A review found that being easily distracted can help adults – especially people over 50 – with problem solving and learning new information. Previous research has shown that as we age, our brain functioning declines, making it harder to focus on certain tasks.
But after reviewing various psychological studies and brain scans, researchers at the University of Toronto and Harvard University suggest that this might not be such a bad thing.
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“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,” said Amer, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto and a graduate student at the Rotman Research Institute.
When people have high cognitive control, they are able to stay focused and ignore distractions. But Amer and his colleagues found that people who weren’t as good at staying focused had an easier time thinking of creative solutions to problems, and were also better at picking out patterns. Their results, published in Cell, further showed that because older adults didn’t have as narrow of a focus as younger adults did, they performed better on problem-solving tasks.
“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,” said the study’s co-author Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the Rotman Research Institute. “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.”
More lab research is needed to see if what they found in the review holds up in real life. Many of the experiments included in the review haven’t looked at how distractions combined with poor focus could be beneficial.
Amer and his colleagues hope to eventually expand their research to look at how distractions might help people with a range of cognitive impairments, but for now they are one step closer to understanding what makes the aging brain tick