Posts Tagged ‘Flynn Effect’

The Cognitive Upside of Aging

March 14, 2017

“The Cognitive Upside of Aging” is an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 “Observer”, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS).  This article corrects some major misconceptions about memory and aging.  This realization is important as the expectation is that “the next ten years will witness an increase of about 236 million people aged 65 or older throughout the world.”

A 2014 survey on perceptions of brain health and aging conducted by the AARP found that people believed that the brain peaks at age 29 before beginning to deteriorate by age 53.  Now these are opinions regarding brain health and aging.  Actual research on this topic reveals how woefully in error these conceptions are.

Joshua K. Hartshone of Boston College, and Laura Germine of the Harvard Medical School reanalyzed an old set of scores from the Wechsler IQ and memory tests taken by a geographically diverse group of adults in the 1990s.  Scores from 2,450 test-takers were divided into 13 age categories representing people between the ages of 16 and 89.  The researchers then charted peaks in a variety of cognitive skills, ranging from memory to vocabulary, from adolescence through old age.

There was no single apex in overall cognitive skill.  Instead, there was a huge variation in cognitive capabilities across the lifespan.  The cognitive peaks were all over the place.  Hartshone said that this was the “smoking gun” that it’s not all downhill for the aging brain.

Although these data were important, the pool of participants was too small to make any solid conclusions.  Most psychological research is done with people in their late teens and early 20s.  Getting people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s into the lab is a major obstacle.

Hartshone and Germine were quite creative in addressing this obstacle.  The decided to use viral Internet quizzes.  Along with Ken Nakayama of Harvard University Germine founded TestMyBrain.org.   This website hosts a variety of short cognitive tests that users can complete within minutes.  Since the site’s foundation in 2008, data has been collected from more than 1.7 million volunteers across the country.  Hartshone has founded a website called GamesWithWords.org as a “Web-based laboratory” for studying language.

Both Hartshone and Germine thought it important for the tests on the websites to be short and engaging  to ensure that participants enjoyed taking each one so much that they would be interested in taking a few more or even forwarding them to friends.  They wanted to make taking a cognitive battery just as easy and fun as taking one of the not-so-scientific personality tests people like to take on social media sites.  More than 3 million people have taken quizzes on the two websites.

In this new set of studies Hartshone and Germine used TestMyBrain.org and GamesWithWords.org to collect large samples of data across five specific cognitive tasks.  Three of these tasks, digit symbol coding, verbal working memory, and vocabulary, overlapped with the tasks from the Wechsler exam used in the previous study.  The researchers also included a widely used test of emotional perception, which was not included in the original Wechsler tests.

These test data collected from online participants shows a very clear picture of cognitive peaks across the lifespan, one that largely matched the same pattern of results from the decades-old Wechsler tests.  Information processing speed crested early in life, around the age of 18 or 19.  Short-term memory improved until age 25 before beginning to decline around 35.

However, many cognitive proficiencies, vocabulary, math, general knowledge, and verbal comprehension did not peak until much later in life.  These results make sense because people should continue to learn new things and gather new experiences as they age.  These skills are usually regarded as belonging to crystalized intelligence.  Vocabulary skills had no single high point and continued to improve well into participants’ late 60s and early 70s.  The Wechsler data show vocabulary skills topping out mostly in the 40s.  To reconcile these results Germine and Hartshone inconcluded the General Social Survey, which has been testing people’s vocabularies for decades.  These data confirmed that there really has been a steady shift in vocabulary performance  over the last few decades.

Germine and Hartshone wrote, “With the increase in the proportion of adults engaged in cognitively demanding careers, it may be that ages of peak performance are later in the more recent Internet sample, particularly for vocabulary.  This could be related to the Flynn effect that IQ has increased steadily in modern times, possibly because of increasing amounts of time devoted to mental activity.”

The Flynn Effect refers to the need to recalibrate the IQ test so that they would have a mean of 100.  For years, Flynn argued that this must be some sort of artifact.  See the healthy memory blog post “More on Flynn and the Flynn Effect” to learn how Flynn decided that this increase was real and not an artifact.  Moreover, he attributed it not just to the amount, but also to the types of cognitive processing people were doing.

Emotional skill also improved with age.  To test this ability, researchers asked participants to identify the mood of a person based only on a photograph of the individual’s eyes.  A menu provided a selection of potential options such as  fearful, tentative, or playful for each photograph.  Adults in their 40s and 50s consistently outperformed much younger adults.  This ability had a much longer plateau than any of the other cognitive skills that were tested.  Germaine and Hartshone wrote “The peak in emotion-recognition ability was also much broader than any of the other tasks, which reflects a long period of relative stability in performance between the ages of 40 and 60 years.”

