Distraction Boosts Memory With Age

Older adults may have a tough time tuning out irrelevant information, but this lack of focus can actually boost their memory, a new study finds.

"Everybody differs in their ability to ignore distracting information," said Karen Campbell, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Toronto. "Our view is that as we get older this tends to get worse."

While this lack of focus can get in the way of the task at hand, the new study suggests seniors might sometimes take in more information. More specifically, they have the unique ability to "hyper-bind" the irrelevant information, essentially tying it to other information that is appearing at the same time.   The result could explain, in part, why wisdom comes with age.

"This could be a silver lining to aging and distraction," said Lynn Hasher of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, and senior scientist on the study. "Older adults with reduced attentional regulation seem to display greater knowledge of seemingly extraneous co-occurrences in the environment than younger adults."

This type of memory could help older adults with decision-making and problem-solving, the researchers suspect. For instance, if a manager wants to promote an employee, it might be helpful to recall not just that employee’s work performance, but also his interaction with other employees.

In fact, this same inability to focus attention can be useful to children so they can take in all the information around them. "Their job is to absorb everything like a sponge and try to learn links between things that can help them in general learning," Campbell said.

The research team had 24 younger adults, ages 17 to 29, and just as many older adults (ages 60 to 73) complete memory tasks on a computer. First, participants looked at a series of pictures, each of which was superimposed with an irrelevant word, such as a picture of a bird and the word "jump." Participants were told to ignore the words and focus only on the pictures. The goal was to press the space bar on a keyboard whenever they saw a picture twice in a row.

After this task and a 10-minute break, participants completed a similar task. But this time they were shown three kinds of picture-word pairs: picture-word pairs they had seen in the earlier task; disrupted pairs with the same pictures from the previous task but with different words; and new picture-word pairs.

The researchers figured if lack of focus was leading older adults to not only remember the extraneous information (superimposed words), but also that these words were tied to certain pictures, these participants should do better at those pairs they’d seen before. And that's exactly what they found.

The older adults showed a 30-percent advantage over younger adults in their memory for the preserved pairs (the picture-word pairs from the first task) relative to the new pairs. For young adults, there was no real difference in their performance for all three pair types.

"In your day to day life you never know what information is going to be helpful to you later on unless you are blessed with a crystal ball or something," Campbell told LiveScience. "That's the point of memory from an evolutionary perspective – you want to use your past experience to help you in the future."

The study is detailed online this week in the journal Psychological Science.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.