Why Your Brain Needs Distractions as You Get Older


The ability to cut out all distractions may not be as important to aging adults as previously thought, according to a new review.

The review was conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto and Harvard University, and it was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The findings from the review suggest that there could be benefits from reduced focus, especially in people over the age of 50.

Flickr Image Courtesy: Tim Psych, CC BY-SA 2.0
Flickr Image Courtesy: Tim Psych, CC BY-SA 2.0

First author Tarek Amer, a doctoral candidate of psychology at the University of Toronto and graduate student at the Rotman Research Institute, said we benefit from reduced focus while completing tasks that require more thought.

“Different types of tasks benefit from a more broad focus of attention, and this is usually seen in tasks that involve thinking creatively or using information that was previously irrelevant,” Amer said to Science Daily. “The literature gives us the impression that older adults are essentially doomed as their cognitive abilities decrease, when, in reality, many older adults get along just fine in their day-to-day lives, and we think that shows that aging adults don’t always need to have high cognitive control.”

The study used behavioral studies and neuroimaging evidence to conclude that reduced cognitive control in older adults may increase creativity and an ability to solve insight problems. It was suggested that in young adults, creativity is linked to the tendency to process distractions in the mind’s periphery.

Cognitive control isn’t a straightforward concept, the study states. Factors such as a person’s circadian patterns, mood and alcohol consumption were all considered to be factors that could affect cognitive control.

“These factors play a role in the magnitude of the age differences seen on a variety of widely used tasks,” the study said. “This suggests the interesting possibility that individuals from each age group can show tendencies more characteristic of the other group based on those factors.”

To determine the benefits of cognitive control, lab-based behavioral experiments require participants to complete different tasks and limit the role of distractions. This method has its shortcomings, said co-author Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the Rotman Research Institute.

“Many of the tasks that we study in classic cognitive psychology are tasks that require high cognitive control, but these assigned tasks might not accurately mirror what people do in the real world because they limit distractions,” Hasher said. “But a distraction in one setting can actually be useful information in another setting, and the more information you have, the better able you’re going to be to address a current problem.”

The researchers hope to use the information found in the review to figure out exactly which tasks benefit from reduced control in order to better simulate the experiences in a lab. They note that age-related deficits observed by lab-based tasks don’t always show how the person might act in everyday life.

The review findings are a beginning to understanding cognitive control and the aging brain, the researchers said.

“There is a question about what really sustains performance in old age, and it’s clear that working memory alone cannot provide us with the answer to that question,” Hasher said. “But we think it’s possible that studying reduced cognitive control can help us understand how older adults can still perform independently and successfully in their lives.”