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Older Brains Slow Due to Sorting More Information Rather Than Cognitive Decline

Researchers studying aging and brain function took a critical look at the standard cognitive measures that have typically shown that cognitive ability declines as we age. Instead of finding evidence of decline, however, the team discovered that the measures themselves are flawed, because they confuse the impact of increased knowledge with declining capacity.

The study used computer models that simulate human performance in cognitive testing. Computers were trained as though they were humans, “reading” and retaining a certain amount each day. When the researchers let a computer “read” only so much, its performance on cognitive tests resembled that of a young adult. But if the same computer was exposed to the experiences we might encounter over a lifetime—with reading simulated over decades—its performance looked like that of an older adult. As the computer’s database grew, giving it more data to process—that processing naturally took more time.

The researchers’ work also shows how changes in test performance that have been taken as evidence for declining cognitive abilities in fact demonstrate older adults’ greater mastery of the knowledge they have acquired.

Take “paired-associate learning,” a commonly used cognitive test that involves learning to connect words like “up” to “down” or “necktie” to “cracker” in memory. Using big data sets to quantify how often different words appear together in English, the research shows that younger adults do better when asked to learn to pair “up” with “down” than “necktie” and “cracker” because “up” and “down” appear in close proximity to one another more frequently. 

However, though older adults also understand which words don’t usually go together, young adults notice this less. When the researchers examined performance on this test across a range of word pairs that go together more and less in English, they found older adults’ scores to be far more closely attuned to the actual information in hundreds of millions of words of English than their younger counterparts.

In every one of the cognitive tests in which the team measured the information the mind processes, or how it changes over time, no evidence of any change in our minds’ processing capacities was found. The researchers simply found that the tests required older adults to make more effort as they sorted through the larger stores of knowledge they had acquired from experience.

Source: Press release from the journal, Topics in Cognitive Science. 


Music Therapy Benefits Young Cancer Patients

A new study has found that adolescents and young adults undergoing cancer treatment gain coping skills and resilience when they participate in a therapeutic music process that includes writing song lyrics and producing videos. The findings indicate that such music therapy interventions can provide essential psychosocial support that helps young patients positively adjust to cancer.

Researchers tested a Therapeutic Music Video intervention designed to improve resilience in 113 adolescents and young adults with cancer who were undergoing stem-cell transplant treatments. Through the creative process of writing song lyrics and producing videos, the patients were allowed to explore and express thoughts and emotions about their disease and treatment that might otherwise have gone unspoken. 

The patients who ranged in age from 11 to 24, were randomized to be part of a Therapeutic Music Video intervention group or to be part of a control group that received audiobooks. Participants completed six sessions over three weeks.

After the intervention, the Therapeutic Music Video group reported significantly better courageous coping. One hundred days after stem-cell transplant treatments, the Therapeutic Music Video group reported significantly better social integration and family environment. The investigators found that several protective factors helped adolescents and young adults to be resilient in the face of cancer treatments. 

These factors included:

  • Spiritual beliefs and practices;
  • Having a strong family environment characterized by adaptability, cohesion, and positive communication; and
  • Feeling socially connected and supported by friends and healthcare providers.

When the investigators interviewed the patients’ parents, they found that the videos gave parents insights into their children’s cancer experiences; however, parents needed help to initiate and sustain important conversations about messages shared through their children’s videos. To address this need, the study team has begun examining the potential benefits of adding a parent communication component to the intervention.

Source: Press release for the journal, Cancer. The article is, “Randomized Clinical Trial of Therapeutic Music Video Intervention for Resilience Outcomes in Adolescents/Young Adults Undergoing Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant: A Report From the Children’s Oncology Group,” published online Jan. 27, 2014. Abstract


Mindfulness Meditation May Improve Decision-Making

One 15-minute, focused-breathing meditation may help people make smarter choices, according to new research, because it cultivates awareness of the present moment and clears the mind of other thoughts counteracting a deep-rooted tendency to “throw good money after bad.” 

This tendency, referred to more scientifically as the “sunk-cost bias,” describes people’s inclination to stick with a bad situation too long—either to avoid admitting their initial decision was wrong, or as a way to recoup lost resources. 

The researchers conducted four studies to test the idea that mindfulness meditation could improve decision-making by increasing resistance to the sunk-cost bias.

In one online study, American participants reported about how much they typically focus on the present moment, and also read 10 sunk-cost scenarios—such as whether to attend a music festival that had been paid for when illness and bad weather made enjoyment unlikely—and then reported how much they would let go of sunk costs in each of them. The results revealed that the more people typically focused on the present moment, the more they reported that they would ignore sunk costs.

To test whether mindfulness caused an increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias, the researchers conducted an additional three experiments. In each, participants listened to a 15-minute recording made by a professional mindfulness coach. For one group of participants, the recording led them through a focused-breathing meditation that repeatedly instructed them to focus on the sensations of breathing. The other group of participants listened to a recording that asked them to think of whatever comes to mind, a practice that is not a form of meditation. Participants then responded to sunk-cost scenario questions. In the final study, participants also answered questions about the time period on which they focused—present, past, or future—and the emotions they experienced.

The results show that mindfulness meditation increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias in each of the three experiments.

Source: Association for Psychological Science (APS) press release. The article, “Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias,” appears in the February 2014 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the APS.


It’s All About Me: Do Narcissists Make Good Managers?

Many narcissistic traits mirror attributes considered strong leadership material, such as social dominance, extroversion, and high self-esteem. Researchers have found that these traits, particularly extroversion, led to a strong link between narcissism and what they called “leadership emergence.”

However, while narcissism may help managers get to the top, employees who report to a narcissist get very little encouragement, praise, or recognition. Further, narcissistic bosses are known for having high employee turnover in their businesses. 

Researchers found that though narcissists are more likely to emerge as group leaders, after a certain point, too much narcissism is likely to undermine a person’s effectiveness as a leader.

“Although narcissists are likely to emerge as the group leader, over time, the more negative aspects of narcissism tend to emerge,” said lead researcher Emily Grijalva, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.”

She said that these negative characteristics include “being exploitative, arrogant, and even tyrannical,” adding that these attributes “aren’t really prototypical of effective leadership.” 

Source: University of IllinoisPress release from the journal,Personnel Psychology