Ralph Greer: Reminiscences about a Gentleman and Reflections on Cognitive Aging

My friend, Ralph Greer—a beautiful person; a resplendent mind; a scholar, in the archaic sense of the term; and a perfect gentleman—passed away Friday, March 7 2014, half-way through his hundredth year. Ralph was a man I admired, whose company I enjoyed and from whom I sought to learn.

This is not a formal obituary. I will instead offer some personal reflections on his mind, his personhood, and our friendship. I hope that some of you who did not know Ralph might appreciate this portrait of graceful aging, written by someone who has a research interest in the matter.

I first met Ralph at a Beacon Unitarian Humanist Group meeting, November 30, 1997. I wrote and presented a paper for the occasion, “Prolegomena to a concept of rationalism and Unitarianism”. It was a somewhat bumptious undertaking given that I had, at that point, only attended a few Unitarian services and this was my first evening with the group. There were at least a dozen people present. Ralph made a distinct (and enduring) impression on me for being a soft-spoken, measured person with a splendid intellect. At all our subsequent monthly meetings, I eagerly awaited his invariably insightful and thought-provoking comments.

The Humanist Group meetings consist of a presentation by a speaker followed by a discussion on the topic, and then a snack and refreshments. I would also seek out a conversation with Ralph after the formal part of the meeting.  In our first decade, he would always ask me what book I was reading.  I have since  developed the habit of asking this question to friends myself. It is a good way to get to know a person and to drill past conversational shallows into potentially rich seams of knowledge and intellectual pleasure. It is also a great way to  remind oneself, and one’s friend, of what is important. It’s also of course a good way to discover good books.

However, in the early years of our friendship I was working very long hours for young tech companies — and also had demanding family responsibilities. Sure, I would read voluminous amounts about information technology; but I had very little time left over for other reading. Ralph, on the other hand was always reading a challenging, fascinating, book that would make my mind slaver. He was interested in history, evolution, neuroscience, and many other subjects. I silently vowed to make more time for my intellectual passions. Two of CogZest’s major purposes, which I owe to a certain extent to Ralph, are to help knowledge-lovers (a) make more time for their intrinsic passion for learning (their “effectance”), and (b) get more out of the precious time they spend processing information.

Ralph was an avid reader from a young age. As a child, growing up in Brockville, Ontario, he would take home as many books from the library as it allowed him to. He would return them all the same day and get new ones. The librarian asked him why he was doing this. He explained that he finished reading them and wanted more. The librarian kindly allowed him to take home as many books as he wanted. This is not to say that Ralph was a “speed reader”. In Cognitive Productivity, I relate work by Stanovich and others indicating that “speed reading” is a hoax.

Ralph’s brilliance was evident in other ways from an early age. He was admitted into high school when he was 10 years old. At 15 he graduated from high-school. But being too young to work, and too poor to go to university, he couldn’t proceed. In his forties, he took a course to become a Certified General Accountant, and passed with the highest grades of his class, despite competing with young brains.

Ralph was intelligent in many senses of the word, including the all important one: a tendency to make the right decision where opinions and judgment vary a great deal. Ralph had the good sense to sell his typewriter business (in New Westminster) just as personal computers were about to hit the mass market. He claimed that this was just an example of lifelong good luck. However, having heard much about, and witnessed part of, his lifelong pattern of making good decisions, I suspect that good practical judgment was at play then too. He also had the sense to hold onto the building as a real-estate investment. Ralph’s fine judgment was evident in his choice of Ethel (his first wife) and Ivy (his second wife). Ralph was also was head of the committee that chose Rev. Dr.  Philipp Hewett to be the minister of Vancouver Unitarian Church in 1954. Wise decisions all round!

After selling his business, Ralph retired at the age of 61 and devoted a good portion of his remaining time more or less directly to learning. He traveled the world. He read extensively. Not too many people today can claim to have twice read Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which, incidentally, had a large influence on Winston Churchill’s writing). But Ralph could.

Before my 2003 summer holidays, I phoned Ralph and asked him to recommend some readings. He proffered Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Steve Jones’ Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of the Species Updated, and Richard Dawkins’, The Blind Watch Maker. Great picks! Ralph read every book published by Dawkins. They were often the subject of humanist meetings he hosted.

