if in these very news we're talking about it applies to humans? Because both the summary and the article make it sound like it does apply to us, but it sounds more like misleading us in order to make it sound more interesting than anything else.

Re:Humans (1)

cynicsreport (1125235) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305169)

But do we know if in these very news we're talking about it applies to humans?

I didn't look up the actual peer-reviewed article, and I don't generally trust reporters to accurately summarize scientific results. However, as a rule of thumb, in biology one study doesn't really mean much at all, unless it is demonstrating a new experimental method. The results must be duplicated in several experiments. In this case, I wouldn't be confident that the 'news' applies even to mice (the experimental subjects), let alone humans. If it does apply to mice, though, then it probably also applies to humans. The important thing to recognize is that relating these studies to cognition or higher mental processes is pure conjecture.

The real story here is the imaging technique, which could lead to further insight into the nervous system. The results about neuron growth do not seem nearly as interesting... My Neurology textbook detailed descriptions on how neurons branch out, and why they form synapses. These scientists are studying certain details about that process; it's not a new paradigm. The best part about this experiment has less to do with neural-connections than the imaging technique which could be used in further neurological research.

Re:Humans (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21305155)

I've got a knife, you've got a brain... let's study this on your brain. ;-)

Re:Humans (3, Informative)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305209)

I've got a knife, you've got a brain... let's study this on your brain. ;-)

Must I understand that you don't have a brain? ;-)

Re:Humans (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21306655)

No, but you must understand it would be hard for you to function if you were cutting into your own, unless you really _are_ a fucking idiot.

Re:Humans (1)

4D6963 (933028) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306687)

No, but you must understand it would be hard for you to function if you were cutting into your own, unless you really _are_ a fucking idiot.

You've never watched Hannibal now, have you? ;-)

Wow now I understand (1, Funny)

LM741N (258038) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304219)

how Apple computer started using Intel chips. Neuronal flexibility!!

Re:Wow now I understand (1)

jagdish (981925) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306767)

Actually it is attributed to Intelligent Design by the creator of the Jesus phone, Steve 'JHC' Jobs.

Scary combination (4, Informative)

MisterLawyer (770687) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304223)

The bigger problem is that certain aspects of our modern technology allow young people these days do less to develop their minds than in past generations. It's like the Perfect Storm of humanity's brain evolution conflicting with our technology.


...neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.

Here's another article [wired.com] on the same topic.

Re:Scary combination (1)

Coldness (829686) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304237)

When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so.
To be honest, that doesn't say much to me. I didn't memorize most of my realtives' birthdays until I was older simply because I didn't care. The often-selfish mind of a child doesn't really care about birthdays that aren't his/hers because they don't get anything out of it. But their own birthday? Oh my god, presents! APRIL THIRD, APRIL THIRD! GIVE ME MY CAKE AND TOY CAR!@

Re:Scary combination (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304251)

About the only relative whose birthday I actually know is my twin brother's.

Re:Scary combination (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304639)

About the only relative whose birthday I actually know is my twin brother's.
I don't know my twin sister's birthday. I wonder if it's the same as mine. I'll have to ask her when I fuck her again tonight.

Re:Scary combination (1)

ameoba (173803) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304697)

It's nice that you remember.

Re:Scary combination (1)

timmarhy (659436) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304269)

so fucking what? all this proves is that younger generations don't have the requirement of remmebering phone numbers. it doesn't prove they aren't capable.

i bet if you asked the under 30's to recite some website addresses they would do far better then the over 50's. it's all completely our of context.

Re:Scary combination (1)

lahvak (69490) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305117)

so fucking what? all this proves is that younger generations don't have the requirement of remmebering phone numbers. it doesn't prove they aren't capable.

I did not read the article, but i believe the main idea was that with all the new technology that remembers things for us, young people will have less opportunity to exercise their memory. I don't thing it's true, and this is exactly the reason why:

i bet if you asked the under 30's to recite some website addresses they would do far better then the over 50's. it's all completely our of context.

Re:Scary combination (1, Insightful)

rolfwind (528248) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304323)

It could be that there is exponentially more to remember. Back a generation ago, you had to know your name, address, a single phone number, social security number, and perhaps a few odds and ends like bank account number and/or atm number -- and you're good to go.

A generation before that list gets reduced further.

Today, how many phone numbers, email addresses, irc addresses, computer and site logins and their accompanying passwords does one have to remember? For personal, work and/or school?

