…and not in the good way. Allow me to explain.
The BBC recently put a suite of what they call mental agility tests online. The idea is that, based on how well you do in the tests, you get a result indicating your mental ‘age’. There are four tests, covering four different abilities, each of which produces a separate ‘age’ from a range beginning at 18 (i.e. couldn’t do better in the test) and ending at 75 (i.e. couldn’t do worse). The practice of referring to ‘age’ is pretty misleading, I think. What they mean is that your ability corresponds with the average ability of people of a particular age, but the test results can of course be affected by all sorts of other factors besides age. In any case, these are my results, which are… mixed.
The first test is called Spot the Difference, and measures the ability to spot, against the clock, the difference between two almost identical photographs. Apparently, this test measures visual cognition, and, given that I’ve always been truly dreadful at spot the difference competitions, I wasn’t expecting much from this, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised:
The second test is called Mind Your Ps and Qs. In this one, an object is flashed up on different parts of the screen, and the subject is timed on how quickly and accurately they press a particular key depending on the object’s colour – Q for orange and P for blue. Those two keys are used because they’re on opposite sides of the keyboard, and the process of pressing the correct one is complicated by the need to suppress the urge to press the button that’s closest to the object, irrespective of its colour. This test is apparently designed to test the ability to prioritise conflicting information, and hence to multitask. I say apparently, because so far as I could see it was pretty much just a test of reaction speed. Given I usually have the reaction times of a dead sloth, I didn’t expect this to go well, but actually it wasn’t too bad:
The third test is called Ugly Mugs, and officially measures the ability to plan. In this test, the subject has to rearrange some coloured mugs until they match the configuration shown in a picture on another part of the screen. There are limited locations into which the mugs can be placed, and the player has to complete the puzzle in the minimum number of moves possible; results depend on how quickly this is achieved. The test reminded me of a very, very simplified version of a Rubik’s Cube, in that you sometimes have to temporarily ‘park’ one mug in the wrong location in order to get another where it needs to be. I found this test to be incredibly easy, so I wasn’t that surprised by my results:
Maybe not surprised, but pretty damn chuffed nonetheless. Partly just for acing the test (I never ace anything, ever), but also because, at my age, there aren’t going to be that many situations in which I’m mistaken for a teenager. These days I have to take what I can get.
The final test is called Test Your Memory; despite the name, it doesn’t focus on memory in general, but specifically on Spatial Memory. For this one, the subject is shown a featureless white grid; most of the cells are empty, but some contain a variety of different objects. The subject is first asked to memorise the position of the objects for a period of 20 seconds, then the grid is wiped clean, and the subject is asked to identify the position of each object in turn on a blank grid. I may have found the previous test simplicity itself, but I found this one impossibly hard, as my results demonstrate:
Yep, that’s 75. As in “My god, that’s really old”, and “You failed that one good and proper, didn’t you?” It’s not a fluke either – I re-ran this whole test three times (you get a different grid each time you reload the test), and came back with the same result each time. By the end of the third go, I was beginning to wonder if I might do better by ignoring the visual appearance of the grid and just trying to memorise grid references instead, but I wasn’t sure it would work – 20 seconds isn’t long to work out 8 grid references, let alone memorise them – and, anyway, taking the test four times in a desperate attempt to try and pass would have started to seem too much like taking the piss.
Clearly, there’s something potentially interesting here; my mean ‘age’ on the first three tests (24.67, range 18-34) is a third of my ‘age’ on the last, and even my next-worst result (the spot the difference one) is less than half my ‘age’ on the final test. I don’t have any idea how other people have done on this suite of tests, but I can’t help but feel it might be a little unusual to score top marks on one and bottom on another when you’ve tried equally hard in both. It’s also notable that in every other case, the test was something I could just do, without having to worry about technique, but in the case of the last test I found myself simply unable to proceed. Even when I tried my best to evolve a technique, I still ended up pretty much clueless. And I really do mean clueless; I might manage to recall that an object was towards the top or bottom of the grid, or the left or right, but was completely unable to retain anything more precise than that (and then only for two or three of the eight objects), no matter how hard I tried to concentrate during both the learning and recall phases of the test.