Ralph claimed not to be interested in philosophy.  He was fond of quoting Haldane “[t]he universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. [And for that reason] I have no philosophy.” (Possible Worlds). I had a counter-argument to the effect that he was de facto engaging in philosophy; but I will withhold it from this blog as it isn’t fair that I should get the last word on that one.

When my first marriage finally ended in 2008, I broadened my circle of friends and acted on my long-standing wish to spend more time with Ralph and Ivy. I started playing Big Boggle with them (that’s 5×5 Boggle). By this time, Ralph was almost blind. So that others can benefit from Ralph’s experience, I will note what he told me, namely that some kinds of macular degeneration can be cured if they are diagnosed and treated on time. Ralph’s was of that variety. However, his ophthalmologist failed to detect it on time. Also, as a child, Ralph lost focal vision from one eye from staring at the sun. As a result of these two problems, Ralph could only see a little bit out of one eye. The Boggle tiles were too small for him to see; so, I recruited several people to create a “Bigger Boggle” set for him. (See image below). My mother (in Québec) created the letters. Tom Poiker helped coordinate the actual construction of the set. Gary Elva did the actual construction. Here’s a picture of Ralph with his Bigger Boggle set.


Ralph receiving his custom Bigger Boggle set. Left to right: Myself, Ivy, Ralph and Gary

Ralph was then able once again to win the majority of the games, despite the fact that Ivy is a great Boggle player. (I myself am not.) He would look at the Boggle set for 20–30 seconds, only being able to see one tile at a time, and then proceed to write a long list of words without consulting it again. Imagine how taxing that would be on one’s fluid working-memory! I’d love to understand the encoding mechanisms he deployed, as would I suppose researchers like Diane Halpern, Jonathan Wai, David Z. Hambrick, Timothy A. Salthouse, and Elizabeth J. Meinz who have studied aging of cognitive processes involved in Scrabble® and cross-word puzzles.


How many words can you make out in 2 minutes, looking only at one tile at a time?

Alas, Ralph’s vision continued to deteriorate as did some of his information-processing agility. He started to lose more frequently again, but still placed second out four overall. I proposed that he should have an extra minute or that we should try a game with restricted vision; but he was far too much of a gentleman to accept a handicap. He won two or three matches on our last game night in February of this year.

Ralph’s semantic memory was also spectacular. I recall, for instance, a Humanist Group meeting in 2008 on nature-nurture issues. One of the papers we discussed was a chapter by Steven Pinker (“A biological understanding of human nature”). Someone in the group made reference to a scholarly book, which, it turned out, Ralph had read over 30 years earlier. Ralph corrected the speaker and proceeded to summarize the book and resolve the point of discussion. Just beautiful.

There is a widely held assumption that variation in intelligence (across the human population) is mainly a function of working memory capacity. The role of long-term memory (secondary memory) is deemed to be … secondary. To be sure, working-memory is a major contributor to fluid intelligence, as technically defined. However, Jacqueline Mogle, Benjamin Lovett, Robert Stawski, and Martin Sliwinski in a paper, “What’s so special about working memory? An examination of the relationships among working memory, secondary memory, and fluid intelligence”, have made a good case for the importance of secondary memory. Seen this way, working memory helps you make good use of your secondary memory. “The major novel result of this study was that [secondary memory] was a stronger predictor of fluid intelligence than was [working memory capacity]” (p. 1075). That’s good news because there are things people can do to enhance long-term memory (e.g., with respect to its “content” and application), throughout adulthood. (Working memory capacity, is not nearly as improvable, if it is at all.) Beyond the technical notion of fluid intelligence, intelligence in the broader sense (of rationality) is largely a function of what you know and whether you are disposed to apply what you know. That requires an ability to quickly access stored information. (Those are some of the reasons why in Cognitive Productivity, I focused so much on secondary memory.) Ralph did not just have a storehouse of knowledge, he was disposed to apply it.

In the last couple of years, I noticed a certain ossification of opinion on intellectual matters in Ralph that wasn’t there earlier. I say this although it might sound unkind to the memory of my dear friend. However, I think he would have agreed that it is important to highlight the pitfalls of aging that we should try to avoid, should we reach such an advanced age. Fortunately for Ralph, he had formed and abided by wonderful opinions on which he could coast.