Personally I welcome modern technology alleviating the burden it placed on us in the first place. People still should learn to work without a calculator -- but I don't think it's quite a disaster to forget your own phone number (kids used to have to remember only their single home number, now they'd have to remember their own number and a seperate number for each family member).

As to the topic on hand, I wouldn't be surprised if adult brains were as flexible as children -- compare to adults who have a debilitating accident and have to learn again. I think children learn faster because they have a lot less on their mind. Adults multi-task and many studies have shown that is counterproductive to efficiency. Kids have the luxury of time and lack of responsibility adults don't. Remove that, you remove a lot of stress, and the brain can focus on other things -- consciously or unconsciously.

Re:Scary combination (5, Insightful)

Belial6 (794905) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304589)

I agree. The other thing that people forget is that children often have access to vastly superior resources. Take for example the classic example of children learning languages easier than adults. When people point that out, they generally fail to notice that children tend to learn their language via total immersion and virtually everyone around them is happy to be a 24/7 personal tutor on the language. While most children can get by in their first language by 2 or 3 years only, they tend not to be what we would call fluent until 5 or 6. Give me a couple of full time language tutors and 5 years of total immersion with no need to remember my native tongue, and I will learn the new language too.

Re:Scary combination (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304357)

that means nothing. the whole system has changed between over 50 and a youngster. the information you need to retain is different.

an example would be that "dumb punk joe" doesn't need to remember how to calculate the area of a triangle as long as he knows how to find out how to calculate it with a simple search. i'm not talking about finding the answer (which is certainly possible) but i'm talking about being able to find the knowledge on how to do the task at the moment you need to do it. there is way too much information for a person to remember and be skilled at everything but as long as they know how to "fish" they will be fine.

Re:Scary combination (1)

shungi (977531) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304711)

Knowing how to calculate the area of a triangle has far more uses the calculating the area of a triangle. For example, with that knowledge it is easier to figure out how to calculate the area of a kite. The point is that learning from first principals and holding knowledge provides a basis for creative thought. You cannot imagine or hypothesis or reason from analogy something greater then exist knowledge unless you hold that knowledge in your mind. ---- Perhaps it is the case that different kinds of thinking peak at different ages.

Re:Scary combination (1)

quest(answer)ion (894426) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304419)

The bigger problem is that certain aspects of our modern technology allow young people these days do less to develop their minds than in past generations.
no, the bigger problem is that a survey question like that one ignores generational differences in what people keep track of. the fact that i can't name as many relatives' birthdates as, say, my grandmother--or even my mother--says more about how i've been developing my brain, and more importantly, what types of information i keep track of. i can quote more random freaking tv shows, movies, and comics than my parents know existed, but that doesn't indicate any kind of developmental lethargy on their part.

the answer is in the question you ask, and Robertson's study is a case in point if i've ever seen one.

Not really scary--it's smart. (3, Insightful)

foreverdisillusioned (763799) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304449)

Or maybe young people are smart enough not to clog up their brains with information that can be more easily and accurately recorded elsewhere. If all our fancy devices somehow stopped working, there would definitely be a period of confusion, but people would adapt. They'd go back to using their memories (or pen and paper.)

Technology isn't conflicting with our brain's evolution; it's extending and enhancing it. One less phone number to remember is who knows how many neurons that don't have to waste time storing and retrieving it. You might question whether young people are using this freed memory space to good use (for the love of all that's holy, I do NOT care about who won the latest reality show or what celebrities do in their spare time), but I think that it's a mistake to view this phenomenon as a fault.

Re:Not really scary--it's smart. (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304979)

You know what? If our fancy devices stopped working tomorrow, I still wouldn't need to know my phone number. There's some information that doesn't need to be memorized. It's stored where it is used.

Re:Not really scary--it's smart. (1)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305887)

That's only true if _everyone's_ devices stopped working. If you accidentally lose your cell phone, it puts you at a quite a bit of a disadvantage.

Re:Not really scary--it's smart. (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306793)

Yea, my post sounds silly in retrospect. After all, the only reason I remember it in the first place is because so many people and businesses ask for it on forms and things.

Re:Scary combination (1)

Bongo Bill (853669) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304487)

How often do you call your own phone number?

Re:Scary combination (1)

blind monkey 3 (773904) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304811)

How often have YOU forgotten where your mobile phone was?

Re:Scary combination (2)

BlueCollarCamel (884092) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304917)

I like to leave myself motivational messages several times a day you insensitive clod!

