The Odyssey of the Aging Mind: Stine-Morrow Studies How We Learn Over a Lifetime

The fantasy world of Harry Potter that millions have found so fascinating also turns out to be of interest to Beckman Institute researcher Liz Stine-Morrow. Not as a research topic, but as fertile ground for the perfect analogy.

To Stine-Morrow her research showing that our choices, both implicit and explicit, determine the fate of our cognitive functioning as we age is summed up rather nicely by Harry's headmaster, Dumbledore: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Stine-Morrow is Professor of Educational Psychology at Illinois and a member of Beckman's Human Perception and Performance group who focuses on cognition and the capacity for learning throughout the lifespan. She is also a fan of author J.K. Rowling's wildly popular works of fiction, but her reason for submitting a paper titled "The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging" to a psychology journal read by both psychologists and lay people is based on science.

When Stine-Morrow explains her research, her use of Dumbledore's admonition to Harry seems most appropriate. She poses the question of whether "individuals have some degree of control over developmental trajectories" of declining mental abilities that come with the aging process. Stine-Morrow's research says that they do, thanks to their choices, have some control over the cognitive aging process.

"When you're reading and learning you have a choice about how you allocate your effort," Stine-Morrow said. "The consequence is that you are creating mental representations and also building skills for another day.

"It's the same thing with the engagement work we're doing. You make a choice about how to allocate your time during the day: do you elect to engage in conversations in which you are likely to encounter novel ideas, take on the hard challenges, or do you shy away? Those too have implications. So it's really looking at how we self regulate our activity, how do we regulate our everyday experience so that we're knitting new neural networks. Some of (the choices) are implicit and some are explicit."

"... how do we regulate our everyday experience so that we're knitting new neural networks. Some of (the choices) are implicit and some are explicit."
- Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow

Stine-Morrow's current research has two main focal points, which she says are complementary. She has a reading project that studies what is called self-regulated learning (how people adapt reading strategies in later life to accomplish learning), and she has created a research project with a strong educational outreach aspect called Senior Odyssey.

Stine-Morrow, who heads the Adult Learning Lab at the Beckman Institute, is in the process of expanding the Senior Odyssey program to include a literacy component that would probe some of the same issues she has studied with self-regulated learning. Senior Odyssey started out with a pilot grant but gradually has turned into a full-fledged research project - an impressive achievement considering the program's modest beginnings.

Odyssey of the Mind is a well-known educational program that gives students the opportunity for creative problem-solving in friendly, team-style competitions. Stine-Morrow first got involved with the program a few years ago in New Hampshire when she served as a coach for her son's team. She discovered the students weren't the only ones enjoying the program's problem-solving challenges.

"What you found was the parents, who were the coaches, would sneak out after hours and have little Odyssey parties where they would do the spontaneous problems and play around with some of the long-term problems," Stine-Morrow said. "My son's team did the balsa wood problem both years he participated. This is still my favorite long-term problem. It's an engineering problem in which the team has to design and test a structure made out of a few ounces of balsa wood to hold as much weight as possible."

Stine-Morrow said there are different specifications for each year's problems.

"For example, one year it was a bridge that had to span x number of inches," she said. "Another year, certain geometric figures had to be built into the structure. It's a technical problem that can be solved by children, but can also be very challenging for adults. Some of these structures hold hundreds of pounds! Other long-term problems are more performance based, like re-imagining an historical event or creating a humorous character with certain features. When I got into it, I realized there is a lot of potential for adults."

In her research projects at the Cognitive Aging Lab at the University of New Hampshire, Stine-Morrow found that research participants were often enthusiastic about returning to the lab for another experiment because they thought the experience was fun, saying that they thought the activities gave them an opportunity to stay mentally sharp.

"The activities could be fun," Stine-Morrow said. "But at the same time, it struck me as odd that our laboratory would serve that function. Surely, there was a better way. The connection to Odyssey of the Mind was obvious."

After coming to Illinois, Stine-Morrow had an opportunity to develop the idea. The Senior Odyssey program was one of the pilot projects submitted as a part of the Center for Healthy Minds (with Denise Park and Art Kramer as principal investigators). Funding from the Center was used to develop a small program, which led to a small, two-year grant funded by the National Institute on Aging at $45,000 per year. Two cycles of the pilot program were conducted from Fall 2004 to Spring 2006.

The program consisted of teams of adults over the age of 60 who take part in creative problem-solving over a 20-week period. There was a tournament at the end of each season for the teams, who as a group come up with creative solutions to ill-defined problems. The research aspect looks at the potential cognitive benefits derived from the intellectual and social engagement the subjects experience during the program.

