If you think you’ve already witnessed the rise and fall of your peak self, researchers have news for you: As far as your intelligence is concerned, you likely have several new highs to look forward to. Some of them, like the ability to read others’ emotions or do basic arithmetic, don’t arrive until middle age or beyond.
“At almost any given age, most of us are getting better at some things and worse at others,” Joshua Hartshorne, an MIT cognitive science researcher and the lead author of a study looking at how intelligence changes as we age, told Business Insider.
The team behind that study quizzed thousands of people aged 10-90 on their ability to do things like remember lists of words, recognise faces, learn names, and do maths. Their results suggest that no matter your age, there’s almost always a new peak on the horizon.
Scientists use a test called Digit Symbol Substitution to assess everything from dementia to brain damage. It requires people to use a number of cognitive skills at once -- including processing speed, sustained attention, and visual skills. The tool, which typically involves pairing numbers with symbols, is also part of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, one of the most widely used measures of intelligence.
Hartshorne employed the test in his study of how intelligence changes over time and found that participants' performance generally peaked in their late teens.
Most adults are bad at memorising bits of information without context, a phenomenon that neuroscientists chock up to the Baker/Baker paradox. A classic example of this idea is that you'll have an easier time remembering a story about someone who bakes than a person with the last name Baker. Because there's no context that links the person to the name, it doesn't become firmly lodged in your memory.
Young people don't appear to be as saddled by this issue, though -- a 2011 study found that humans are best at learning new names in our early 20s.
The human brain has a remarkable capacity to recognise and identify faces, and scientists are just beginning to learn why. On average, we know that our ability to learn and remember new faces appears to peak shortly after our 30th birthday.
The first researchers to link peak face recognition with an age are now studying so-called 'super-recognizers' -- people with a rare, superior ability to recognise a familiar face. Not coincidentally, many of them are in their 30s.
Having trouble focusing? A 2015 study from researchers at Harvard University and the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory suggests that our ability to sustain attention improves with age, reaching its peak around age 43.
'While younger adults may excel in the speed and flexibility of information processing, adults approaching their mid-years may have the greatest capacity to remain focused,' Joe DeGutis, one of the study's lead authors, said in a statement.
Dating is tough. One of the reasons could be that we're generally bad at reading other people's emotions until we reach our late 40s. That's according to one component of Hartshorne's study, which involved showing thousands of people images of faces cropped tightly around the eye area. Participants were asked to describe the emotion the person in the photo was feeling. Performance peaked for people aged around 48.
Many people believe that their maths skills go down the drain after they leave school and stop practicing arithmetic. But the next time you try to split up a check, keep this in mind: your ability to do basic subtraction and division doesn't reach its apex until your 50th birthday.
In other words, 'there may not be an age where you're the best at everything,' Hartshorne said.
Similar to the way your ability to do basic maths peaks at age 50, your ability to learn and understand general information -- like historical events and political ideas -- doesn't reach its pinnacle until around the same age, according to Hartshorne's study.
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