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Fear of Failing

Amazing: the terror that many people have about losing things — especially their minds. A local paper featured it on the front page recently, in an article titled "Alzheimer's spurs the fearful to change their lives to delay it". The catalogue of stuff that these people consume or do, in their attempts to fight entropy, is long: fish oil, exercise, vitamins, crossword puzzles, blueberries, foreign language study, ....

How many of these regimes are likely to make any difference? Studies are unreliable: small, uncontrolled, anecdotal, flawed. And how much of now do fretful folks let slip, irretrievably, via denial and worry and running-down-rabbit-holes?

Better: Let Go the fantasy of possessing, forever, the mental state and abilities that one has (or imagines having). Accept the change that comes inevitably with time. Explore the new mind that every morning brings. Enjoy the gift of the present. (groan!)

And, perhaps, Experiment with new ways of thinking. For example, many classic psychology experiments show decreasing performance by older people in speed of recall, accuracy of recognition, or effort required to learn new relationships. Recent research, however, suggests an alternative interpretation, driven by the information-theoretic phenomena of search-and-retrieval complexity as the number of stored concepts grows. Thomas Hills [1] writing for Psychology Today summarizes a 2014 paper by Michael Ramscar et al. "The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning".

Maybe, when the statistics and computational complexity are properly understood, people can begin to learn better ways of organizing their memories? Could optimizing hash tables or rebuilding binary trees help? (Or perhaps even better: Sherlock Holmes' solution of learning to forget the irrelevant? cf. Memory Leaks)

For fun, glance over the following list ("The 50 lowest frequency items in the set used to test the models and the older and young adults" in Ramscar's paper) and judge which are words that you've seen before, are which are fake word-like strings:

BLASH - SCHNOOK - LETCH - ZOUNDS - JAPE - SOUSE - WHIG - FILCH - RHEUM - PARCH - CROME - GIBE - LISLE - FLAYS - SPLOTCH - VELDT - SLOE - CONK - FRAPPE - SKULK - TWERP - THWACK - DAUNT - RETCH - GYP - YAWL - FLUB - STANCH - PAUNCH - JOWL - WHELP - SHUCK - MOOCH - JELL - GROUCH - AWN - MANSE - WRACK - HOOCH - FLECK - BLEAT - CHIVE - WHIR - CROON - TAMP - BOSH - RILE - BLANCH - LILT - JEER

Well, as with most psychology exams, there's a trick: they're arguably all legitimate words in a large-vocabulary English-speaker written-language-exposure sense. Moreover, Ramscar et al. point out that even this many items is far too few to be a proper measure of a well-read person's linguistic exposure, given the long tail of the word-frequency distribution curve. Older test subjects may respond more slowly to vocabulary tests because they have seen many more words than younger subjects, and have more data to cross-correlate.

So instead of panic about dementia, isn't it better to let go the past, say "Yes, and..." to now, and leap into the future — with a smile?

^z - 2015-07-08

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