The researchers recruited another large set of more than 18,000 online participants between the ages of 10 and 73 to confirm their visual and verbal working-memory findings.  The replication found the same pattern of cognitive peaks as the other experiments.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Does Your Family Make You Smarter?

October 18, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of a very important book by Professor James R. Flynn.  The subtitle is ”Nature, Nurture, and Human Autonomy.”  Flynn is the founder of the “Flynn Effect,” which describes the inflation of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) over time.  This effect has been so large and consistent that the IQ has to have been periodically updated and recalibrate so that the mean would be 100.  Flynn had argued that this must be an artifact as we apparently had not become as smarter as the recalibration of the test indicated.  However, further research and collaboration with his colleague W. T. Dickens led to the conclusion that we were becoming smarter, and an explanation of how we were becoming smarter.

“Does Your Family Make You Smarter” is highly technical.  For those whose area of interest is this topic, then reading is mandatory.  However, this book should be of interest to everyone, so HM shall try to summarize the salient points that are of general interest.

Historically, IQ has been a hot topic with respect to the distinction between genetic and environmental effects.  Although we can distinguish between the two factors with mathematics, it is important to realize that in the real world we cannot view genetic as distinct from environment effects.  HM is reminded of a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an experiment that was done to determine what was the true language for humans.  So the plan was not to interact or speak with a newborn baby.  They thought that when the baby did speak, they would know what the true human language was.  Of course, in this environment the baby would never learn a language and would be severely handicapped.

The truth is that the effects of genes and environment are inextricably intertwined.   Flynn does not even touch the topic of epigenetics, which refers to the information that is read out from the genes.  Recent research has found that the nature of this readout can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the nature of the environment.

Flynn’s colleague Dickens posited that genes and environment become more highly correlated as we age, meaning that their influence was additive.  The potency of the environment was based by combining the two, which erroneously had been ascribed to genes alone in the twin studies.  By the time we reach maturity, current environment has only a feeble memory of past environments except under unusual  circumstances such as brain trauma.

What has been happening is that modernity is causing our habits of processing information to adapt so that we can more readily handle abstract concepts. So most of us have become more intelligent.  There is a social multiplier effect, which is aided and abetted by technology.  The example provided is basketball.  The televising of basketball games enabled everyone to see how the game was played by experts.  Young players try to model on the playground what they saw on television.

There are adverse effects of new technology, such as the spread of misinformation.  But there are also good effects as better ways of thinking and doing things can be readily communicated.

Flynn speaks of family effects.  Family effects include genes and the environment provided by the family.  A family of professionals will have a higher level of communication and will follow more media with better quality information.  These effects continue until the young adult leaves home.  Intelligence should continue to develop depending upon the environments in which she works and plays.  In good environments intelligence should continue to grow.  This growth can stop when people retire unless they continue to foster their cognitive development with mental and social activities that promote continued growth.

Healthy memory readers should immediately recognize that this is in consonance with the message that is repeated over and over in this blog.  Should you not have recognized this consonance, then you have a lot of remedial reading to do.  Start by entering “growth mindsets” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Dr. Flynn is 82 years old and provides an ideal individual to try to emulate.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

There Will Be Another Brief Hiatus in New Posts

February 1, 2015

Nevertheless with more than 550 Healthymemory Blog posts I think there is sufficient reading material.  If I had to recommend one blog post to read it would be “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  This can be found by entering this title in the search box of the healthy memory blog.  This search block can be used to identify blog posts on the following topics.

Posts based on whom I regard as the most important cognitive psychologists:  Nobel Prize Winner Kahneman, plus Stanovich and Davidson.  There are posts on the important topics of attention and cognitive reserve.  Other topics of potential interest are The Flynn Effect, mindfulness, meditation, memory champs, contemplative computing, behavioral economics, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Of course, you are encouraged to enter any of your favorite topics into the healthymemory blog search block

Enjoy.  I shall return.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why Have We Stopped Getting Smarter?

September 10, 2014

“Why Have We Stopped Getting Smarter” is the subtitle of a an article in the NewScientist August 23 2014 titled “Dumbing Down.” I feel compelled to post about this article because it is a likely sign of the ending of, or perhaps even a reversal of, the Flynn Effect. I have written several posts on the Flynn Effect (type “Flynn Effect” into the healthymemory blog search box to find them.). The Flynn Effect is the increase in IQ scores that has been occurring over the past several decades. This has required the repeated re-norming of IQ tests so that the average remains at 100. Well that increase has now stopped and might even be reversing.

