two older adults sitting on a bench

Counterintuitive Findings on Aging: Cognitive Plasticity

As far back as I can remember, the conventional wisdom about learning is that we lose cognitive plasticity as we age. Our mental schema become fixed and dominate our ability to learn new material. Anything that doesn’t fit what we already know is really hard to fit in and is often not remembered later.

But some recent findings (here and here) turn this assumption on its head. A team of researchers led by Takeo Watanabe at Brown University conducted a series of studies on visual learning and compared the results of participants aged 67 to 79 with participants aged 19 to 30. What they found is that the older participants learned more rather than less. The problem was that they couldn’t filter out the distracters. In a recall test, they were just as good at remembering the targets, suggesting that new learning was not the problem. They actually learned more – the targets and the distracters.

My Take

So it seems that what we lose as we age is focused attention. The younger participants were able to tune out the distracters and focus only on the targets. So in the later recall test, they couldn’t recall the distracters even when specifically asked about them. But the older participants couldn’t help but attend to all stimuli in the study. And they recalled both sets later, so their encoding and recall were both quite good.

One of the aspects of this research that I particularly like is that it provides evidence against what we previously thought. I will not say “disproved” because that would be making the same mistake over again. In science, everything is a hypothesis or a model. We don’t discover facts. We have to keep open minds because you never know when you will find out you have been wrong all along.

Another aspect of this research that I like is that it redeems the aged population. They learn more, not less. We still need to create accommodations for them because remembering distracters is not going to improve performance at the goal level. But it seems less pejorative.

Your Turn

What do you think? Are you hesitant to throw out what you previously thought about older people and plasticity? If so, perhaps it is you being fixed on older mental schema and assumptions. Let us know.

Image credit: Candida Performa

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