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Posts Tagged ‘cognition

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”*…

In the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, a burly custodian in an orphanage basement, hunched over a chess board, intrigues a nine-year-old girl named Beth Harmon, who sees him playing, under a dim light, against himself. This Mr. Shaibel can tell Beth’s a bit desperate to understand what he’s doing, and begrudgingly agrees to teach her to play. At night, high on the tranquilizers the staff administers to orphans—this is the early 1960s—she practices tactics in bed, staring up at a chess board that she hallucinates on the ceiling. Beth advances rapidly in skill, until Mr. Shaibel, who plays in a club, can no longer reserve how impressed he is at her abilities. He invites a fellow chess player, who heads the local high school chess group, to meet Beth, and recruit her. She ends up playing the boys in the club simultaneously, including last year’s champion. A crowd of students forms as she bests each one.

As I watched Beth dreamily focus on her imaginary chess board, simulating alternative possibilities, I thought about how that must be shaping her brain, particularly the part dedicated to planning and decision-making, the frontal cortex. Compared to other regions, it’s uniquely malleable, or plastic. Stanford behavioral endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky calls it “the brain’s hotspot for plasticity.” Our brains are changing, forming new neural connections and severing others all the time, of course. But at a young age the brain’s plasticity is much more pronounced. This is something that Tom Vanderbilt discussed in his Nautilus feature, “Learning Chess at 40,” in which he reports what it was like taking up the game with his four-year-old daughter. Neil Charness, a psychologist who has studied cognition through chess for years, told Vanderbilt, “If you’re talking about two novices, your daughter would probably pick things up about twice as fast as you could.” In that way it’s like learning a language—children can assimilate the game’s complex rules and action much more intuitively and quickly than an adult.

This means that chess offers a unique opportunity. It could perhaps be the ultimate window through which we might see how our mental powers shift during our lives. This is because the moves of professional chess players in games, going back over a century, are recorded, and so researchers can objectively analyze the quality of players’ moves over their career, inferring cognitive rise and decline. And that’s exactly what a recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did…

How a game that dates from the 6th century can teach us about ourselves and how we change as we age: “Scientists Analyzed 24,000 Chess Matches to Understand Cognition.”

The study- is here: “Life cycle patterns of cognitive performance over the long run.”

* George Bernard Shaw


As we consider our next move, we might recall that it was on this date in 1877 that the first meeting of the Manhattan Chess Club was held; the entrance fee was $1 per person and dues were $4 per year. MCC was, until it closed in 2002, the second-oldest chess club in the U.S. (The oldest, The Mechanics Library Chess Club in San Francisco, first met in 1854– and is still in operation.)

Bobby Fischer, left, played a speed match against Andrew Soltis in 1971 at the Manhattan Chess Club


“Person, woman, man, camera, TV”*…




In a reversal of trends, American baby boomers scored lower on a test of cognitive functioning than did members of previous generations, according to a new nationwide study.

Findings showed that average cognition scores of adults aged 50 and older increased from generation to generation, beginning with the greatest generation (born 1890-1923) and peaking among war babies (born 1942-1947).

Scores began to decline in the early baby boomers (born 1948-1953) and decreased further in the mid baby boomers (born 1954-1959).

While the prevalence of dementia has declined recently in the United States, these results suggest those trends may reverse in the coming decades, according to study author Hui Zheng, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University… “what was most surprising to me is that this decline is seen in all groups: men and women, across all races and ethnicities and across all education, income and wealth levels.”…

Baby boomers’ childhood health was as good as or better than previous generations and they came from families that had higher socioeconomic status. They also had higher levels of education and better occupations.

“The decline in cognitive functioning that we’re seeing does not come from poorer childhood conditions,” Zheng said…

Reversing of a trend that has spanned decades: “Baby boomers show concerning decline in cognitive functioning.”

On a different, but quite possibly related note, these examples from Patrick Collison‘s recent post on the effects of pollution:

• Chess players make more mistakes on polluted days: “We find that an increase of 10 µg/m³ raises the probability of making an error by 1.5 percentage points, and increases the magnitude of the errors by 9.4%. The impact of pollution is exacerbated by time pressure. When players approach the time control of games, an increase of 10 µg/m³, corresponding to about one standard deviation, increases the probability of making a meaningful error by 3.2 percentage points, and errors being 17.3% larger.” – Künn et al 2019

• “Utilizing variations in transitory and cumulative air pollution exposures for the same individuals over time in China, we provide evidence that polluted air may impede cognitive ability as people become older, especially for less educated men. Cutting annual mean concentration of particulate matter smaller than 10 µm (PM10) in China to the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard (50 µg/m³) would move people from the median to the 63rd percentile (verbal test scores) and the 58th percentile (math test scores), respectively.” – Zhang et al 2018

• Politicians use less complex speech on polluted days. “We apply textual analysis to convert over 100,000 verbal statements made by Canadian MPs from 2006 through 2011 into—among other metrics—speech-specific Flesch-Kincaid grade-level indices. This index measures the complexity of an MP’s speech by the number of years of education needed to accurately understand it. Conditioning on individual fixed effects and other controls, we show that elevated levels of airborne fine particulate matter reduce the complexity of MPs’s speeches. A high-pollution day, defined as daily average PM2.5 concentrations greater than 15 µg/m³, causes a 2.3% reduction in same-day speech quality. To put this into perspective, this is equivalent to the removal of 2.6 months of education.” Heyes et al 2019

• “Exposure to CO2 and VOCs at levels found in conventional office buildings was associated with lower cognitive scores than those associated with levels of these compounds found in a Green building.” – Allen et al 2016. The effect seems to kick in at around 1,000 ppm of CO2.

The entire (chilling) piece is eminently worth reading.

And on another related note– one going not to the quality, but to the quantity of life– this characteristically-great set of infographics from Flowing Data exploring the demographic reality that underlies our (directionally-accurate) contention that “40 is the new 30 [or whatever]”: “Finding the New Age, for Your Age.”

* President Trump, recounting the memory test he took (not to establish his mental acuity, as he seemed to suggest, but rather as part of a screening for senile dementia)


As we agonize over aging, we might recall that it was on this date in 1909, off the coast of Cape Hatteras, that telegraph operator Theodore Haubner called for help from the steamship, S. S. Arapahoe.  He was momentarily confused because a new telegraph code “SOS” had recently been ratified by the Berlin Radiotelegraphic Conference to replace the old “CQD” distress call, and he wondered which signal he should send.  He sent both.  Haubner’s transmission was the first recorded American use of “SOS” to call for help.


Clyde steamer Araphoe. Image from the Library of Congress.



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