Archives for Midlife
This blog celebrated its first anniversary on January 1, so I am therefore compelled (it's the law) to reflect on the past year. Writing Real World Research has been fun and also a lot of work. I read a lot more research than I end up writing about. Academic writing is no easy read and I am eternally grateful to those researchers who manage to slip a little joke in here and there. Some papers are so dense that even if the topic is compelling, my eyes cross and I can’t hack my way through them. I have no one to blame but myself---I decided to focus this blog on research. Sometimes I hate myself for choosing a theme that so often forces me in way over my head. Still, one of the perks of being a writer is that I get paid for finding out stuff I want to know. Reading and writing about research has taught me all kinds of useful things which, as the blog title suggests, I can take into the real world. So to reflect on the past year, here is some of the stuff I learned writing Real World Research in 2011 that has been most useful to me.
A friend learning her way around her new iPad wonders if learning really is different as we get older. And what’s the deal with that? The short answer is yes, our ability to learn does change as we age. We get slower. We have diminished capacity in our working memory as we age. That is, you can’t throw too much stuff at us at once. As a rule, it takes older people longer to learn things than it does young people. And older people might never get as good at new stuff as younger people can, no matter how long they study. Hm, yeah, that’s no fun. I read that in an article discussing evolutionary theory, which also gave me this cheering thought, about allocation of psychological resources: In childhood, the primary allocation is directed toward growth; during adulthood, the predominant allocation is toward maintenance and recovery (resilience). In old age, more and more resources are directed toward regulation or management of loss. The older you get, the more of a bummer evolutionary theory can be. So let us skip, instead, over to educational psychology, and an article titled “Age-related differences in the relation between motivation to learn and transfer of training in adult continuing education.” This article argues, through a literature review and a re-crunching of statistics, that motivation is key to learning, and that older adults are just as motivated to learn as younger ones.
Much has been made in recent years of research indicating that willpower is an exhaustible resource. This research suggests that if we exercise self control for a few hours to resist Facebook and do our work, for example, we will have a hard time resisting that oh-really-I-shouldn’t brownie sundae. There’s a whole book based on this research: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength is by one of the leaders in this research, Roy Baumeister. (With science writer John Tierney, because believe me, not all psychologists can write.) But here’s an interesting article in an open source journal pointing out how research on willpower has mostly been done on youngsters.
New research from Penn State and the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging finds that caregivers of people with dementia are not listening to what the people they care for want. The researchers interviewed 256 pairs of people. In each pair, one person had mild to moderate dementia, the other was the caregiver. From a press release from Penn State: The researchers interviewed members of the pairs separately, asking questions related to how much value they place on five core values: autonomy, burden, control, family and safety. For example, one question focused on the level of importance a dementia patient gave to the ability to spend his or her own money in the way he or she wants. "Our results demonstrate that adult children underestimate the importance that their relatives with dementia placed on all five core values," said [lead researcher Steven] Zarit. "For example, the person with dementia might think it is very important to continue to be part of family celebrations, but his or her caregiver might not." So the caregivers/decision makers aren't taking into account what the person with dementia values. That's really sad.
Before I could even enroll in community college, at age 41, I had to take a couple of summer semesters of “developmental algebra”—which was called “remedial” back when nobody cared about self-esteem. Yes, I anticipated it with as much horror as you might imagine. Not only that, but it was a 7:30 a.m. class. Every morning, all summer. I figured if I could make it through that, college would be a snap. My grasp of numbers is terrible. Calculators can only help so much when you can’t recognize an incorrect answer. I have to do the same equation over and over and get the same answer four out of five times before I’ll trust it. Surprisingly, I did not stink up the joint in that algebra class. It moved slowly, I worked my ass off and made “A”s. Even hung one of my tests on the refrigerator--it had “Nice work” written across the top in red. Then I enrolled in college algebra, where everything sped up and went to hell. Setting up algebraic equations was easy. They are, essentially, sentences, and that’s my stock-in-trade. But then the arithmetic would get me. I'd set up a good, solid equation, and somewhere in the execution, I’d take a wrong turn, putting a negative instead of a positive, transposing numbers, adding wrong. Stupid stuff that made me pound my head on my desk. And then, quadratic equations pretty much did me in. I could barely set up the equations, much less solve them. If basic equations were simple sentences, quadratic equations were James Joyce. My brain hurts just thinking about them. Why am I such a fumbler with numbers? New research suggests math agility is an innate skill.
