Friday, August 7, 2015

Steve: Does Knowledge Become Obsolete?

Park Monceau in Paris

One of the more dispiriting aspects of growing older is the widely held assumption that the knowledge we have accumulated over a lifetime of learning has become obsolete.  This belief is most pronounced when it comes to new technology.  Who among us doesn’t struggle with various electronic devices?  But technology apart, is our knowledge obsolete? 

I am currently at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association and ran into a friend I have known since graduate school.  We were both attending the same talk given by a leading figure in the psychology of aging.  My friend Dave and I sat together, and as the speaker talked about her theories, we started poking each other.  Although some of the terms the speaker used were different, these were all ideas we learned in graduate school.  I said, “Isn’t that what Bob Havighurst wrote?” Havighurst who was a pioneer in studying the human life span and talked about the different challenges of each period of life and how people adapted (or failed to adapt) to them.   And here was his theory wrapped up in new terms.  Then Dave poked me, “This is what Bernice used to say.”  Bernice was Bernice Neugarten, another pioneer of the study of the adult years, who terrorized us as graduate students, but provided us with a broad intellectual base for understand aging.  Here were her concepts and even a study that largely replicates one that Neugarten had done 50 years ago.  The speaker, who is a highly regarded scholar, was simply unaware that much of what she was talking about had been described earlier by Havighurst, Neugarten and others.

There is a lot in research that is new and exciting, but it is not uncommon to come across ideas where the researcher has unknowingly repackaged something from the past.  There is a lot of lip service about knowing history so we don’t repeat the past, but it has become all too common for researchers to not go back in the literature more than 5 years, or 10 years at most.  As a result, they sometimes repeat what people have already done, rather than building on and extending prior work in new directions.  They could benefit from the perspectives of those of us who remember the past.

I went to a poster session later that day, where mostly graduate students present their work.  The nice thing about poster sessions is that there is an opportunity to talk with the students about what they did.  One poster was on mindfulness and how it was associated with emotional well-being in middle and late life.  It was a very nicely done poster.  In case you haven’t heard of it, mindfulness is the flavor of the month when it comes to psychological interventions.  It involves teaching people to be more aware of their thoughts and feelings and those of the people they are interacting with.  There are many studies now that demonstrate that mindfulness is a good thing that helps us function more effectively in a variety of situations from raising children to dealing with caregiving stress.   Yet I couldn’t help think about all the forerunners of mindfulness that were also fads in their day—getting in touch with one’s feelings, relaxation training, focusing, and of course meditation in all of its varieties, which is a major source of mindfulness.  All of these approaches had positive value but have fallen by the wayside.  Instead of believing they have discovered the next big thing, mindfulness researchers need to be asking why these earlier approaches are no longer widely used.  Too many of the mindfulness researchers have no idea that anything preceded it.  The answer, by the way, to why previous similar techniques are no longer used is that while they help people feel better in the short run, they do not usually help people solve the chronic and enduring challenges in their lives.  Certainly, a caregiver who is assisting someone with dementia may feel better in the short-run because of learning mindfulness, but is that going to be enough to help over the long run with the cascade of problems that fill each day?  That’s the dilemma that mindfulness researchers might ponder, if they had awareness of the past.

So does knowledge become obsolete?  Later in the day, I saw a friend who gave me an update about a research proposal where I had been listed as a consultant.  The proposal had not been funded, but she planning to resubmit the proposal and was hopeful it would be successful.  She had heard I was retiring and wondered if I would still serve as a consultant on her project.  I assured her I would.  Afterward, I realized I should have asked for twice as much money.  After all, I have knowledge from the past that is not obsolete.  I can help her steer the project away from pitfalls that plagued earlier research and toward extending and improving what we already know.

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