Welcome to Aging. Well......I hate to break the news, but you are already already aging.

Comments always welcome.

In 2004, one of my first managers and mentors, Nancy Waugh passed away. Along with some of her other colleagues, Donald Norman, James Fozard, and Robin Barr, we published a short tribute in the APA Monitor. In that version, however, the following story was seriously cut (along with much of the rest of our original material).

The World’s Cleverest Mnemonic Device

Of course, in my days at the University of Michigan’s experimental psych program (1967-71), I had read papers by Nancy Waugh, but had not met her. One day, the head of the Experimental Program, Art Melton, asked me into his office. He wondered whether I would be interested in applying for a job in the Boston-Cambridge area to work as a Research Associate at Harvard on a “psychology of aging” project. Nancy Waugh and Jim Fozard would both be my “bosses” but I would be responsible for managing the project on a day to day basis. I said, “of course.” I was married with three children at the time and very much in the job market. In fact, I had already had two “firm” job offers that were “rescinded” after expected funding failed to come through in the wake of heavy cuts in government research funding.

Soon, I flew out for an interview and met Nancy and Jim for the first time. After the “formal” interview, we went out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and Nancy and Jim made me an offer. I accepted on the spot. Working with those two turned out, as I suspected, to be a great opportunity. I learned a lot about memory and cognition, but also a lot about being a professional. For example, Nancy suggested that we work out a paper-writing and authorship plan at the very beginning of the project; a plan that we stuck to. Nancy also offered many significant improvements to the clarity of my writing.

One day Nancy moved offices and asked me to help her move her data. She had eight many-tiered trolley racks filled with “raw data.” She said that only once had she thrown away raw data (after a decade) and the next day someone called and asked for that data so her new policy was never to throw it away. Her words proved prophetic. Fifteen years after I carried out some studies of “Query by Example” with John Gould at IBM, I finally threw out the data (pencil and paper) and the next week someone asked if they could re-analyze my raw data!

The grant proposal that Nancy and Jim wrote provided money, not only for an experimental psychologist (me), but also for a programmer. I told them that that would be unnecessary; I’d be happy to do both jobs for the price of one. I ended up debugging hardware, programs, and some underlying software simultaneously, which was interesting, to say the least. I spent three weeks in class at DEC in Maynard and knew the PDP-8 from hardware signals to assembler to “FOCAL.” To put things in perspective, the cycle time for the machine was 70 milliseconds; to correct small bugs, I punched new holes or taped corrections on the existing paper tape; the core memory bits were tiny but clearly visible circular magnets. We used the computer to run the experiments as well as to analyze the results. I’m glad that Nancy and Jim agreed, against their initial instinct, to let me do both jobs since it certainly helped me toward gaining my position at IBM.

Nancy was a brilliant designer of experiments as well as data analyst. Actually, I wish I could get her advice on some experiments I’m trying to work out right now. But apart from being a valuable colleague for intellectual reasons, Nancy was also one of those characters that make life interesting; fun at the time, and rich in retrospect. I’ve always had a somewhat “practical” streak in my research and became somewhat disenchanted with the field of psychogerontology’s preoccupation with finding out “where” the aging effect lay: initial perception, storage, retrieval, etc. After a few years of Nancy’s and Jim’s tutelage, I could design an experiment to “show” the effect wherever I wished. To me, the real question was, what (if anything) could we do to improve learning and memory? We did design and carry out an ancillary experiment that showed a very large effect of visual mnemonics on learning paired associates and minimized the “age effect.” However, Nancy’s idea of a really good mnemonic is one that I’ll always remember. She kept asking me to bring in to work a particular book that I had at home. I kept forgetting to bring it in. Finally, I challenged her, “Well, you’re a world expert on memory. What practical technique can you suggest so that I’ll remember.” Wordlessly, she opened up her purse, took out a small piece of string and tied it around my finger. I shook my head in disbelief. But, the next day, I remembered to bring in the book. And, to this day, I remember Nancy.

Consider attending GERONTECHNOLOGY 2005, May 24-27, 2005 in Nagoya, Japan. See http://www.gerontechnology.info/ for more details about the conference and the Gerontechnology Society.

