Think the brain has “outlived its usefulness” because of age? Think again.
As people age, we tend to lose the ability to act more naturally in groups and pick up on others’ inanimate mannerisms. The older we get, the less likely we are to see movements at all, even those that would help us remember others’ names and move along.
Until two psychologists at the University of Toronto shone a light on what happens to our brains with age, I never realized it was a problem. People who lost the ability to observe in groups could barely remember how to phrase a sentence, and scientists call this type of sloppiness an “inattentional deficit disorder.”
To understand the problem better, both scientists examined brain scans of people who had suddenly lost the ability to operate in groups and found just how different their brains really were.
This old man picked up and remembered to call his wife from the “W” of the “S” (for surname) in front of him.
First, they analyzed brain activity in seven older people who thought they hadn’t lost the ability to do their regular tasks, and seven other older people with slightly diminished memory for long-term events. They found sharp differences in brain activity between the younger group and the older group.
The smaller and more grey matter in their brains adapted to the changes in attention that happen as we age, allowing them to function normally.
The older group showed just the opposite. As they ages, the grey matter of the brain shows no difference in the type of connections between neurons. Even the neurons themselves lost their ability to effectively carry electrical signals, as we age.
The researchers then moved on to 60 other people, this time including all of the older adults, to find out how well they remembered spontaneous name-recall tasks.
This way of recalling names could be used as a simpler, quicker and better way of remembering names for babies, children, people who can’t remember names all that well, and others who can. The researchers found that the ability to recall names with some degree of accuracy continued to decline as people ages, even with the recovery of the ability to perform routine tasks such as speaking in public or handling letters.
Both of these interventions come with one big drawback – remembering the correct name isn’t really the problem. People with forgotten names are trying to figure out how to best remember others’ names without completely losing their memory of their own name.
Instead, it’s more likely that the problem is noticing subtle movements. It seems that we are more likely to remember people who are engaging in other subtle behaviors, such as mirroring someone else’s movements.
It’s possible that all of these brain scans aren’t actually a real thing. People have had precise scans done with electrodes implanted in the brain for some time, and even those studies don’t take into account the phenomenon of “dancing.”
What if there really are mirror neurons in a human brain, and our recognition of others’ movements is really just the result of the evolution of our brains? What if understanding the issue really is all about simple mirror neurons, not about age?
My first thought was that this is the result of embarrassment, and our facial expressions might be the important clue. After all, the people who give us trouble with names tend to give off a poor impression. When you’ve run out of something to say, that’s when you try to take on as many complex body poses as possible. That’s where these surgeries come in. A little bit of plastic surgery, and you’ve made those mirrors for yourself. You can now spot people who are trying to do unusual, but perhaps conscious, poses (like mimicking the figure on the left). It’s quite similar to the way that you get something back when you do those embarrassing karate stunts – you expose yourself to see how the object works.
It’s possible that there are mirror neurons in the brains of older people, too. If so, they may not be particularly interesting. On the other hand, if you’ve lost the ability to move, rather than poking yourself in the face, and perform an outlandish, but conscious, movements, then you might need a friend – someone who can also help you navigate your own list of moving parts.
MindShift is a subscription video publication providing insight on how the human brain can transform small and mundane changes into longer lasting insights. Do you have a feeling something interesting might be revealed?