Listening to Every Conversation at the Party

How broadened attention can assist older adults.

Posted Feb 14, 2020

In our last blog post, we explored how we can become better at abstracting away the details of an event and noticing the interconnections between similar events as we age.

This ability arises from an age-related change that was once thought of strictly as a deficit: As we get older, we find it harder to ignore distractions. Imagine a crowded restaurant, where you are trying to listen to the conversation at your table and to ignore the voices at nearby tables. Hearing changes alone do not explain why this task becomes harder as we age. The way we pay attention also changes: It becomes harder for us to focus on select information and to filter out the rest (Hasher & Zacks, 1988).

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Over the past decade, research led by Lynn Hasher and her team of researchers at the University of Toronto has made it increasingly clear that there can be upsides to this age-related change (Weeks & Hasher, 2018). Specifically, when we fail to focus on select information, we are actually taking in a broader set of information. The reality is that we don’t always know what we ought to be prioritizing at any moment in time. A young adult riding a city bus may do a great job focusing on her phone while filtering out the surrounding commotion. But this may mean she doesn’t notice a sign advertising an upcoming performance by her favorite band or she might miss the warning from the bus driver about upcoming schedule delays. As we age, we are less likely to miss out on the knowledge gained from those occurrences that happened while we were intending to focus on something else.

Sometimes, this seemingly extraneous information can provide helpful reminders about what we ought to remember (Biss et al., 2013). The world is filled with cues that can jog our memories. The younger adult brain is more likely to filter out those cues. With age, we can take better advantage of those cues to boost our ability to remember.

Photo by Luke Michael on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Luke Michael on Unsplash

Interestingly, we not only become more likely to process a broad set of information, we also become more likely to spontaneously connect all of that information together (Campbell et al., 2010). Even without consciously thinking about disparate pieces of information together, our brains still may link our bus route to our favorite band or the topic of conversation at a neighboring table to the conversation at our own. Sometimes, these associations may be meaningless. But other times, they may reveal unexpected connections between events. This can mean that, with age, we can learn something new about how information connects together, or about the types of events that co-occur, because we have broadened the scope of our attention.  

As we’ll discuss in a later post, this ability to see new interconnections and to understand new cause-and-effect relations may be an important contributor to the wisdom that we acquire with age.

References

Biss, R. K., Ngo, K. W. J., Hasher, L., Campbell, K. L., & Rowe, G. (2013). Distraction Can Reduce Age-Related Forgetting. Psychological Science, 24(4), 448–455. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612457386

Campbell, K. L., Hasher, L., & Thomas, R. C. (2010). Hyper-binding: A unique age effect. Psychological Science, 21(3), 399–405. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797609359910

Hasher L, Zacks R. Working memory, comprehension, and aging: a review and a new view. In: Bower GH, editor. The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory. Vol. 22. Academic Press; New York: 1988. pp. 193–225. 

Weeks, J.C. & Hasher, L. (2018). Older adults encode more, not less: Evidence for age-related attentional broadening. Aging, Neuropsychology & Cognition, 25(4), 576-587. https://doi.org/10.1080/13825585.2017.1353678