Re:Scary combination (1)

chawly (750383) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305035)

to leave myself motivational messages

'Tis indeed an interesting idea. I'm just curious enough to ask from which telephone you do that, and does it have a "memory" for telephone numbers ? You might want to try having such messages left by a member of the female gender - you know, like the little note left in the lunch box. Such messages can be very motivational and, from time to time, very inventive. 'Course it depends what kind of motivation you're looking for.

Re:Scary combination (1)

ZonkerWilliam (953437) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304587)

I agree, there's information overload by the n'th degree compared to even a couple of decades ago. Then again over 50's tend to be more "stuck in their ways" than younger people, due to neural pathways being reinforced over the longer time, that we just remember it after awhile.

Re:Scary combination (1)

grumling (94709) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306703)

No, the older I get, the more I realize that the world is full of BS.

When you hear that the sky is falling over and over, but it still hasn't, it tends to make you a little less likely to change your ways. It really doesn't have much to do with neural pathways.

Re:Scary combination (1)

nbritton (823086) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305321)

"When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so."
Or maybe it's the fact that the 50 year old had 20 extra years to remember when a persons birthday was!

Re:Scary combination (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306329)

How come you are so sure that anything the older folks did 'developed' their minds?

I wonder if he compensated for how long people had their phone numbers...it took me a couple of months to really be sure what my new phone number was, but at this point, I doubt I ever forget it.

Re:Scary combination (1)

rhakka (224319) | more than 6 years ago | (#21307615)

that's a horrible example. Why would a young person need to know their phone number?

In the old days, you learned it by giving it to people all the time.

These days, all of your friends have caller id. Call them once and they have your number. you never have to give it to anyone.

Personally I really hope I am more family-focused when I'm older than I am now, when I'm fairly young and still self-absorbed as I build for my future.

if they really wanted to study this, they would have to test for random information. Like how well the youngsters can memorize strings of numbers. Otherwise, we're just wringing hands over the fact that we don't have to personally track the same details we used to have to track in daily living.

That doesn't mean less details though. and it doesn't mean we are lesser beings. Hell, older people still can't program VCRs, often times. Does that make them lesser people? What about people who can't touch type, or thumb type? Are young people more able to create logic structures for scripts or playlist filters?

How about a real case for there even being a problem?

Defensive coding... (2, Insightful)

RyanFenton (230700) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304231)

This is kind of what I'd expect, actually. Even if an adult mind was completely plastic, as people learn of the type of experiences that will come to them, they're going to quickly learn to categorize them, and which kinds of categories tend to work with more and more experiences.

It's like as a programmer learns of which coding constructs work for which situations... they learn it becomes more important to worry about understandability rather than speed, and to code with clear structures they can pick up later if and when they need to clean up misunderstandings later. The default practice becomes a sort of robust defensive form, that requires the fewest changes over the widest plausible set of needs - while still doing the job of completely enumerating the problem set needed.

I'd expect that even with minds unhindered by age, the same sort of defensive practices programmers pick up would have analogues in most other realms of experience that mankind goes through. That would then, be easily confused with a mind unable to rapidly change, because such wide change is then rarely observed.

That said - there are more concrete bits of evidence that complicate things - such as rates of new language adoption between adults and children... but again, there's also evidence that some adults can still pick up new languages rapidly. Perhaps those same defensive practices act as a 'language censor' to 'wasting time with confusing sentence structure' - or perhaps there really is some factor of truth to the hardware limitations of an aging brain. Hard to know for sure until we get the computational nuerobiology tools in place to be able to strictly test such things... I'm really happy to see the progress so far though.

Ryan Fenton

Re:Defensive coding... (1)

markov_chain (202465) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304329)

Not to mention that there is almost no way adults can devote the kind of time that kids can to learning something new.

you're off on a critical point (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304743)

Interesting speculations, but you're mistaken about the state of and techniques of the field of neuroscience:

"Hard to know for sure until we get the computational neurobiology tools in place to be able to strictly test such things"

You can't model mathematically (i.e. computationally) a thing you don't know. The problem is that we just don't know the topology of brain's neurons well enough to take a stab at making biologically accurate models. It is (should be) telling that the term used in cognitive neuroscience to describe experimental topologies is "biologically plausible" and _not_ "biologically accurate".

Neuroscience is still bottlenecked at the observation stage of the scientific process. We just don't have the capability of maintaining the state of more than about 100-200 neurons in situ, and they're all more or less topologically adjacent, even if the experimenter chooses judiciously. You can't formulate an "accurate" model of anything if you've only seen about one part in the ~10^9 parts that compose it. You can only make "plausible" models that are consistent with your few observations. Despite our very clever and even insightful efforts, the science of neurobiology is just too young to bear the ripe fruit we want in cognition and neuroscience in general.

