School’s out

I saw a note by Razib Khan, in which he mentioned that psychometric research suggests that people plateau in their knowledge base as adults. I could believe it. But I’m not sure it’s true in my case. One might estimate total adult knowledge in terms of BS equivalents…

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46 Responses to School’s out

  1. Doesn’t that finding contradict the research on when eminent people’s do their best work? Referring to Dean Simonton’s work on creative peaks in different fields.

    Physics, mathematics, poets all peak pretty young– biologists, novelists, and historians peak later in life.

    • ckp says:

      Physics, mathematics, poets all peak pretty young

      no they don’t

      • Yes they do. Obviously there’s variance in any field, but that’s the observed pattern.

        Relevant portions:

        ” In the first place, the location of the [creative] peak, as well as the magnitude of the postpeak decline, tends to vary depending on the domain of creative achievement. At one extreme, some fields are characterized by relatively early peaks,
        usually around the early 30s or even late 20s in chronological
        units, with somewhat steep descents thereafter, so that the output
        rate becomes less than one-quarter the maximum. This agewise
        pattern apparently holds for such endeavors as lyric poetry,
        pure mathematics, and theoretical physics, for example (Adams,
        1946; Dennis, 1966; Lehman, 1953a; Moulin, 1955; Roe,
        1972b; Simonton, 1975a; Van Heeringen & Dijkwel, 1987). At
        the contrary extreme, the typical trends in other endeavors may
        display a leisurely rise to a comparatively late peak, in the late
        40s or even 50s chronologically, with a minimal if not largely
        absent drop-off afterward. This more elongated curve holds for
        such domains as novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine,
        and general scholarship”

        “This cross-cultural and transhistorical invariance
        strongly suggests that the age curves reflect underlying psychological
        universals rather than arbitrary sociocultural determinants.
        In other words, the age functions for productivity may
        result from intrinsic information-processing requirements
        rather than extrinsic pressures due to age stereotypes about
        older contributors, a point that we shall return to in the theoretical
        section “

        • E.H. says:

          Could be that the apparent early career productivity is really a backlog of ideas from ones teens, or that it is on first exposure to a field that one has the most ideas. Perhaps starting in a new field one can get one’s creativity level back.

          The social incentives are very much against it, specialization has become a cult as pernicious in its unintended consequences as globalism. Specialization is very good for making sure somebody or other knows everything, but when potentially fertile strains of knowledge are in different heads, there is no possibility for them to mate and make little ideas, which is “dysmemic”.

          Our system for collecting and evaluating new ideas so that they may be culled or propagated is also not as good as it should be, and this is the single biggest problem and greatest opportunity in the world today. Genetics will matter more in the long run, but memetics also determines how we think about and use genetics.

  2. benespen says:

    “One might estimate total adult knowledge in terms of BS equivalents…” The jokes write themselves.

    I saw that same note, and I thought it was pretty interesting. It seems probable, for the most part, but the exceptions are probably more interesting than what typically happens. Is the real limitation memory, or just attention and time? How does formal education hurt or help the process? I’ve got some hunches, but I’d love to see some data.

  3. dearieme says:

    Because my memory is lousy, I suspect that as I got older I knew different things rather than more things. A plateau? Sounds optimistic to me. I can still read French but can scarcely speak it any more. I can’t really read German or Latin any more. I think I’m on the reverse slope now.

    • pyrrhus says:

      Yes, I see my memory as a limited storage optimizer. I learn new things, but my mind discards old things, like names and the theory behind differential equations, which it deems no longer worthwhile….

    • Frau Katze says:

      I find I’m forgetting things that haven’t crossed my mind for many years. That uncle-by-marriage’s wife’s name. I spent 3 months in their home in 1973. I can’t remember her name.

      So far, my memory for more current events seems OK. But I feel I SHOULD remember her name. Joyce? Elizabeth?

      • Erik Sieven says:

        also I have the impression that the memory is very much based on context, I feel like I have different memories for different social contexts.

      • says:

        These problems only become blunders when people can see into the filing system of your mind: Like when you call mister Schein mister Schwarz.

  4. manwhoisthursday says:

    Agree that “people plateau in their knowledge base as adults” is likely true on average, but with some exceptions.

