One of the reasons that scientific research struggles to comprehensively explain reality is due to significant differences among individuals, or in other words, individual differences. These differences can be partially measured and calculated, but there will always be additional factors that we have not taken into account, such as development, genetics, environment, lifestyle, and more. Each person is much more than a specific moment in which they are examined; they reflect a history of inheritance and circumstances.
The difficulty of bridging individual differences alongside the development of artificial intelligence-based technologies is what has led the world of research and entrepreneurship to advance personalized medicine. So what does this mean? Today, we can gather detailed and extensive data that includes various types of individuals and track them over time. In addition, we have computational tools (algorithms) that allow us to analyze this data and extract insights that will help tailor diagnosis and treatment for each individual. The journey is still long, but we are on the way.
Long before we had cloud-based databases and self-learning algorithms, we had psychological and physiological models that helped us classify people. For example, a well-known psychological model is the “Big Five” personality traits (such as openness and emotional stability) that significantly influence our personality. Sometimes, these various classifications also manifest in brain differences. In the past decades, behavioral geneticists have even shown that our genes affect almost every human trait, not just physical characteristics like height or eye color, but also cognitive abilities.
The power of perseverance
Sometimes we identify cognitive differences among individuals from early stages in life, even in infancy, and we tend to attribute them as strengths and weaknesses (“She’s strong in mathematics… He has always excelled in languages”). Indeed, our genes not only affect short-term memory or processing speed but also our willingness to train and excel. Individual differences are also created by our environment, that is, what we have been exposed to in our lives. Today, the field of epigenetics teaches us that the environment plays a crucial role in the ability to activate or suppress innate traits. For example, a genetic predisposition like musical talent will not manifest without appropriate stimuli expressed passively (hearing music) and actively (training).
Even if genes have a significant influence on who we are and our performance, they do not determine our fate, and they also offer some form of opportunity. We all have certain traits that, if we invest in them, would lead us to achieve very high performance in those areas. Regardless of the field, the power of practice lies in turning potential into reality. In the case of experts who reach an exceptional level of expertise, such as perfumery specialists in the fragrance industry or professional musicians, the brain regions involved in their exceptional abilities are also more developed structurally and functionally. In other words, what we do with perseverance and expertise changes the brain.
Super-agers – Differences in Aging
A 2020 review article by Goodway et al. sought to shed light on the quality of older individuals who remain cognitively intact well into advanced age, referred to as super-agers. The article aimed to answer a fundamental question: are super-agers born this way, or do they acquire resilience against aging over the years? The review examined various findings that could prevent or delay the processes associated with aging and effectively preserve cognitive, brain, and functional health. According to the researchers, the current findings support the theory known as “brain maintenance,” suggesting that we can minimize the effects of time, which likely explains the cognitive similarity between super-agers and young individuals.
Imaging studies (MRI) have shown that specific brain regions remain preserved in super-agers compared to age-matched older individuals, despite no differences in the overall measure of brain size (cortical thickness). These brain regions belong to two critical brain networks, the Default Mode Network (DMN), associated with episodic memory, as well as executive functions and processes involved in encoding and retrieval (Salience Network, SN). Beyond structural preservation, these brain networks also demonstrated functional preservation, meaning that the brain regions comprising the network worked together with high connectivity, similar to individuals in their thirties. These findings support theories that emphasize the role of brain activity in achieving excellent memory performance.
Cognitive activation is possible at any age and is based on learning abilities that depend not only on talent, intelligence, or skills but also on essential factors such as motivation, benefit, and learning style. Additionally, it is crucial to establish a connection, meaning that the activities we engage in should connect to previous knowledge, tendencies, and daily needs. At times, we may notice changes in learning patterns with age. However, it’s important to know that these changes are not solely a product of aging but also arise from shifts in areas of interest and the accumulation of diverse life experiences and learning habits.
Ineffective cognitive training, there is a personalized, general-based adaptation to learning. Based on decades of cognitive research, we know that learning generally occurs in specific ways, involving a balance between difficulty and ease, novelty and familiarity, and perseverance. Moreover, innovative solutions currently in development will help make training even more efficient when we can identify the ideal learning pattern for each individual, enabling us to tailor the best training for them. Personalization goes beyond early diagnosis or optimal treatment—it is the opportunity to excel in what we do because it is tailored to us.
De Godoy, L. L., Alves, C. A. P. F., Saavedra, J. S. M., Studart-Neto, A., Nitrini, R., da Costa Leite, C., & Bisdas, S. (2021). Understanding brain resilience in superagers: a systematic review. Neuroradiology, 63, 663-683.
Clear. Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin, 2018.