"We did it the right way," Stine-Morrow said of the program. "We randomly assigned participants to do Senior Odyssey or to be in a wait-list control group. We measured variety of cognitive abilities, and there was a lot of overlap with the constructs that were used in the ACTIVE trials. We took measurements before and after the program, and what we showed across the two years of the pilot was that people in the control group tended to show declines in cognitive abilities and that people in the experimental group tended to show an increase. It's a relatively small sample with a very narrow set of measures and not a very strong effect, but it has been promising enough to use as a justification for scaling this thing up."

Senior Odyssey also became a success with the participants. After having tournaments in 2005 and 2006, Stine-Morrow took a break this year, but one of the teams decided to enter the Odyssey of the Mind competition in Illinois as a senior group. To creatively solve their problem, they wrote a script for a three-act play and earned a high score from the judges. With a team name of "The Aged Hams of Savoy," characters such as "Sara Bellum" and a "Senility Prayer" as part of their tournament effort, it was obvious the Senior Odyssey participants were having fun.

Stine-Morrow said the fact the participants were motivated enough to compete on their own says a lot about the translational aspect of the program in terms of a potential intervention for mitigating cognitive decline.

"If this works as a cognitive intervention, Odyssey of the Mind provides a social structure that could sustain it as a community program," she said. "It's a turnkey intervention. You can take the research off the shelf and use it."

Stine-Morrow may have created a monster with Senior Odyssey. The popularity of the program is growing, the local team was invited to the world tournament in Michigan, and senior teams are now allowed to take part in Odyssey of the Mind tournaments.

For her efforts, Stine-Morrow was given the 2007 Joanne Rompel Living the Creative Life Award at this year's Illinois Odyssey of the Minds tournament. She says her efforts with the program are part of a change in thinking about cognitive vitality in later life.

"Part of the argument is that we actually structure our society so that we don't make roles involving intellectual challenge very available for seniors," Stine-Morrow said. "We assume you're supposed to be educated when you're young. So we frontload education to the early part of the life span and it is supposed to help us develop capacities that are somehow retained through adulthood, in part, so that we can develop occupations, and then we retire. It's just a bizarre idea. For one thing, we are living so long now and you can't educate somebody for a job 50 years in the future. To some extent, we recognize this and provide training to develop or update particular skills in the context of work. But there just aren't a lot of models for true life span education in the broadest sense of the word. Odyssey is one answer to that."

As part of her reading project investigation into self-regulated learning, Stine-Morrow looks at topics such as attentional allocation during reading and memory monitoring. That research led to a 2006 paper in Psychology and Aging, where Stine-Morrow and her collaborators reported on the impact age-related declines in abilities like working memory can have on reading. An important theme in the paper, Adult Age Differences in the Effects of Goals on Self-Regulated Sentence Processing, is how resource allocation is used by younger and older adults to accomplish learning while reading.

"This paper basically shows that when you increase a goal for information acquisition - I want you to remember this to a high-level of accuracy - that actually improves younger adults performance more than older adults performance," Stine-Morrow said. "In part that's because young adults spent more time as the goal for accuracy was made more stringent. Older adults, on the other hand, were a little bit slower overall, but they didn't show the same increase the younger adults did in response to the increased performance demands. We know that speed of processing decreases with age, so if anything, older adults should have slowed down even more than the young as demands increased.

"So the question is why didn't they allocate the effort to try to meet the performance goal? Part of the reason was working memory capacity - how much information can you hold and manipulate at the same time. Participants who scored better on an independent measure of working memory were more likely to rise to the challenge. But also, controlling for working memory, participants who had stronger memory self-efficacy - a belief that their effort would pay off in good memory performance - were also more responsive to the task demands in allocating effort. Another piece of this is that we were presenting participants with purely cognitive goals; that may have not been highly motivating for elders."

Stine-Morrow said a theory of social and emotional selectivity developed by Laura Carstensen states that cognitive information acquisition goals are more important when people are young because it's a survival skill.

"As you get older pure information acquisition without more social and emotional context is not as relevant," Stine-Morrow said. "So what's more important are social goals, emotional goals, and social regulation. We're applying this to reading in an ongoing study in which we have a social and emotional reason to learn some new information. Will that help older adults? That kind of gets back to Odyssey because you're putting learning in a social context."

So both Senior Odyssey and the reading project work as research platforms and have translational aspects.

"I really see close linkages between what we are doing with the reading project and Senior Odyssey," Stine-Morrow said. "I think it has to do with how well you regulate your environment and activities and how you engage experience. What's gratifying to me about all this is the ability to consider the idea that engaging experience is important for long-term cognitive vitality and then testing it in a way that's meaningful for seniors."