    A couple hypotheses as to why:
    1. Some people retain neotenous mental traits, like curiosity, into later life.
    2. You have to be very smart to keep learning new things later in life and only a few people are very smart.

    • pyrrhus says:

      I find my curiosity is even greater now, at the age of 69, than it ever was….

    • albatross says:

      Also, there’s a whole social structure to push younger people to learn stuff–school, then their first jobs in a field where they’re learning to apply (or discard) some of the stuff they just learned in school. Over time, the social incentives for learning mostly go away, so only really rare self-driven people want to keep learning. I certainly know a lot of people that keep trying to learn new stuff, even into their 70s, but that’s not at all common.

    • albatross says:

      If we end up figuring out how to seriously extend lifespan (and healthspan–there’s no point in improvements in medicine that end up letting me spend another twenty years vacantly drooling in a nursing home somewhere), we’ll probably need to culturally adapt to the idea that people should keep learning over time. Though maybe by then we’ll all be living off the largess of the robots and being kept as pampered pets (or maybe factory-farmed chickens) by the AIs running the planet.

  5. AppSocRes says:

    My experience has been that one either uses one’s knowledge or loses it. But using it means forsaking opportunities to significantly expand one’s knowledge base. The university faculty I know are among the most intellectually boring people of my acquaintance; they work in their narrow areas of specialization and have difficulty navigating outside them. (And I’m not talking about jerkwater, third rate colleges either. Most of my academic acquaintances are academic superstars.)

    I was once regarded as someone with a solid future in mathematics or a particularly quantitative field of social science. I frittered my career away indulging whimsical interests of the moment. I learned lots of interesting new things but never excelled in any and now find that mathematical materials that once seemed obvious to me require an enormous effort to understand even momentarily. My knowledge base is plateauing late in life but has never done me or others much good

    • Anonymous says:

      specialization is for insects

    • dearieme says:

      Cheer up! If you are clever the first requirement of decency is simply that you don’t use your abilities to harm your fellow men.

    • Garr says:

      “Most of my academic acquaintances are academic superstars” — you’re a pick-up-artist specializing in the ladies of the sociology, anthropology, and comp.lit departments?

      • AppSocRes says:

        I’m not sure if you’re snarking or questioning my veracity. In either case, I will not go into specifics so as to protect my identity and that of my friends but will mention three male friends as examples: (1) a full professor with an endowed chair and heading a research group in the Harvard Medical School who has received numerous academic awards; (2) a demographer with a senior position in a first rank foundation and holding faculty positions (the last I heard) at at least two major universities; (3) two full professorships in public administration in major universities on either coast.

        • Garr says:

          You’re totally freaking awesome, Dude! I’m just an adjunct at “jerkwater, third rate colleges” (actually fifth-rate). My mental angle was just friendly-teasing, but it seems that I’m too socially incompetent even in print to make these nuances of attitude evident. (“Snark” comes from combining “sarc[asm]” with “snide”, don’t you think? I never snark, although I often snarl. Snarking’s for neurotypicals — guys with faculty jobs, in other words.)

  6. ursiform says:

    A lot depends on how you define “knowledge”. Is it quantity or quality of accumulated facts? As you age you learn new things (or at least some people do) and you forget old things. If you tend to remember more important things and forget less important things the quality of your “knowledge” can go up even if the quantity remains roughly constant.

    Some people seem to have random recall of information with little ability to correlate it or extract useful conclusions from it. Others have much more structured recall and correlation of information, and can extract useful conclusions from it.

    It is possible to build increasing insight over time without having an ever-increasing store of facts. But not all people manage it.

  7. MawBTS says:

    I think some of us are like Mao Zedong’s China – high potential and artificial limitations.

  8. I see intellectual capacity as a composite function of three functions that change over time: (1) number of synapses, (2) activity per synapse, and (3) accumulated experience. (1) The mass of the human brain increases until early adulthood, holds steady for a while, then falls. (2) Synapses proliferate early in life and are very active for a few years after birth, then decline in number and activity with disuse. (3) Experience increases until ethanol, THC, and senility erase memory.

