Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Human Lifecycle and Our Cognitive Capacities

The latest issue of Psychological Science has two very interesting studies that illustrate how our cognitive capacities are influenced by our development through different stages of the lifecycle. The first study is the Research Report "Bright Children Become Enlightened Adults" by Ian Deary et. al. Here is the abstract:

We examined the prospective association between general intelligence (g) at age 10 and liberal and antitraditional social attitudes at age 30 in a large (N = 7,070), representative sample of the British population born in 1970. Statistical analyses identified a general latent trait underlying attitudes that are antiracist, pro-working women, socially liberal, and trusting in the democratic political system. There was a strong association between higher g at age 10 and more liberal and antitraditional attitudes at age 30; this association was mediated partly via educational qualifications, but not at all via occupational social class. Very similar results were obtained for men and women. People in less professional occupations—and whose parents had been in less professional occupations—were less trusting of the democratic political system. This study confirms social attitudes as a major, novel field of adult human activity that is related to childhood intelligence differences.

And so this study reinforces some of the points I expressed earlier (here) concerning the importance of parental love and virtue.

The second paper in Psychological Science that I want to mention is "Age-Related Changes in the Episodic Simulation of Future Events" by Donna Addis et. al. Here is the abstract:

Episodic memory enables individuals to recollect past events as well as imagine possible future scenarios. Although the episodic specificity of past events declines as people grow older, it is unknown whether the same is true for future events. In an adapted version of the Autobiographical Interview, young and older participants generated past and future events. Transcriptions were segmented into distinct details that were classified as either internal (episodic) or external. Older adults generated fewer internal details than younger adults for past events, a result replicating previous findings; more important, we show that this deficit extends to future events. Furthermore, the number of internal details and the number of external details both showed correlations between past and future events. Finally, the number of internal details generated by older adults correlated with their relational memory abilities, a finding consistent with the constructive-episodic-simulation hypothesis, which holds that simulation of future episodes requires a system that can flexibly recombine details from past events into novel scenarios.

This study is also featured in NatureNews, and here is an excerpt from their story entitled "Ageing Makes the Imagination Wither":

Old age does more than stealthily steal away our most cherished memories: it also seems to diminish our ability to imagine things....

The researchers speculate that personal memories are particularly susceptible to ageing because they rely heavily on 'relational processing', the ability to mentally summon and join unique pieces of information, such as where and when an experience occurred. Stitching the particulars of a scene together — be it real or imagined — gets more difficult with age.

Over the past year, the prospective brain hypothesis has gained steady support among neuroscientists. An intriguing possibility raised by the hypothesis is that the primary role of human memory may not be to remember the past, but to imagine and prepare for the future.

“Once things in the past are finished, there’s nothing you can do about them,” Levine says.

Both studies illustrate the importance of taking seriously those factors (be it childhood education or aging) that have an important bearing on our opportunities for flourishing.