My first job after graduate school was to manage a research project at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School on the "Psychology of Aging." This was associated with the Veteran's Administration Hospital's study on "Normative Aging." It turns out that aging, though it has some negative correlates is a lot better than the only other available alternative.

As soon as I agreed to come to work on this study, I looked at the grant proposal and noticed that there was also money set aside for a full-time programmer. I explained to my two bosses, James L. Fozard and Nancy Waugh, that there was no need to hire a programmer because I could do that job too and we could save the government money. (sigh)

That was in the days when I didn't understand how bureaucracies worked. But, never mind. Anyway, I had the pleasure of simultaneously debugging a software system, a new box by "Tectronix" (a two-person start-up), and a hardware set-up on a system (PDP-8) I had never seen in a language (FOCAL (and PAL-8)) that I had never even heard of.

Another programmer had begun writing special subroutines to run the experiments but took off before he got a chance to test or debug the programs. Where did he take off to? You guessed it! Afghanistan!

Oh, well.

I got to debug the programs, write more for the PDP-8 to run additional experiments and to analyze the data. I got to interview each of the participants in the study and "measure" their IQ.


As it turns out, although there is some "aging" effect on mental functioning, the individual differences WITHIN an age group are much greater. For instance, there were several seventy year olds that were faster and more accurate at memory experiments than some twenty year olds. Other studies indicate that "ageism" is at least as rampant as "sexism" and "racism."

Anyway, the man with the fastest reaction times in our 20-80 group was a 56 year-old school superintendant who raced motorcycles on the weekends.

We also found that, with IQ held constant, people with more education had significantly less intra-subject variance. What could this mean? Perhaps, the more you get educated, the sooner you are able to program your brain to do what is needed by the task defined by the experimenter. On the other hand, maybe brains that are less variable are more easily educated by others.

In any case, rather than trying to discriminate against people because of their age (and your imaginary view that they will be less capable) instead provide a good environment -- good human factors -- and everyone will benefit. You. Your shareholders. The employees.

My views were summarized in a theory of "Organism-Environment" interaction which basically pointed out that, as people live longer, they naturally adapt to their environment. They also adapt the environment to themselves. The combination can continue to become more productive over time. However, a radical shift in the environment can often be much more disruptive to older adults. Hence, the high rate of death after retirement. This also explains why "peak performance" in certain areas like chess, poetry, and mathematics tends to be fairly early -- because there has historically not been a lot of environmental support and because the total amount of "rules" to learn is relatively small. In contrast, psychology and politics often show much older "peak" performances because there are many facts to learn and because performance depends on having a supportive environment. This theory also predicts that as truly useful power tools for chess players, mathematicians, and poets become available, the "peak" age will increase.

The difficulty that older individuals may have in adapting to an entirely new set of circumstances is partly physical, partly a consequence of simply having been more adapted. Social factors and personal psychological factors also can play a huge role. In societies where older individuals are expected to be wise and powerful, they usually are. The individual psychological factors that can get in the way of new learning are the same sorts of "irrational beliefs" that often hamper younger people as well. See the therapy page .

Many of these same types of factors can also be seen at play in an organization's attempts to change and adapt. See the organizational learning pages.

In 1999, my colleague from Mass General/VA/Harvard days, Jim Fozard and I co-chaired a special section of ACM's conference on human factors in computing systems. In general, this conference focuses on putting computers where they belong...as tools for human beings. The field Human Computer Interaction is called "Human Computer Interaction" and is becoming more and more important. Every year the conference attempts to reach out to and include another community. In 1999, the United Nations Year of the Older Adult, we had a special section of CHI called "Senior CHI" http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kay/seniorchi/which focused on three issues:

1. How can computers become more accessible to older adults?

2. How can technology help older adults?

3. How can technology be used to help disseminate the wisdom and experience of older adults to the rest of the community?

Other links you might want to check out include:


Third Age

senior net

Spry Foundation

National Institutes on Aging



To contact the author: truthtable@aol.com

Last modified: Saturday, Dec. 18 2005