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Older people's minds 'wander less'

Published on 06 March 2013 11:30 AM

Researchers in the US have found older people's minds wander less than those of younger people.

In a new study, psychologists tested their belief that previous research has underestimated how often older adults' minds wander.


Research leader Jennifer McVay, from the University of North Carolina, said older people are more anxious about doing well in tests, so a lot of their mind wandering was performance-related rather than not being focused on the task in hand.

In the first experiment, 108 young adults aged 18-28 and 99 older adults aged 60 to 75 were asked to complete two computer tasks to measure their attention span.

During these tasks, the participants were periodically prompted to say what they were thinking about. McVay's crucial innovation was to present participants with a response category that related to performance concerns, alongside the categories of completely off-topic thoughts or pure task focus.

As predicted, the older adults reported more thoughts that were about task-related concerns which, in the past, might have been mis-categorised as lack of focus.

But even taking these extra performance-related thoughts into account, the older adults' minds still wandered far less than the younger ones, at 31% compared with 48%. Or, in other words, the older adults still spent more time focused on the actual tasks.

Older participants had fewer moments of lost focus

A second study with a new batch of older and younger participants was similar but this time the task was harder. Participants were asked to report whenever the current item in a stream of digits or letters was the same as one that occurred one or two positions previously.

The results were not much different from the first test as the older adults again reported more task-related concerns but actually had fewer moments of lost focus.

As in previous research, instances of mind wandering were found to be equally harmful to the performance of young and old, which the experts said was inconsistent with the belief mind wandering occurs when spare brain capacity is available.

The fact older adults found the mental capacity to dwell on performance-related concerns more than young people also seems to count against the reserve capacity explanation for why their minds wander less.

McVay's team concluded that in a laboratory environment older adults are less distracted by off-task concerns, such as their relationships and wellbeing, which is why their minds wandered less.

The findings were published in the journal Acta Psychologica.

Copyright Press Association 2013


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Last updated: Dec 05 2018

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