Information Age Education
   Issue Number 131
February, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the 16th and final newsletter in the series on complexity. The next newsletter begins a series on "futures." Our informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity. The series will be available shortly as a free downloadable book, Understanding and Mastering Complexity.

Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
The Complexities of Late Life Decline

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

This series on understanding and mastering complexity began with the story of Zed, an eight-year-old boy who had asked his father to explain a televised NFL game. Zed then sat by his father during the rest of the season and learned about football. By the end of the season, patient parental mentoring had helped Zed develop an excellent beginning understanding of the procedures and complexities of the game. When this year's football season began, Zed joined in a weekly game prediction activity with a half dozen adults in his extended family. Zed's predictions won during all of the first five weeks of the season.

Infants are born with limited intellectual and motor capability. The basic sensory/motor control and cultural knowledge that children master during their first decade is remarkable, as is their adolescent move from a dependent childhood towards autonomous adulthood. Childhood is about learning how to be a human being and adolescence is about learning how to become a productive reproductive human being.

Human life is finite. The current life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is about 79 years. Unless we die accidentally or else relatively quickly from a body system failure, our final decline may extend for years. We celebrate the optimism of our gradual beginnings, but we too often view a gradual ending as tragic or even an embarrassment.

Odd, since death is simply a part of our life's trajectory. Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's disease are examples of gradual motor degeneration. Various forms of dementia and some kinds of strokes characterize the gradual decline of awareness and reason.

Our motor system is about moving between here and there. Cognition is about effectively processing the past, present, and future.

Motor Decline

Movement is a definitive biological system. Compare plants and animals, the two major biological groups. Plants don't have a brain and animals do. Plants don't have a brain because they're not going anywhere-and if you're not going anywhere, you don't even need to know where you are. What advantage is it for a rooted tree to realize that other trees are better situated for light/nutrients, or to notice approaching loggers?

On the other hand, an organism that has legs, wings, fins, and so on that permit mobility needs a sensory system to tell it about here and there. Then it needs a make-up-its-mind system to decide if there is better than here, or if here is better than there. Finally, it needs to activate its motor system if there is the better option, and it also needs a memory system to guide the return trip.

We humans spend much of our extended juvenile development period informally observing and exploring our motor system. We have to learn how to regulate and predict its movements and the movements of others and of moving objects. It's a complex system that must be activated/used for thousands of hours to reach the adult proficiency levels of complex movements. We've turned much of this juvenile practice activity into enjoyable play, and then follow it with participatory observable rule-based games.

Our mobility systems can even get us beyond direct physical movement. For example, our vocal apparatus can rhythmically move air molecules that hit the eardrums of others at a distance and create brain-to-brain language connections. Mastering the movements involved in spoken and written language is thus another major childhood task.

Young children get on a tricycle at three so that they can drive a car at 16, and they now similarly begin with video games at an early age so that they can begin to master Internet complexity by adolescence.

We're fascinated by those who move (or move objects) at virtuoso levels. The whole world gathers every two years to discover who can jump the highest, throw things the farthest, run or skate the fastest, or ski the best. We attend concerts to observe others sing or play musical instruments, and sporting events to watch others throw balls through hoops or to wide receivers. It may seem kind of foolish, but appreciating virtuoso movements in others is also quite human.

The childhood activation of our motor system generally involves planned sequences of arms and hands (reaching/grasping/throwing) before legs and feet (standing/walking) before articulate speech. Gradual motor loss typically follows the reverse order. Standing and walking problems lead to walkers and wheelchairs before we become bedridden-and this generally occurs before the loss of reaching and holding capabilities. Articulate speech is often the final loss of motor control.

Cognitive Decline

Although we can observe the external dynamics of our brain's movement systems, cognition remains hidden within our skull (and our spine to some extent). We can currently only infer what happens internally before it becomes external behavioral movement. Parental nurturing and formal education have helped to guide us into the socially appropriate behavior that emerged from our many eons as a social species. That task has recently been made even more complex by increased population levels and by the emergence of a life enhanced by powerful portable communicative computers.

