|Contrary to the other articles which are primarily about learning in
children, this article focuses more on parents and grandparents.
AGING WITH THE STORY ENGRAM: THE FINAL GIFT
Renée Fuller, Ph.D.
Copyright © Renée Fuller, 2000, 2001
When I was a graduate student in psychology we were taught that being in our early twenties meant we had reached the pinnacle of our intellectual prowess. So much for the good news. The bad news - from now on we would go downhill. By age fifty, our analytical abilities, memory systems, rapidity of response would be in definite decline. Numerous graphs highlighted this humiliating destiny.
Yet how could this be? The data didn't make sense - despite the impressive graphs. A population drag of increasingly stupider, older people would have seen to it that humans died off at the latest in their early forties. "That's the age when people used to die", explained one of my professors.
But Abraham didn't, nor Moses. And neither did Michelangelo nor Homer, and a host of other great contributors to human history. Most of them produced their best work long after their fortieth birthday. Beethoven's Ninth, and last, symphony was his most magnificent. Businesses, countries, churches, have almost always been run by elders, as were - and are - so many other human endeavors and societies. Surely these seniors weren't, and aren't, in positions of power out of politeness. Already as a young graduate student I knew that the statistics showing early deterioration of human intellect must be flawed data. There had to be a major evolutionary advantage, some special gift, that develops as we age. Why else would humans be the only species which lives decades after having produced the next generation? The test scores couldn't be telling the real story. But what is the real story?
After finishing graduate school my research made use of IQ and aptitude tests; some of which included the subtests that have shown the presumed deterioration that comes with increasing age. Like many researchers I found the tests had both reliability and validity. They did seem to measure intellectual prowess. But then, after utilizing the data obtained from IQ and aptitude tests for more than a decade something went wrong.
I watched incredulously as four-year olds, neurologically damaged students and even the severely retarded performed reading and thinking feats that should have been impossible on the basis of their mental age or IQ.
Having spent years doing research and publishing numerous papers in which data from IQ tests were an important component, their sudden loss of validity was disconcerting. Such confounding results demanded a backtracking and raised questions about basic IQ assumptions. Ironically the unexpected and unwanted results had been produced by a reading system I myself had devised.
At the same time that the validity of IQ tests of students taught with my reading system was collapsing, I noticed how I myself was getting to be less skilled in some of the tasks required by the tests. I was getting older. It was just as the textbook graphs had shown: only in my middle thirties and I was already going downhill intellectually - except I was doing the best work I had done so far. How could this be, unless those downhill graphs were as incorrect in their predictions and understandings of an aging population as the IQ scores had been for our retarded and brain damaged students?
Our older students gave us an unexpected answer. After being taught to read with my Ball-Stick-Bird system, these older students communicated ideas of much greater depth and meaning than their younger counterparts. Fred in his fifties, with an IQ younger than his age, demonstrated what can be achieved intellectually as we age. Because of the way the reading system teaches reading, Fred had acquired not only advanced vocabulary but also advanced language skills. With these Fred was able to think and communicate ideas that bore no relation to his IQ score. Now that he was in possession of the cognitive tools, he could describe his experiences at the institutions where he had spent most of his life, and even more important he told us about the conclusions he had drawn from these experiences. He explained his philosophy - why and how we had to make this a better world, giving us case histories to illustrate what he meant. Amusingly, when I reached my mid-fifties, Fred's age at the time, my ideas about the human condition took a similar philosophic bent, as did my case histories.
What were the cognitive tools Fred had mastered that made it possible for him to organize his life's experiences into a philosophy? No, they weren't simply the consequence of learning to read. Rather they were the result of developmental linguistics, which had been incorporated into the Ball-Stick-Bird system in order to introduce story reading even before most of the alphabet had been learned. The utilization of developmental linguistics means that the beginning books of the reading system mimic the sequence with which children acquire language. Since nouns and verbs are the first words that are acquired, it is with these parts of speech that the two beginning books tell their story. The cognitively and therefore logically more complicated parts of speech, which children acquire subsequently, often over a period of years are gradually introduced in later books.
