Testing-the-Limits and the Study of Adult Age Differences in Cognitive Plasticity of a Mnemonic Skill

Reinhold Kliegl, Jacqui Smith, Paul B. Baltes

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Investigated the range and limits of cognitive reserve capacity as a general approach to the under- standing of age differences in cognitive functioning. Testing-the-limits is proposed as a research strategy. Data are reported from 2 training studies involving old (65 to 83 years old) and young adults (19 to 29 years old). The training, designed to engineer an expertise in serial word recall, involved instruction and practice in the Method of Loci. Substantial plasticity was evident in pretest to posttest comparisons. Participants raised their serial word recall several times above that of pretest baseline. Age-differential limits in reserve capacity were evident in amount of training gain but not in responses to conditions of increased test difficulty (speeded stimulus presentation). Group differences were magnified by the training to such a degree that age distributions barely overlapped at posttests. Testing-the-limits offers promise in terms of understanding the extent and nature of cognitive plasticity.

Developmental Psychology