According to research that will be published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, women are more likely to buy clothes and make-up their teenage daughters like than the other way around. A press release explains: The study, conducted through questionnaires, sampled 343 mother-daughter pairs, with an average age of 44 for the mothers and 16 for the daughters. The researchers found that if a mother is young at heart, has high fashion consciousness and views her daughter as a style expert, she will tend to doppelgang her daughter’s consumption behavior. Heavens to Betsy. I can no more imagine my mother "doppelganging" (way to verbify a noun, guys) me when I was a teenager than I could imagine her robbing a bank. The thought makes me giggle. My mother was very stylish—she made her living designing dresses for little girls—and favored classic lines, elegant pumps, and discreet gold jewelry. I, on the other hand, passed through fashion phases from hippie chick to disco queen to punk rocker, none of which my mother would ever have dreamed of trying, even on a lark My mother hated the way I ringed my eyes with dark makeup. (“It makes you look tired.”) She was always pushing my hair out of my face. (“You have such a pretty face.”) She thought my disco platforms were Frankenstein shoes. (“Ick.")
When I was a teenager in a predominately Jewish girls’ summer camp, we had a little joke: For your sweet sixteen, you got either a pearl ring or a nose job. Several friends opted for the nose. I didn’t, although my nose is no less prominent than theirs were. I like my nose just fine. I have a nose like my mother had and my father had and my brother has. And my grandfather had, for that matter, although I am glad I didn't get his ears. One might even say we have Jewish noses, if one says it with affection, as I do, though many people don’t. (I have a name for people like that. And here’s an interesting article about the term “Jewish nose” in the Journal of the American Medical Association.) I’ve always been grateful to Barbra Streisand for keeping her nose. It’s a proud nose, a trademark nose. Cher broke my heart a little when she had her nose shaved down to something more pert. She lost a lot of what made her look like her. I saw Dolly Parton perform the other night. It was an outstanding evening (here’s my review) but I was troubled through the entire show because Dolly no longer looks like Dolly. I kept waiting for her to take off her mask and be Dolly again. She jokes about her surgery, but when she said something about being a “show horse” and having to keep up her appearance, I felt sad. Joan Rivers also makes me sad. Meg Ryan makes me sad. Kenny Rogers makes me sad. Melanie Griffith makes me sad.
A recently published study finds that as we age, we become more content and have more stable and yet more complex emotional lives. We begin experiencing more “poignancy,” which the researchers define as having positive and negative emotions at the same time. Boy oh boy. Poignancy. There’s a lot of that to life, isn’t there? The lead researcher behind the study is Stanford University developmental psychologist Laura Carstensen, who in the 1990s proposed one of my favorite theories. Socioemotional selectivity theory posits that as we age and start feeling the pressure of time, we allow less important things to drop away and focus on the people who matter most. Numbers have been crunched on this theory here and there, and it holds up well. Actually, the consolidation of relationships appears to start happening pretty early—in a 1992 study, Carstensen found that socializing with acquaintances drops off most dramatically between the ages of 18 and 30. (Of course, she acknowledged, those are years when people get busy with career and family.)
The language of scientists can be a sort of poetry; combinations of words with nuance of meaning that exactly capture something about how we think or behave. In a paper titled The Acceptance Model of Intuitive Eating: A Comparison of Women in Emerging Adulthood, Early Adulthood, and Middle Adulthood, (read about the research here), I came across the phrase “observer’s perspective.” Observer’s perspective: The way most of us understand our bodies, as a thing to look at rather than as a miracle that does amazing things. It is thunder thighs, love handles, muffin tops and other hateful phrases we direct at the magnificent organisms that carry us through life. It’s also bodacious, bootylicious, brickhouse, and other expressions of appreciation. It is the body from the outside looking at, not in.