An interesting thing about Ralph is that he didn’t take notes while reading a book unless he was to present on it. He didn’t to my knowledge engage in any form of deliberate practice. (This is not to say we can all get away with this.)   He read for the enlightenment and enjoyment that naturally arose in him from the act. He used his knowledge in conversation, presentations and to make decisions, which no doubt helped to consolidate his understanding.

Ralph was a veritable walking dictionary. In Boggle games, we, his opponents, would not infrequently try to slip in “words” hoping they had a cozy home in our reference, the O.E.D. I would deadpan, in Balderdash style, my own offerings to the O.E.D. (e.g., “masser”, “speel”, “pither” and “envie” on 26 Feb, 2011). He would veto our non-words with a gentlemanly, smiling shake of the head. If it was a word, he could tell us how it is spelled, and usually something about its etymology. I would delight in the ease and rapidity with which his beautiful mind would pull words out of the encoded recesses of his brain. Not only could he execute these recognition and recall tasks with ease in discussion, he could also use the information in play. Here, for instance, are some of the words, snaked in mind boggling configuration, that he recognized that same February evening: “quire”, “quirt”, “sward”, “swots”, “quern”, “pates”, “scows”, “cozen”, “flense” and “hakes”.

Just about every type of cognitive performance degrades with age, though not every type has its apotheosis at the same time. Three of the most gracefully aging capabilities are semantic knowledge, the tendency to focus on the most relevant information, and a variety of skills falling under the informal rubric of “wisdom”. Ralph aged well in all these respects because he continued to exercise the underlying mechanisms. But, no one is immune to aging, and so Ralph in the last few years occasionally included the same word twice on his Boggle list, a result of inevitable declining working memory functions.

Still, Ralph remained a wise and very interesting and insightful conversationalist till the end. On many occasions since 1997, when I faced an important decision, I would ask myself: What would Ralph Greer do? I’ve regretted the times when I departed from “his” unspoken advice. In 2009, I consulted him for a major (and to me, complex) decision facing me. It took him only a couple of seconds to make his recommendation, which has proven to be correct. Even in his bed at the hospice last month Ralph gave me several gems of wisdom.

This does raise the question: Why is it that some people’s minds age so gracefully? This is of course a very active area of research. The cognitive disuse hypothesis explains some mental atrophy. A large portion of variation in intellectual capacities amongst the elderly can be attributed to biological factors, the mind being by necessity layered over a physical machine (the brain).

Gilles O. Einstein and Daniel McDaniel published a paper in 2008 entitled “New considerations in aging and memory: The glass may be half full”. There they reported research by Glisky and others that suggests that some people have stronger frontal lobes. These “frontal” people age more gracefully, particularly with respect to memory. If this is the case, a psychometric test performed in early adulthood could predict cognitive aging in late adulthood. The authors added several qualifications, but it is worth investigating whether, and if so, how and why, some people’s brains naturally age more gracefully than others.

In 2008, I was apprised of the fact that Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease were highly correlated. Some people had already started to talk about Alzheimer’s as “Type 3” diabetes. Since then, this view has been clarified and corroborated (which is not to say proven), as I have discussed elsewhere. Whether or not one has full blown diabetes, it appears that a diet and lifestyle that is conducive to diabetes is also harmful to cognition. I personally have adopted a lifestyle (including the “paleo” diet and daily rigorous physical exercise) that radically decreases the likelihood of diabetes while promoting overall brain health.

Here is where yet another interesting fact about Ralph arises. In the 1980’s, his physician told him that he was pre-diabetic, and that he had better adhere to a diet that was appropriate for people who had diabetes. And this he did. He stayed away from foods with a high glycemic load. I, for one, don’t think Ralph was pre-diabetic at all. I suspect that Ralph’s anti-diabetic diet helped his brain, and hence his mind, to age well.

The intellectualization of this post, a defense mechanism for grief, is only partially effective. The deeper facts are, as usual, affective. Ralph was a class-act, a true Unitarian, a gentleman and a friend I loved and already miss. I’ve been doing a lot of research about emotion and grief again the last 6 months; so, I must get out of my head and acknowledge that my grief, like many instances of emotion, is not just a mental process, but one with a bodily manifestation to be accepted.

A memorial service for Ralph Greer will be held at Vancouver Unitarian Church on Saturday, March 15 at 11:00 AM. Ralph’s son, Prof. Allan Greer (Fellow of Royal Society and Canada Research Chair), his daughter Karen, and Dr. Rev. Phillip Hewett will give a eulogy.  

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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