If you're interested, I would encourage you (and anyone else) to read _recent_ literature in the field. Pick carefully, because some is dry, some is outdated, and some is unaccredited (for good reason!) slop hawked in popular publications by dilettantes like Jeff Hawkins of Numenta infamy.

The scientific process requires speculation, but it also requires evidence and careful analysis; it's been called "disciplined imagination" by some of its better-spoken proponents.

Re:you're off on a critical point (1)

RyanFenton (230700) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306889)

Would you have any suggestions of what literature would be appropriate for someone specifically interested in computational neuroscience? What I'd love to see if discussions on the methods that can be used to ask one neural cell something about its neighbors' state, and it's neighbors' neighbors state, and so on. This is something like how the brain has to work, if I'm able to speak about something I remember, then any functional cells should be able to ask eachother about their states in one way or anther - I'd love to read what the latest is on that.

I'm specifically interested in computational neuroscience because I'd love to create the tools and environments needed for further study of the brain, now that I've paid my dues as a professional programmer simply working for money.

Ryan Fenton

i already know that (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304321)

i'm getting older, everyone does, but media and "science" try to put in your mind that you are not capable of learning new things or think like a young man, is a trap, the truth is, you can *always* learn... pick a book, a class, and try yourself.

flexy (1)

Paul_Hindt (1129979) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304413)

My brain can stretch like silly putty.

So (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304525)

Let me get this straight. An adult may be just as capable of learning something new as someone younger. But they aren't as capable of re-considering things they already know. I.E. they have a harder time changing their already established brain structure but forming new structures isn't a problem. Anyone?

[ot]ITT we debate: Is Ron Paul A Nazi?[Discuss] (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304747)

All OT posts go ITT, see subject for further instructions.

For extra points also discuss why the Libertarian Party is incapable of getting a canidate elected [spoilers]they never nominate anyone who isn't a nutter or a criminal[/spoilers] and what is the reason that Libertarianism mostly appeals to basement-dwelling dorks?

Always stretch before thinking (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21304881)

The neurons might still be flexible, but the adult mind isn't.

They're spare tires (1)

adatepej (1154117) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304921)

"These side branches also failed to make conventional connections, or synapses" and "Linden thinks they may present a second mechanism for conveying information beyond traditional synapses or assist in nerve regeneration, quickly forming synapses should nearby nerves get damaged."

That pretty much says it: they just sit there and do nothing but replace good ones.

Or they really think it provides a "second mechanism for conveying information beyond traditional synapses" -- but how can it convey information if it's not making "synapses", i.e. connections??? (And aren't synapses the way information is transmitted?) You have to "convey" information somewhere.

Or did they really have a machine that can see "traditional synapses" but can't see "non-traditional synapses"? It's a physical connection, right? How can you see one kind and not the other if you see the potential components of the connection?

Just hand waiving (3, Insightful)

tgv (254536) | more than 6 years ago | (#21304949)

That kind of conclusion is totally unwarranted. To begin with, the mice were not 70 years old. No, don't laugh! Either mouse neurons age as fast as the mice themselves do, which implies that (the processes in) their neurons differ fundamentally from ours, or these neurons age the way we do, but then they were studying two year old neurons, which I thought used to be considered pretty young.

Second, the observation that learning and memorizing becomes more difficult with age is pretty solid. If our neurons maintain their plasticity, these people should explain how a plastic brain stops learning.

Concluding: the observations are probably true, the conclusions were just made to draw attention and get more funding (aging is a big topic for funds these days). Such is the sad state of science.

PS I hold a post-doc in neurocognition.

Re:Just hand waiving (1)

chawly (750383) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305095)

PS I hold a post-doc in neurocognition.

I would recommend that you hold on to it tightly - but take care with the sweat. Don't knock hand-waving though - it draws attention, as you say. Think girls' attention, this can result in less inner tension and thus less sweat from the hands. (She may require that you put the diploma down though - if only for a few moments.)

Re:Just hand waiving (1)

rtyhurst (460717) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305189)

Your holding a post-doc in neurocognition is not at all impressive.

1.) You can't spell (hand "waving")

2.) There's a vast body of evidence growing that neuroplasticity is greatest in childhood, but continues throughout life, even in heavily damaged brains, as of stroke victims;

http://www.normandoidge.com/ [normandoidge.com]

3.) As an anthropologist, I can tell you that our culture is the only one that warehouses and infantilizes the elderly on an industrial scale. What you think you're seeing is an artifact of a cultural phenomenon, not a neurological one.

