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Cognitive control, the ability to limit attention to goal-relevant information, aids performance on a wide range of laboratory tasks. However, there are many day-to-day functions which require little to no control and others which even benefit from reduced control. We review behavioral and neuroimaging evidence demonstrating that reduced control can enhance the performance of both older and, under some circumstances, younger adults. Using healthy aging as a model, we demonstrate that decreased cognitive control benefits performance on tasks ranging from acquiring and using environmental information to generating creative solutions to problems. Cognitive control is thus a double-edged sword – aiding performance on some tasks when fully engaged, and many others when less engaged.
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Cognitive Control as a Double-Edged Sword
Tarek Amer1,2, Karen L. Campbell3, and Lynn Hasher1,2,*
1Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
2Rotman Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
3Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
*Correspondence: (L. Hasher).
Cognitive control, the ability to limit attention to goal-relevant information, aids
performance on a wide range of laboratory tasks. However, there are many day-to-day
functions which require little to no control and others which even benefit from reduced
control. We review behavioural and neuroimaging evidence demonstrating that reduced
control can enhance the performance of both older and, under some circumstances,
younger adults. Using healthy aging as a model, we demonstrate that decreased cognitive
control benefits performance on tasks ranging from acquiring and using environmental
information to generating creative solutions to problems. Cognitive control is thus a
double-edged sword – aiding performance on some tasks when fully engaged, and many
others when less so.
Keywords: cognitive control, aging
The ability to selectively focus attention and inhibit distraction (i.e., cognitive control)
contributes to a broad set of cognitive functions aiding performance on explicit, goal-
driven tasks.
Recent developments have shown that a broader focus of attention, afforded by reduced
control, is more beneficial in certain learning, memory, and problem solving contexts,
which depend on extracting and utilizing information from a variety of sources.
In older adults, reduced control appears to provide advantages on some tasks, such as
using previously acquired environmental information, learning regularities, and creative
problem solving.
This processing style allows older and, under some circumstances, younger adults to
handle many challenges encountered in everyday life and possibly contributes to many
older adults’ high functioning outside of the lab.
Cognitive Control as a Double-Edged Sword
Reduced Cognitive Control with Age: The Upside
The ability to limit attention to goal-relevant information and inhibit, or suppress,
irrelevant distraction provides extensive advantages across a range of tasks [1]. This
ability, generally referred to as “cognitive control”, is associated with a set of fronto-
parietal regions that regulate the processing of incoming sensory information and
attenuate the disruptive effects of task-irrelevant stimuli. By minimizing distraction,
cognitive control enhances performance on selective attention, working memory, and
various other intentional tasks that rely on a narrow focus of attention on target
information. In contrast to these goal-based, explicit tasks, implicit, stimulus-driven tasks
that depend on processing and extracting knowledge from a wealth of information benefit
from a less regulated, broader focus of attention. In fact, on the latter tasks greater
cognitive control may actually hinder performance.
In this article, we start by briefly discussing the typical benefits of enhanced
cognitive control and then review findings from the memory, learning, and creativity
literatures which, taken together, suggest that reduced attentional control can actually be
beneficial to a range of cognitive tasks. We elaborate on this idea using aging as a model
of reduced control and propose that older adults’ broader scope of attention is well suited
for tasks that rely less on top-down driven goals, and more on intuitive, automatic and
implicit-based learning. These tasks may involve learning statistical patterns and
regularities over time, using accrued knowledge and experiences for wise decision-
making, and solving problems by generating novel and creative solutions. This is a timely
subject given the attention and resources dedicated to brain training programs that aim to
modify older adults’ cognitive performance to mirror that of younger adults [2-5] rather
than to the nature of tasks and contexts that can be exploited based on age-specific
cognitive profiles.
An optimal cognitive pattern is context dependent
Cognitive Control Benefits
The advantages of enhanced cognitive control extend across a wide range of
attention and memory tasks. For example, evidence indicates that the number of items
that can be maintained in working memory, or working memory capacity, is associated
with the ability to inhibit irrelevant items and prevent them from gaining access to
working memory [6]. That is, high capacity individuals have better cognitive control and
are more efficient at storing only relevant items, relative to low capacity individuals, who
additionally encode and maintain access to capacity-consuming irrelevant items (see also
Recent studies also show that cognitive control contributes to memory retrieval by
resolving interference from competing memories. In particular, the ability to suppress
related memories at retrieval whether actually seen [9] or simply thought about [10] in
the context of an experiment, contributes to memory performance, and the failure to
suppress competitors accounts for age-related memory deficits [10,11] (see also [12]).