    We are genetically programmed to be environmentally programmable. Neurons respond to stimulation. Resistance across synaptic gaps falls with repeated transmission across the gap. Expose your baby to smells and tastes and s/he’ll develop exceptional olfactory sensitivity and memory, I expect.

    This looks like the way we develop friendships in our life. We makes many associations early in life and discard people who betray us or for whom we have no use. It looks like the way we develop theories about new phenomena: collect data, compose various explanations, discard data that don’t relate and discard hypotheses which fail the test of prediction.

    That’s my BS equivalent for today.

  9. Cpluskx says:

    You should be on Twitter.

  10. Neutrino says:

    BS equivalents like alternative units of measurement like MilliHelens? If Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships then a beauty of one MilliHelen would launch a single ship. How many BS’s or fractions thereof would be needed to equate to some standard of reference? The nuances change if tied to a Bachelor of Science or to more prosaic BS.

  11. ursiform says:

    By the way, what BS standard are we applying? I suspect a Caltech BS in Physics and a Cal State Dominguez Hills BS in Applied Studies represent different knowledge levels.

  12. anon says:

    The reason is that adult’s don’t have enough time to do serious learning. If you work 8 hours a day, then come home and cook dinner and help the kids with the homework, you’ve probably only got an hour of free time. That’s not enough time to do serious learning (reading the book and doing the exercises), and even if it were, you wouldn’t have enough energy left.

    Most of what adult’s learn is what they learn on the job, and because they’re learning it on the job, they’re probably cutting corners to meet deadlines.

  13. AllenM says:

    I agree with anon- very little time for the working folks, and very few really get paid to think.

    Plus, quite simply, thinking at work is usually punished unless you are fearless leader.

    And quite simply, thinking leads to so many rabbit holes- and uncomfortable realizations about people and society- it should be discouraged until past 50.

    All the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, and yet few will even look at the end results of actions taken by our dear leaders.

    So folly persists, which is, I think the ultimate frustration with humanity- knowledge utterly plateaus and dogmas freeze into canon.

    Only after a breakdown, do we progress, and the costs are huge.

  14. brendan says:

    Well, what fraction of folks study a varied assortment of non-fiction books? Must be <10%.
    -The median American reads 4 books per year (self reported, i.e. inflated).
    -People like stories better than non-fiction.
    -Non-fiction books tend not to be completed.
    -Those who like non-fiction tend to read the same BS over and over again – they become experts in some ideology, or in popularizations of spooky physics, or in pop psychology, or in atheism being awesome.
    -And few people remember what they merely passively read.

    So the plateau thing I’m sure is true but I think it’s got more to do with habits than hardware.

  15. j says:

    I know a dozen Russian Jewish academics who arrived in Israel when they were over sixty five. They mastered Hebrew and are teaching. Old age learning, like exercising, is a question of habit and motivation.

  16. AppSocRes says:

    Anon (4:34 AM), AllenM, Brendan, and j make and expand upon an important point: Gaining knowledge, acquiring new skills, investigating topics outside of one’s specialty requires a lot of free time, either external or internal motivation, and freedom from constraints on what one can study and think about. Very few of us are lucky to have all three for an extended period once we leave behind our student lives. Even post docs often find themselves suffering under constraints on their time and research freedom.

  17. panjoomby says:

    it’s all in the norms tables – depending what you’re looking at, verbal knowledge gets added to well into the 60s then plateaus then goes a bit south later, whereas nonverbal problem solving gets better into 20s, plateaus, starts going south by 40. just look in the norms tables for what raw score you need to be average at a given age – sad for older folks: on some matrices-type tasks the average 16 year old does much better than the average 60 year old. not true for most verbal/info tasks – b/c we keep adding to verbal/info type knowledge (at some age we eventually reach our limit & it gets harder to add new words/info). mileage may vary for each individual. & norms tables are cross sectional not longitudinal. perusing norms tables can be fairly sobering.

