An aging brain is a distracted brain

You’re sitting there with seven tabs open on your internet browser. Plus another one for your email. Your phone is going off, three texts from a friend inviting you out this weekend. There’s a Facebook notification that someone “liked” that picture you just posted. And there’s an incoming message on Skype.

All while trying to get that task done.

Some people might be able to focus on the task at hand, and filter out distractions. But research is indicating that as we age, we’re not able to do so as easily: an aging brain is a distracted one

But even simpler things, things that we may take for granted when we’re younger, like sitting across from your friend and having a conversation at a restaurant, may prove to be difficult to an again brain. Shutting out other conversations and distractions in that restaurant becoming less easy as our brains become less able to filter out irrelevant stimuli and hone in on what’s important—your friend telling you about her upcoming conference to the Bahamas.

Brown University students conducted an experiment involving seniors and college-age students. Subjects were shown a letter and number sequence, and asked to report back only the numbers to researchers. They had to simultaneously disregard a series of dots while doing so. The dots weren’t stationary, however; they moved either at random or along a straight line, which makes them more difficult to ignore because the eye’s “instinct” is to follow the motion.

The senior participants had a tendency to follow the dots and even learn their motions. College-age participants were more able to ignore the dots and thus focus on the numbers.

This doesn’t have to be your reality—the brain is plastic, and can therefore be re-trained to filter out extraneous stimuli.

Another study examined this association between again and distraction, and studied ways to  help brains learn to refocus. Both older rats and people were used in the study, and were presented with three different sounds, along with a target tone. This target tone was to be identified by subjects, while the other sounds were to be ignored.  With each improvement, subjects were given more difficult tasks, with tones becoming less distinguishable from the others.

After training, both rats and humans showed improvement, as indicated by electrophysiological brain recordings that showcased how neural responses to distracting tones decreased.

Of course, ignoring a stimulus or focusing on a task are not sides to the same coin. Older brains can still focus on tasks as well as younger brains; the issue lies it filtering out stimuli irrelevant to the task.  However, with training, distractibility becomes less a reality, and more an old habit dropped in favor of better ones.

Young brains can benefit from the training, too. With today’s fast-paced, technologically-driven society, it becomes much easier to allows ourselves to be distracted by social media, viral posts, emails, and text messages. Taking time to be mindful, shut off distractions intentionally, and focus becomes a habit that can be sustained throughout life.

– Rania Hanna

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