This suppression mechanism has also been implicated in the motivated forgetting of
unwanted or unpleasant memories, suggesting that it plays a critical role in limiting the
experiences we easily access from the past [13,14].
The benefits of cognitive control can also be seen in domains outside of memory.
For example, the ability to ignore distractors while reading is associated with enhanced
reading speed and comprehension [15,16]. Additionally, ignoring distractors has been
associated with performance on measures of audiovisual speech perception [17] and
processing speed [18], the latter of which correlate with fluid intelligence. Thus, taken
together, evidence based on those tasks suggests that cognitive control is a domain
general mechanism that positively contributes to a broad set of cognitive functions,
including working memory capacity, fluid intelligence, and long-term memory (see [19]).
Cognitive Control Costs
In contrast to the intentional, goal-based tasks listed above are tasks that can
actually be disrupted by heightened cognitive control. This is most often seen in tasks
that are aided by the use of previously irrelevant information, or on tasks that generally
benefit from drawing on diverse bits of information from various sources. For example,
in the retrieval-induced forgetting paradigm, increased cognitive control in young adults
is associated with the suppression of competing information for better retrieval of target
information. However, when the suppressed non-target information becomes relevant in a
future task, young adults show poor memory for that information [20]. The effect of poor
memory for suppressed information is diminished, however, when reduced cognitive
control (and presumably less suppression of that information) is simulated by
simultaneous engagement of a secondary task [21]. A similar effect in the same paradigm
is also observed when cognitive control is reduced through the disruption of a critical
control region (the right dorsolateral PFC) via transcranial direct current stimulation,
providing more direct evidence for the role of cognitive control in impairing memory in
certain situations [22]. That is, although suppression typically enhances memory by
reducing interference at retrieval [9-12], there are certain contexts that require knowledge
of the suppressed information in which low cognitive control would provide a benefit. In
settings that are more implicit, there is evidence that low cognitive control through
dorsolateral PFC disruption also enhances implicit recognition memory for visual stimuli
that are optimally encoded in a holistic manner (i.e., without explicit, relational
strategies) [23].
Reduced cognitive control has also been shown to enhance certain forms of
learning and problem solving. With respect to learning, less control improves the
detection of statistical patterns when encoded information exceeds working memory
capacity. This ability is seen in infants who can extract structure from complex visual and
auditory stimuli [24], and it is also known to contribute to language learning in children
[25,26] – populations with an immature prefrontal cortex and a developing control
system [27]. In young adults, there is evidence that effortful, control-mediated processing
interferes with the learning of complex grammatical structure, which relies heavily on the
automatic detection of statistical regularities [28]. Moreover, reduction of these processes
through dual task engagement [29] and hypnosis [30] enhances the learning of such
regularities. Finally, neural evidence indicates that effortful and automatic (implicit)
sequence learning processes, which respectively depend on the presence or absence of
explicit instructions to find and learn sequences, are mediated by distinct brain activity
and connectivity patterns, with engagement of the former suppressing the latter and,
consequently, resulting in a failure of implicit learning [31].
With respect to problem solving, reduced cognitive control has been found to
promote the application of creative solutions and facilitate the use of simple strategies
when complex ones are less optimal. For example, one study [32] showed that
individuals with reduced control, as measured by working memory capacity [6,7],
outperform individuals with greater control on mathematical problems that can be solved
with simple and computationally undemanding strategies. That is, low control individuals
in the study were more able to access and apply the simple strategy and fixated less on
solving the problem using more complex algorithms. In addition, successful performance
on creativity tasks, such as the unusual uses task, is associated with deactivation in frontal
control regions [33] and is enhanced with disruption of the left dorsolateral PFC [34].
In sum, although enhanced cognitive control confers benefits in largely goal-
based contexts, it is clear that in certain memory, learning, and problem solving contexts,
reduced control can provide a benefit, such that individuals with lower control are at an
advantage. We next shift our focus to aging and provide examples of how older adults’
cognitive pattern is optimal for tasks that depend on reduced control, which may well be
the sorts of tasks encountered often in daily life.