Re:Just hand waiving (1)

tgv (254536) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306341)

For someone who criticizes spelling, the first word in your post contains a remarkable oversight. I guess it's the spelling nazi's doom.

Anyway, plasticity is there, but there is a "vaster" body of evidence that the older you get, the harder it is to learn. Of course, you still can remember things, but e.g. these memories have to compete with existing ones. Consequently, perhaps our brain's plasticity is not enough to accomodate a huge amount of memories. Then again, plasticity does not seem to apply equally in all regions or functions. Language (my topic) learning gets significantly (not in the p whatever sense) more difficult with age.

About the neurological effect: I think it has been shown that plasticity in the retina is very limited in time. If I remember properly, the first connections form very quickly and do not change any more. Therefore, different brain regions might have different plasticity patterns with different implications.

"Our" culture might not treat the elderly properly, but then you're speaking about people over 70. The effects I'm speaking about manifest themselves from the early 20s onwards (and for language, there is quite a large group of researchers that claim the breaking point is around 6 to 8).

As a case in point, take classical musicians. Quite a few of the top performers started playing very, very young. There is not one I know of that started playing at the age of 25. Or take the so-called wolf children. They can't seem to acquire fluent speech when found too late. Blind or deaf people that gain vision/hearing at later age also perform rather below normal levels.

So perhaps the medical doctors are presumptuous with their assumptions on plasticity, but that doesn't show that our brains can keep up with age.

Of mice and men... (1)

psychicsword (1036852) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305277)

When have mice become people? I know we are very similar to rodents some more than others(like in congress), but since when are humans the same as rats, some things are bound to be different this could be one of them.

"use it or lose it" (1)

xristo70 (1184699) | more than 6 years ago | (#21305315)

It has always been known that the brain continuously adapts (but for this it needs to be stimulated all the time, "use it or lose it" as they say). But my understanding at least has been that for this the brain signals travel along new paths of existing neurons to do brain functions. This is the first time I hear of proof that the brain also physically adapts. And at quite a high rate as well. This research could be especially important for understanding Parkinson's disease.

So finally they catch up ... (1)

Snaller (147050) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306387)

...with what the intelligent of us have known for a long time - if you have neurogenesis obviously this is how it works - the brain is like a muscle, and most people can't really be bothered to train it after they escape from school and so it starts to "fail" - if you keep exercising it, it will not only be easy to learn at a old age but also change your mind - of course set in ones ways also owes a lot to psychology and unfulfillment in life.

Epilepsy and Math ability related? (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21306519)

As there seems to be some neuroscientists and neurologists on /., I'd like to ask the following question as its a somewhat related topic.

There is a man in his early 20's who recently recited pi to some 200,000 digits perfectly at Oxford university. He says he can visualize numbers in his head and is able to (as Oxford researchers found) do division to a precision of 20 or more decimal places in his head (there are some techniques to do this too I'm sure).

The point is he's said that his ability to visualize numbers occurred after having an epileptic seizure. After being diagnosed and (presumably treated with medication), his brain still functions in the same way that he's able to visualize the numbers.

Prior to being diagnosed with my seizure condition, I remember having epileptic episodes (the disorientation and spatial loss) where I was able to do more complex math and deeper thoughts that I ever thought I was able to do. As a senior in HS, I was able to complete math and science homework for sometime in a fraction of the time it would usually take. E.g. 25 minutes total vs 1-2 hours total each night. I haven't been able to unlock this thought process since.

Any thoughts or ideas on what caused this? And -without- any risk to myself, is there any current research on unlocking this potential?

Tiresome (1)

fygment (444210) | more than 6 years ago | (#21306897)

This isn't progress. It is simply quantification. If you have ever worked with the disabled and physically/psychically traumatized you might wonder why exactly scientists wouldn't believe the brain to be more flexible "than they previously thought". The brain is so poorly understood in terms of how it works expect a long and tedious continuation of these pronouncements in the coming decades.

Can you still play? (1)

PotatoHead (12771) | more than 6 years ago | (#21307059)

If so, congrats! Your brain is not rigid yet.

Will you play?

That is essentially how you know if the state of your brain matters or not.

And more tasty! (1)

ThirdPrize (938147) | more than 6 years ago | (#21307117)

Just ask the zombies.

Flexible? (1)

Captain Vittles (1096015) | more than 6 years ago | (#21307675)

Brains aren't flexible; they're squishy! You people should have learned this in high school biology lab... or was I the only one who dissected the pig's head for extra credit?
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