If you can make out the miniscule type on the screen grab above, you’ll see it highlights the hippocampus as important for this particular skill, which is why I say in the title to this post that my hippocampus is fucked, although of course I have no reason beyond an internet quiz to think that – which is to say, no reason to think it, full-stop. Not least because, as you may also see from the tiny text, the creators of the test suggests the skill it measures is related to the ability to find one’s way around a city, and that’s something I’m pretty good at. I have a reasonably good sense of direction, and I also have a good memory of places; in my mind’s eye, for example, I can walk around places I visited on the Isle of Wight, even though I was only there for two days on a school trip, and that was 27 years ago.
Clearly, I’m no kind of expert on any of this, but it strikes me that there’s a big difference between the two scenarios (finding my way round a real place and remembering the location of random objects in a featureless grid): the latter task is abstract where the former is particular. If I want to walk to, say, the central reference library that’s about 4 miles from where I live, I don’t visualise the city as a featureless grid, remember which cell of the grid the library is in, and then think I need to go twenty cells north and 15 cells west. On the contrary, I think to myself that the library is just off a major shopping street, and that shopping street connects to another one, and that’s close to a shopping centre, and from there it’s a quick jaunt to the pedestrian bridge over the river, and then after the river it’s the law courts, and then the condemned tower block (must be getting near time for that to be blown up; wonder if it’s still standing, or if it’ll be a pile of rubble?), and then the building that has the electronic thermometer on it, and then up the hill to the bus depot, and then from the bus depot to the shop that used to be Somerfield, and then to the park, and once I’ve crossed the park I’m in ‘my’ part of the city. Sorry for the lengthy description, but, you see, I think it’s really a crucial point; I remember where the library is, and how to get there, by its position in a real landscape, and it’s relationship to other equally real features of a real landscape.
I have no way of knowing if I’m unusual in relying so heavily on geographical context and sequence to remember locations. I guess the fact the online test suggests that the ability to remember abstract locations and route-finding skills are so closely linked would indicate that I may tend to understand and remember location in a different way to other people (or, alternatively, that the test, or the explanatory material, are poorly designed). What I do know is that I’ve always had difficulty with non-verbal, abstract concepts, to a measurable extent, although until this test brought back those memories, I’d more or less forgotten about it.
When I first came to the attention of mental health people as an early teenager, there was some concern that I might be neurologically interesting, and as a result I was subjected to a whole range of tests. These were somewhat inconclusive (so far as I know – the feedback was given to my mum, not me), in that I didn’t definitively qualify as either ‘normal’ or interesting, but one conclusion was certain – I had very poor non-verbal reasoning skills. The only feedback that was given to me personally was a vaguely patronising reassurance that I couldn’t help being so spectacularly crap at maths, and that I shouldn’t blame myself. Being the kind of bloody-minded contrarian I am, I immediately decided that I’d be buggered if I was going to be crap at maths, and managed over the course of three years to go from remedial teaching to getting a C at GCSE (albeit on the second attempt, and only just, going on coursework scores).
The interesting thing is that I had assumed that the improvement in my mathematical ability had corresponded with an underlying improvement in my mental capacities. Certainly it’s true that things I used to struggle with when I was 14 – carrying out simple mental arithmetic, for example – I no longer do. What the abstract spatial memory test seems to have shown – assuming it’s reliable enough to show anything at all – is that it’s not so much the case that my basic abilities have improved as it is that I’ve learned ways to work around my fundamental difficulties. Or, I guess, that abilities I specifically concentrated on have improved, but there’s been no matching improvement in related skills I didn’t directly work on.
I am not happy about this. Partly that’s vanity – the idea that, whatever other massive failings I may have, I’m nonetheless smarter than the average bear is a fairly important part of the few tattered scraps of self-worth I have remaining – but it’s also just creepy. The thought that there are parts of myself and my abilities that I’m unaware of until my attention is drawn to them just freaks me out, for reasons that are, I think, related to this. In other words, it’s time to stop over-thinking things in front of a screen, and go and do some kind of mindlessly repetitive physical activity instead. Hang on, wasn’t there a TV show called that?