The use of developmental linguistics made it possible to show, already with the presentation of the fourth letter, how the funny looking squiggles that are called alphabet letters can be combined to tell hilarious space adventures. Further, because only a few words have to be read for a student to become involved in the narrative, even beginning reading entails comprehension. The system thereby avoids word calling (reading without an understanding of what has been read) that is the bane of rote and drill practices.
Although not intended, something perhaps even more important than reading skills was learned by all our students. By recapitulating the way children acquire language (developmental linguistics), the reading system taught (albeit implicitly) how words can be combined to build ideas. The effects of the use of developmental linguistics were beyond anything that would have been expected on the basis of IQ scores or mental ages.
All our students, regardless of age or IQ, mimicked the developmental linguistics of the reading system. They organized their ideas by beginning with a noun-verb unit, and then on becoming more proficient elaborated this basic unit with the other, cognitively more complicated parts of speech.
I called the noun-verb unit in its simple or elaborated form the story engram. Story engrams are meaning in a nutshell. That last sentence is an elaborated story engram - popularly known as a sound bite. Story engrams are how we impose a structure on the plethora of stimuli that surround us, how we communicate with others, how we communicate with ourselves. Which explains why sound bites are such powerful advertising tools, why they are remembered, make such great headlines, and why politicians encapsulate their "vision" in story engrams.
Story engrams have another powerful attribute. They can be used as building blocks with which to organize ever greater and more complicated stories. This is done by creating an overarching story engram that is then developed with subordinate story engrams. Here we have the structure of the linguistic logic system that characterizes human thinking.
Despite the importance of story engrams to cognitive organization, the ability to build and elaborate them is not measured by IQ and most aptitude tests. No wonder then that the accomplishments of our students bore little relation to their IQ scores. Further, as our older students demonstrated:
The human ability to organize and build complex meanings with story engrams does not deteriorate with age. To the contrary!
How did this unique human way of organizing information, which gets better as we age, come to be? We can trace its beginning to the early vertebrates. With a protected neural chord and encephalization, there emerged in vertebrates an important ability that is beyond the capacity of invertebrates. Vertebrates are able to organize a group of visual stimuli not only into an object, in other words into an entity; they also have what psychologists call object constancy. The importance of object constancy to perceptual and neural organization is twofold.
First, object constancy makes possible the awareness that the group of stimuli that are perceived as an object, as an entity, continue to exist even when out of sight. For example, a dangerous predator continues to be realized as a danger even if it has disappeared behind a bush. Or it can mean that the potential prey that slipped out of sight can still be had for dinner.
Further, the ability to differentiate between objects improves with experience even for primitive chordates. This means that vertebrates get better at such object discriminations as they get older and therefore more experienced. Here is the raison d'être for the extended life span of vertebrates compared to the usually much shorter life of invertebrates. Since the knowledge that makes it possible to discriminate between object entities can function as a life saving advantage, the more experienced a vertebrate is the more likely it is to have a longer life. A longer life makes possible more progeny, which are also likely to have the longevity genes of their parents.
Secondly, the emergence of object constancy in vertebrates made possible the neurological framework that eventually evolved into the human concept of the noun and the verb. We humans attach linguistic noun labels to the entities, to the objects, that are the product of object constancy. And to the action components of objects (for example, snake - bites, lion - attacks) we humans attach linguistic verb labels. This linkage of an object with its action component has crucial survival value for vertebrates. For it signals whether an entity can be dangerous or not, or whether it can be had for food or not. In human evolution the cognitive linkage of an object (noun) with its action component (verb) developed into that important noun-verb unit essential for language production and thought, the simplest story engram.
Also learned through experience is that objects and their action components frequently imply a cause and effect relationship, i.e. causality. A simple example of causality would be the linkage of the object "lion" (a noun) with the action component "attacks" (a verb). Understandings of causality, even those that merely require selective responses for predators or prey still need extended exposure. Therefore a longer life span that encompasses such experience creates the possibilities of greater awareness of causality. In humans, the potentially greater undertstandings of causality that come with a longer life can mean more knowledgeable story engrams.
