The Nov. 29 article (“Study finds older brains more perceptive, distracted”) describing the research of Takeo Watanabe and colleagues was intriguing.

The researchers found that older subjects (in their 60s and 70s) tended to use brain white matter to interpret a pattern of numbers and letters displayed on a background of moving dots, while the young (ages 19 to 30) tended to use gray matter, thought to be associated with intellect, for this purpose.

The older folks detected “coherent patterns” of moving dots as well as the numbers and letters; the young tended to notice the numbers and letters and ignore the moving dot patterns.

The researchers concluded that old people notice more “trivia” while the young notice more “important” stuff. The implication is, using the young as the control group, that the difference reflects a “disorder of aging.”

The study cannot be interpreted adequately without more information than provided in the news report. The measurements themselves were objective, but the conclusions, as an Einstein might say, depend on your point of view.

So which group should be the control group? One could argue that older subjects, having lived three times as long, already know their numbers and letters very well, and can better detect and process more collateral information than the young.

From this point of view, the difference could reflect a “disorder of youth,” or an incompletely developed brain. Might those young brains just require more effort to process less information?

Perhaps the young, having been raised in conditions of information overload, are physiologically unable to concentrate long enough to handle as much information as their elders.

Maybe we should be less sanguine about immediately attributing psychological, biochemical or brain-functional differences between the young and old to “disorders of aging.” After all, the young are still growing and developing. Hopefully they’ll catch up eventually.

Paul S. Bachorik