The Benefits of Being Distracted

Date: 29-11-2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Older people’s lack of focus is associated with greater creativity in problem solving, studies show

Most people are more easily distracted as they get older. There might be a benefit to that.

Research is finding that greater distractibility and a reduced ability to focus—what scientists call decreased cognitive control—is often associated with greater creativity in problem solving. It also can facilitate learning new information, according to a review of more than 100 studies that was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences earlier this month.

There are things that people learn faster and remember better when they are not exercising careful control over what they’re doing,” says Lynn Hasher, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and senior author of the study. “Younger adults are focused on their goal and they’re missing all this other information.

Reduced cognitive control is generally associated with older people and children. Most of Dr. Hasher’s research has focused on older adults, between the ages of 60 and 75. Some of the studies she reviewed also found a decline in cognitive control in people in their 50s. It isn’t clear how young adults who get easily distracted might differ from others in their same age group.

In one set of experiments, Dr. Hasher and colleagues tested different age groups on face recognition. One group of 20 people was between 16 and 29 years old; the other group, of the same size, was 60 to 79.

The participants were shown faces, on which was written a name that they were told to ignore. In subsequent testing, the older participants performed better at matching the faces and names than the younger ones. The study was published earlier this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

“Older adults are experts at picking up information and using it in new situations to improve their performance,” Dr. Hasher says. “They’re picking up all this information about the behavior of other people and who they are and what they’re saying and doing, which contributes to wisdom.”

Cognitive control is associated with the activation of the frontal and parietal areas of the brain. Activity in those regions usually declines in older adults, says Tarek Amer, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Toronto psychology department and first author of the review.

“We don’t really know when something that is distracting in one context will become beneficial in a different context,” Mr. Amer says. “In certain situations, that irrelevant information can become useful. If that’s the case then older adults are at an advantage relative to younger adults.”

Deriving possible benefits from reduced cognitive control isn’t a new concept, but one that has been ignored for a long time, says Sharon Thompson-Schill, chairwoman of the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania. She says the fact that the brain regions important for cognitive control develop relatively late, typically when people are in their early 20s, suggests that late development is a good thing. “And these brain regions that are among the last to develop are also among the first to start to decline,” she says.

Dr. Thompson-Schill’s research has shown that when people exert less cognitive control, they become better at generating ideas. Using brain imaging, she found that when people try to come up with novel uses for a familiar object, such as a baseball bat, there is less blood flow to the parts of the brain used in cognitive control. Instead, the sensory areas of the brain are more engaged.

Similarly, when the frontal lobe is suppressed, using a noninvasive brain stimulation technique, people are more adept at coming up with new ways to use common objects, she says.

Classes and programs designed to help older adults improve their cognitive control are probably not needed, says Dr. Hasher. “It might be better to help older adults improve cognition by using their natural processing rather than trying to turn them into younger adults,” she says.

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