What do we know for sure? Our motor system is basically concerned about spatial relationships, here and there. Cognition seems primarily concerned about time relationships, the past, present, and future. Mastery seems to follow a trajectory in which we begin to understand the present during the preschool years, the past during the elementary school years (with its focus on language and a beginning awareness of our cultural heritage), and the autonomous future during our adolescent and early adult years (selecting and preparing for a vocation, selecting a mate, becoming independent, and so on).

This development prepares most adults for an extended qualitative life during which they make societal contributions commensurate with their capabilities and interests. They have children and/or support educational and social programs through taxes and contributions so that the next generations will have the same kinds of opportunities (or better) than those they had. Most people seem to have this wonderful Pay It Forward perspective.

Organisms evolved biologically to reproduce, rear their young, and then die. An earlier article in this series (Sylwester, 2013) suggested that the cognitive property that most differentiates humans from primates and other mammals is our ability to recognize and make analogies. Analogical thought identifies and uses common elements between an understood concept and one that isn't yet understood. This cognitive property provides the base for the imaginative explorations of complexities via the tools that fueled our success as a social species (science, technology, the arts, culture, government, and so on). A combination of these tools extended our life expectancy from the 47 years it was in 1900 to the 79 years it is today.

An extended lifespan allows many of us time to enjoy a life in retirement. But the retirement years can also be fraught with the disappointment of an extended and often painful motor and/or cognitive degeneration.

Cognitive thought drives motor behavior. Extended cognitive decline generally exists within the medical maladies called the dementias (Alzheimer's disease, frontal temporal dementia, vascular dementia, and so on). Further, many motor declines often also result in a form of dementia during the later stages.

Cognitive decline follows the same reverse order as in motor decline. The first system to typically decline is a sense of the future, the ability to plan for and execute behaviors. This is followed by a loss of the past, general and personal memory. The final loss is a sense of the present.

Loss of Ability to Deal with Complexity-A Personal Story

My wife, who has suffered from dementia for seven years, is now periodically confused about where she is. She'll sit up in her bed and ask if we can get into the car and drive home so that she can go to bed. Showing her family pictures that were taken in our house, mail addressed to her at our address, and her clothes hanging in her closet doesn't dissuade her from her belief that this is not her home. These moments of place-confusion are fortunately balanced by more frequent periods in which she remains the delight she always has been.

We consider it irrational when a very intelligent woman who has lived in a house for 45 years no longer recognizes it. The reality is, though, that many supposedly intelligent people have irrational religious, political, and cultural beliefs, and similarly can't be rationally convinced of their error. Most of the rest of their life is normal and they often think that the 'others' are the ones with irrational beliefs. We've learned how to live with such folks, and we should similarly learn how to live compassionately with those who suffer from dementia.

The dementias have no cure on the immediate horizon. Thus, it makes sense to focus mostly on improving the quality of life of people with dementia, rather than on attempting to prolong life. This occurs when we genuinely accept their current situation and provide appropriate care. This could include (1) medical and nutrient supplements that enhance emotion/attention/cognition, and (2) a good understanding of the breadth of rational/irrational thoughts and behaviors. Hospice programs and Googling understanding dementia and dementia assistance provide useful information on how to best help both the patients in decline and their families.

This late life issue has parallels earlier in life. People with Down Syndrome were formerly thought of as dysfunctional, but we've found ways in which they could become relatively independent, thus improving the quality of their life. Asperger's Syndrome is another example of a malady that contains cognitive capabilities within it that provide very valuable cultural skills. Seeking quality in all human life can thus be as important as extending it.

We often focus on the tragedy of the extended cognitive and motor decline of those with some form of dementia. It is equally important that we focus on the fact that these folks lived a lifetime during which they confronted and solved many complex challenges and made many positive contributions to their various worlds. That they can't continue to do so now doesn't suggest that they didn't live a life well spent. It is these lives well spent, in all their complexity, that we can and should celebrate.

Hunter Thompson ( put it this way, "Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, 'Wow! What a ride!'"


Sylwester, R. (2013). Understanding and mastering complexity: The central roles of the varieties of complexity. IAE Newsletter.


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child's Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit three books for IAE ( He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

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