17 February 2017

Distractions Revisited

Welcome back. Here’s one to ponder. You know how I’ve been going on about aging and distractions? That getting old reduces the ability to ignore distractions (Brain Focusing with Sound). That the learning decline may be due to a reduced ability to ignore irrelevant information (i.e., we take in too much), not to a reduced ability to learn (Age Learning Decline).

Well, a recently published paper from investigators at the University of Toronto and Harvard kind of turned that around. They reviewed behavioral and neuroimaging studies on the subject and concluded that the reduction in cognitive abilities that accompany aging can sometimes be advantageous. I’ll explain.

Cognitive Control

Let’s start with the idea of cognitive control, how well one can focus attention and suppress distractions.

Lower cognitive control, older adults
playing a video game, where higher
cognitive control, young adults excel.
(Photo from multiple websites.)
Clearly, individuals with high cognitive control will excel on explicit, goal-driven tasks that require selective attention and a narrow focus on specific, targeted information. They do a better job at storing relevant information in their memory and managing interference from competing memories.

But what if the task to be accomplished isn’t goal-driven? What if you’ve got a stimulus-driven task? One that would benefit from processing and extracting knowledge derived from a variety of sources--information that was previously irrelevant? Accomplishing these tasks will normally benefit from a broader focus. In fact, completion of these tasks might even be hindered by greater cognitive control, because non-targeted, formerly irrelevant information would have been suppressed, ignored.

Get it? Reduced cognitive control might be more effective when dealing with non-goal-driven tasks. Which is to say, older adults, with their lower cognitive control, might do better than younger adults, who normally have higher cognitive control.

Advantages of Reduced Cognitive Control

Breaking it down, the researchers judge that lower cognitive control seems to help on tasks that might use previously acquired environmental information, learning regularities and creative problem solving.

Reduced cognitive control offers older adults the opportunity to learn more about the world around them. They tend to take in more information about how items and events vary together in time and space. This might allow easier inferences regarding cause and effect. Overall, the greater ability to extract structure and patterns over time and changing contexts should contribute to more prudent decision-making.

It’s interesting that older adults are more likely to opt for simple strategies over complex strategies. One study showed that lower cognitive control individuals did better than those with higher cognitive control on math problems solvable with simple, computationally straightforward strategies. They fixated less on applying more complex algorithms.

On open-ended tasks that benefit from spontaneous thought, older adults’ lower cognitive control may increase their creativity and ability to solve insight problems. But don’t carry that too far. Creativity typically relies on both generating and evaluating cool ideas, and evaluating normally benefits from higher cognitive control.

Wrap Up
Although I appreciate there apparently being some advantages to having reached my present lower cognitive control state, I wouldn’t have minded spending more years with higher cognitive control. Perhaps my level of cognitive control was never high enough to reduce my creative thoughts, but I certainly thought my thoughts were more creative in my youth. Of course, I may not be remembering correctly. I suppose those thoughts are all irrelevant now.

Thanks for stopping by.


Cognitive control study in Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal:
Article on study on Science Daily website:

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