Fiona McPherson's blog

A new resource for Alzheimer's caregivers

I recently reported on a long-running study that found that husbands or wives who care for spouses with dementia are six times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s themselves than those whose spouses don't have it. The most likely cause for this is the great stress of caregiving. Both stress and depression increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, and both are common (well, stress is inescapable!) among caregivers.

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Why learning is harder as we get older

Children learn. It’s what they do. And they build themselves over the years from wide-eyed baby to a person that walks and talks and can maybe fix your computer, so it’s no wonder that we have this idea that learning comes so much more easily to them than it does to us. But is it true?

There are two particular areas where children are said to excel: learning language, and learning skills.


Brown, R. M., & Robertson E. M. (2007). Off-Line Processing: Reciprocal Interactions between Declarative and Procedural Memories. The Journal of Neuroscience. 27(39), 10468 - 10475.

Brown, R. M., Robertson E. M., & Press D. Z. (2009). Sequence Skill Acquisition and Off-Line Learning in Normal Aging. PLoS ONE. 4(8), e6683 - e6683.

Cash, C. D. (2009). Effects of Early and Late Rest Intervals on Performance and Overnight Consolidation of a Keyboard Sequence. Journal of Research in Music Education. 57(3), 252 - 266.

DeKeyser, R., Monner, D., Hwang, S-O, Morini, G. & Vatz, K. 2011. Qualitative differences in second language memory as a function of late learning. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Dorfberger, S., Adi-Japha E., & Karni A. (2007). Reduced Susceptibility to Interference in the Consolidation of Motor Memory before Adolescence. PLoS ONE. 2(2), e240 - e240.

Ferman, S., & Karni A. (2010). No Childhood Advantage in the Acquisition of Skill in Using an Artificial Language Rule. PLoS ONE. 5(10), e13648 - e13648.

Ferman, S. & Karni, A. 2011. Adults outperform children in acquiring a language skill: Evidence from learning an artificial morphological rule in different conditions. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Karni, A. 2011. A critical look at ‘critical periods’ in skill acquisition: from motor sequences to language skills. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Nemeth, D., & Janacsek K. (2010). The Dynamics of Implicit Skill Consolidation in Young and Elderly Adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 66B, 15 - 22.

Robertson, E. M., Press D. Z., & Pascual-Leone A. (2005). Off-Line Learning and the Primary Motor Cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience. 25(27), 6372 - 6378.

Stambaugh, L. A. (2011). When Repetition Isn’t the Best Practice Strategy: Effects of Blocked and Random Practice Schedules. Journal of Research in Music Education. 58(4), 368 - 383.

Steele, C. J., & Penhune V. B. (2010). Specific Increases within Global Decreases: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation of Five Days of Motor Sequence Learning. The Journal of Neuroscience. 30(24), 8332 - 8341.

Wymbs, N. F., & Grafton S. T. (2009). Neural Substrates of Practice Structure That Support Future Off-Line Learning. Journal of Neurophysiology. 102(4), 2462 - 2476.

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Eating right for your brain

Although I’m a cognitive psychologist and consequently think that memory and cognition is mostly about your mastery of effective strategies, when it comes to age-related cognitive decline, I’m a big believer in the importance of diet and exercise. But while we know these things can play an important role in why some people develop cognitive impairment and even dementia as they age, and others don’t, we don’t yet know with any great certainty exactly what exercise programs would be the best use of our time, and what diet would have the most benefit.

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The changing nature of literacy. Part 1: Textbooks

As we all know, we are living in a time of great changes in education and (in its broadest sense) information technology. In order to swim in these new seas, we and our children need to master new forms of literacy. In this and the next three posts, I want to explore some of the concepts, applications, and experiments that bear on this.

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Gesturing to improve memory, language & thought

I recently reported on a study showing how the gestures people made in describing how they solved a problem (the Tower of Hanoi) changed the way they remembered the game. These findings add to other research demonstrating that gestures make thought concrete and can help us understand and remember abstract concepts better.

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More about motor memory

I don’t often talk about motor or skill memory — that is, the memory we use when we type or drive a car or play the piano. It’s one of the more mysterious domains of memory. We all know, of course, that this is a particularly durable kind of memory. It’s like riding a bicycle, we say — meaning that it’s something we’re not likely to have forgotten, something that will come back to us very readily, even if it’s been a very long time since we last used the skill.


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Why it’s important to work out the specific skills you want to improve

I have spoken before, here on the website and in my books, about the importance of setting specific goals and articulating your specific needs. Improving your memory is not a single task, because memory is not a single thing. And as I have discussed when talking about the benefits of ‘brain games’ and ‘brain training’, which are so popular now, there is only a little evidence that we can achieve general across-the-board improvement in our cognitive abilities.

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