    • BB753 says:

      I’m a middle-aged man and I know for a fact that I can no longer concentrate on a given subject as long as I used to, say 15 years ago. My memory has certainly diminished, sometimes to an embarrassing degree socially as I keep forgetting names and surnames. It seems as if, in order to keep 50 new persons’ names in my memory, for instance people at work, I need to discard from my brain 50 old acquaintances or former colleagues to make room for the new. Same with literature, I’ve read hundreds of novels and plays over the years yet I barely remember anything about them, other than the title and the rough plot outline.
      Not so with words, as fortunately my vocabulary keeps increasing and I can certainly speak and write better in my native tongue than my younger self. Though I don’t expect this positive trend to continue indefinitely.
      On the other hand, learning new languages is now virtually impossible for me even though I used to be very good at foreign languages, including dead ones like Greek and Latin.
      As for plain cold facts, history and scientific stuff, I can still learn bits and pieces. You grow lazy as you turn older and the Internet certainly hasn’t helped.

  18. Richard Harper says:

    The earlier that knowledge is acquired the greater potential returns on that knowledge over the remaining course of the organism’s lifespan. (For purposes of natural selection, returns here means reproductive success.) One might expect that the well-designed species will in general invest less in learning toward the end of their lifespans. Short-lived species don’t get graduate degrees. Older-lived members of long-lived species probably are not especially inclined to either.

  19. I didn’t even begin to learn math until my 40s, and still learn more advanced math today. and and as examples. Moreover, I have to teach three different subjects at school (math, English, history) and I’ve certainly learned much more history in the past decade.

    But I have a really high IQ; I genuinely wonder if my brain needed to figure out how to learn in order to take off.

  20. Oops–meant to add that by “advanced math” I mean deeper understanding of concepts in high school math. I’m still calculus or lower in understanding.

  21. Can we sum up with in one ear out the other, as the decades pile. There appears to be a limit, overall, with age as the cogent factor in various fields . That’s not surprising .

  22. XRay says:

    My nic got screwed, should be XRay, plain.

  23. dave chamberlin says:

    It has been my observation that people in the average IQ range get very little reward for remaining curious about anything but their occupation later in life. So they rut in all their knowledge. Beliefs concretize and years roll by.

    If you are an average athlete then it is very likely you will quit playing sports as you age. Same thing goes with using the brain.

  24. charles w abbott says:

    I have the sense that perhaps there is not a single distribution–maybe it’s bimodal or, more likely, there are “different types of people” depending on IQ, temperament (Big 5?), as well as environment. and life challenges. If we had good data and a cluster analysis, we would see different styles of learning emerge. But it’s hard to see those things just based on impressionistic, phenomenological analysis of ourselves and people we observe or hear about.

    If you are in a profession or field where you “tunnel” and can ignore most extraneous information, that is different from being in a profession or field where you are exposed to new and different…domains. (I think the word is domain).
    I suspect media diet plays a role. Because we have 24 hours in a day, TV and movies can crowd out useful reading. It seems to me that it takes some discipline to never watch TV and to almost never watch mediocre movie that have just been released. That’s time you could be reading (I can’t read with the TV going).

    so, many things play a role.

    Media diet
    Sleep deprivation
    Household time budget (including raising children)
    Physical fitness.
    Curiousity decline with age (can we call it “Curiousity Collapse”?)

    Foreign languages have some sort of an “option value.” I maintain my limping, half-assed Spanish because I can never predict when it might come in handy. And, I can deepen it if I want to. If you know you are never going to need Latin (or even German) you can let it slide.
    Peter Drucker has talked about the need to be good at two things–a profession and a serious hobby. He gives an example of a business executive who was seriously engaged in Egyptology as a hobby. I think that helps–if you are doing two unrelated things, its different from going all out on your profession and then just chilling.

    And, if you are doing two things, you may have confidence that you could switch one out if you have to.

    I’m suspicious of the assertion that we really know how well we are doing in terms of knowing and forgetting, or learning new skills. Which leads me to another thing.

    If you travel, or better yet, move to another place for a year, it taxes the brain and you have deep motivation to start learning again. If you don’t do that, you don’t face the challenge.

    Obviously, there are developmental windows that begin to close as we age. As well as motivation. At the moment I’m not motivated to improve my math skills. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t. it wasn’t effortless when I was younger. I might be repressing how much effort it took me to get mediocre grades in the sort of math classes that engineers take by the time they are in the third year of college.

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