The New Scientist article goes into several explanations as to why this has happened. One of them is that smarte r people are having fewer children, so that dumber people are contributing more to the average wih the result that the average IQ has stopped increasing and might even have begun to decrease.. There seems to be a belief among some that we have stopped getting smarter and might even be dumbing down, hence the title and subtitle of the article.

This is ironic because Flynn himself used the effect to argue that IQ tests were not accurately measuring intelligence. He argued that had there been true increases in intelligence, society would have advanced much more than it has, and would be in much less trouble than it is in. So I think he would also argue that the end and possible reversal of the Flynn Effect does not mean that we have stopped getting smarter or that we are dumbing down.

Knowing and believing one’s IQ score can be a problem. Those with high scores might reason that they do not need to learn or apply themselves because they are blessed with so much brain power. On the other hand, those who know and believe their low IQ scores might think that they lack sufficient brain power and concede defeat.

Of course readers of the healthymemory blog should believe that they should use whatever brain power they have to best advantage. Moreover, their goal should be to continue to learn and grow their cognitive capacity as long as they live. They should also know that neurogenesis provides for this growth as long as the maintain their physical health and grow the health of their memories by following some of the activities (there are way to many to follow them all) they find in the healthymemory blog.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Flynn on the Flynn Effect

November 1, 2013

The Flynn effect refers to the gain in IQs over time.1 IQs seem to have risen about 3 points per decade since about 1930. Gains have been larger for fluid than for crystallized intelligence. A wide range of reasons for this increase have been offered to include nutrition, schooling, urbanization, technology, television, the preschool home environment, and so forth.
However, Flynn himself did not endorse any of these causes.2 He believes that, in some sense, these gains in intelligence are not “real.” Although there were IQ gains, there might not have been intelligence gains. He felt that cultural flowering would have been evident from true increases in intelligence. He noted that “the number of inventions patented in fact showed a sharp decline over the last generation and the Who’s Who books of eminent scientists were not bursting at the seems.
So although IQ tests are measuring something and can predict fairly accurately success in school, they are missing some factor that makes for great science and innovation.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Are We Becoming More Intelligent?

December 11, 2011

The Flynn Effect1 refers to the substantial and long-sustained increase in intelligence test scores that has occurred over the last one hundred years in the industrialized countries. The average score for an IQ test is 100. Periodically these tests are redone and renormed (that is the average is recomputed with a standard deviation of 15). When the scores of people taking the new test are compared against the scores of the same people taking the previous test, the scores are typically higher. One estimates is that an IQ of 80 today would equate to an IQ of 100 in 1932. How can this be? Are we becoming more intelligent? If we are becoming more intelligent this increase is occurring much more quickly than could be explained by genetic evolution.

According to Flynn, statistical estimates are that genes account for 36 percent of the IQ variance and that environmental and experiential factors account for the remaining 64 percent. The problem is that it is impossible to conduct a study where genetic and environmental factors are independently controlled. The reality is that there is an interaction between these two factors, and it is this interaction that explains the Flynn effect.

Flynn uses an analogy with basketball to make his point. Suppose a pair of identical twins genetically endowed to play basketball are separated at birth. Regardless of the different environments under which they are raised, they are both likely to play basketball and to practice assiduously. Consequently they will excel at basketball and eventually attract the attention of coaches who will further foster their talents and abilities. A similar interaction between genetic inheritance and environmental factors can be found with identical twins with high IQs who are raised in different environments. Regardless of their respective environments they are more likely to be drawn to learning and will perform better in school. They are more likely to be admitted to competitive universities where their IQs will be increased even more.

Flynn says, “There is a strong tendency for genetic advantage or disadvantage to get more and more matched to a corresponding environment.” Accordingly, the environment will always be the determining factor of whether or not a genetic predisposition gets expressed. This applies to all our cognitive powers, not just IQ. So we can increase our own cognitive powers by our own deliberate efforts. This calls to mind what Thomas Edison said about genius, that it was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

So the answer to the question, “Are We Becoming More Intelligent?”, the question to the answer is “What is Intelligence?” But we do have the ability to increase our cognitive powers throughout our lifetimes through our own deliberate efforts.

1Flynn, J.R. (2007). What Is Intelligence? Cambridge University Press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.