Language acquisition in human children recapitulates the vertebrate evolution of the story engram. A child's first words are nouns, then verbs, creating the noun-verb unit, the simplest story engram. After learning his/her first noun-verb units (story engrams) the child, intrigued by the implications of causality, starts asking the "why" question. During this "why" phase she/he learns to use story engrams to elaborate ideas, to explain "why". But even after refining cause and effect relationships with adjectives, adverbs, connectives, prepositions, and those important answers of because, since, therefore, etc., decades of practice are required to achieve expertise in building solid cognitive edifices. And the experiences of life continue to enhance the art of creating meaningful explanations of causality.
The fascination with and the clarifications of causality have become the most productive attribute of human thought. And as our older students demonstrated:
once we humans learn how to use story engrams to build ideas, the capacity to construct solid cognitive edifices continues to grow with the experiences of life.
The story engram creations of our student elders, the quality of what they built, their understanding of causality, were so much greater than that of youngsters with considerably higher IQs.
Is that not what happens to all of us as we age? We get better at understanding cause and effect relationships, better at summarizing our experiences into story engrams. It becomes easier to see the big picture because we are less constrained by hormones that channel our thinking, and because we have forgotten some of the inconsequential details demanded by schools which created the higher test scores of our youth. And so there may be an advantage to the lower test scores that psychology texts proclaim as our destiny. Rather than the curse of old age, less preoccupation with minutiae allows us to see the big picture to be summarized into story engrams.
Human history tells us of the wisdom of the matriarchs and the patriarchs of our ancient past. Their understandings helped their children and grandchildren lead successful lives. Families without elderly guidance were at a competitive disadvantage. Biblical Abraham with the knowledge acquired during his long life continues to have progeny to this day. Surely that was because his progeny, aside from inheriting his genes for longevity, had the advantage of elderly guidance to help them live long and prosper. Would that not explain why humans live decades after having created the next generation? Families with wise elders have better chances at survival and therefore have more descendants.
Does the anger of some of our youngsters stem from a feeling that their parents and grandparents are not fulfilling their historic function of elderly guidance? Are these youngsters overwhelmed by demands for which they don't have the understandings - demands that experienced elders could and should explain? Human history indicates that we have an important function to perform as we become elders; a final gift we should be making to our progeny.
As we age we reminisce almost as though to aid us in seeing the big picture. We tend to forget the details that can block out the grand vistas. We wonder about the implications, the meaning of what happened. Looking back on our life we see what was not apparent before. Events look very different when viewed in the context of a lifetime. The story engrams with which we build these realizations and understanding are sharpened by decades of practice. We learn to put into a nutshell the important conclusions that can be drawn from experience. And we learn to develop the summarizing story engrams with subordinate story engrams to describe complexities, giving us a greater understanding of causality.
We move from the information age of our youth with its higher test scores, to the knowledge age of the middle years, to the integration stage of the elder.
In this last stage we are distanced from the turmoil and hormonal tensions of youth, and from the competitiveness of the middle years. We have a clearer comprehension of the determinant causes that create a meaningful life, the important effects that humans should seek. We are learning what really matters in the long run.
It is as though we are being prepared for the final gift we are to make to future generations, as though we were being prepared for our ultimate purpose. And this purpose is to structure and explain what we have seen and experienced - thereby to evaluate, to understand. The cognitive organization with which we achieve this purpose is the story engram. It gives us the tool with which to impose a structure on the plethora of stimuli that surround us, to build and therefore understand cause and effect relationships, to organize life into a coherent and meaningful story; and to share that meaningful story with future generations.
Some of our elders have seen the beginning of the 20th century; they have seen the most dramatic changes in the lifetime of our species. Having experienced the upheavals of the last century, theirs has been a unique opportunity to observe the prize as well as the price of "progress." The historic function of these elders is to try to make sense out of what they have seen. Is that not what in our human past has been the function of old age? Why else would we be the only species living decades after having created the next generation? And is that not the most important task any of us will ever have?
It allows us to give the greatest and final gift - with story engrams as the building blocks - to tell the amazing story of where we humans have been, and to develop the destinations for the future that we hope will be.
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Williamstown, MA 01267
© 1999 Renée Fuller
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