One moment’s distraction is another moment’s solution
A major illustration of reduced cognitive control is a decreased ability to filter out
distractors or irrelevant information encountered in the presence of goal relevant or target
information [1]. Behavioural [35,36] and neural [37-39] evidence provide compelling
support for the notion that older adults are more susceptible to distracting information
than are younger adults. While the processing of such information can disrupt
performance on a concurrent task [15-18, 40], recent evidence indicates that knowledge
of distractors can actually boost older adults’ performance.
One study [41], for example, showed that unlike younger adults, older adults who
performed a 1-back task on pictures with superimposed distractor words showed a benefit
from the distractors on a word-fragment completion task presented after a delay period.
This finding suggests that older adults maintain perceptual knowledge of previous
irrelevant information and can use that knowledge to benefit performance. In addition,
recent evidence has shown that older adults benefit from conceptual knowledge of
distractors on subsequent conceptually based general knowledge tasks [42], providing
more support to the notion that they can generally take advantage of previous irrelevant
information despite changing contexts and the passage of time. Finally, studies have
demonstrated that older adults’ broader attentional field and processing of distractors can
be used as a rehearsal tool to boost their learning of new information and reduce age-
related forgetting (see Figure 1) [43,44], suggesting alternative intervention strategies
aimed at capitalizing on older adults’ reduced control (see Box 1).
Learning more about the surrounding environment
Arguably, one of the biggest advantages of an inefficient cognitive control system
is the ability to implicitly detect statistical patterns embedded in perceived stimuli. As
noted earlier, this ability is associated with language learning in infants and children who
have yet to develop a mature control system [24-26].
In the case of older adults, reduced cognitive control engagement can represent an
instance of an increased opportunity to learn more than younger adults about the world
around them. Indeed, there is evidence that older adults show more learning than younger
adults of item co-occurrences in space and time [45-47]. Furthermore, older adults not
only show learning of statistical regularities in attended streams of information [48], but
they also do so for non-attended streams [49], consistent with the notion that they possess
more information about their surroundings relative to younger adults. Hence, older adults
may know more about how events covary in everyday life, which may allow them to
more easily infer causation [50]. In support of this hypothesis, recent evidence suggests
that children (with their reduced cognitive control) are better at learning causal
relationships than are young adults [51]. Finally, as discussed in Box 2, there is evidence
that older adults’ superior ability to extract structure and patterns over time and changing
contexts, contributes to their wise decision-making [52-55].
Creativity and problem solving
Given that cognitive control narrows the focus of attention to a limited set of
stimuli and minimizes the impact of external and internal sources of distraction, control
can hinder performance on open-ended tasks that benefit more from spontaneous,
uninhibited thought. Tests of creativity fall under that category. Creativity is partly
mediated by an ability to approach tasks or problems in a novel manner and reach
solutions by relying on broad associations formed between diverse bits of information
from a wide variety of sources [56]. This suggests that engagement of cognitive control
may impede creativity by focusing attention on a limited number of non-optimal
strategies. Lending support to this hypothesis, studies have demonstrated that creative
thinking and musical improvisation are associated with decreased activity in control
regions [33,57]. Even more compelling support comes from patients with lateral frontal
lesions who outperform controls on insight problems [58], and from patients in the early
stages of frontotemporal dementia who develop new creative musical and artistic skills
Collectively, the evidence suggests that reduced cognitive control in older adults
may boost creativity and their ability to solve insight problems [60]. Their lack of ability
to down-regulate distractors from the past or present might actually provide a benefit to
creative, open-ended tasks as they might contain useful hints. For example, unlike
younger adults, older adults show improved performance on a remote associates task (a
creativity task that requires participants to produce a fourth word distantly related to word
triplets - e.g., “space” for the three words Ship, Outer, and Crawl) when current or
previous distracting information provides hints or solutions to the problems [61,62].
Similarly, evidence suggests that in young adults, creativity is associated with the
tendency to process distractor cues presented in the periphery of awareness [63,64] – a
cognitive disposition that is common among older adults (i.e., young adults who behave
more like older adults tend to be more creative). Additionally, neuroimaging evidence
[65,66] demonstrates that generation of creative ideas is associated with activation of the
default mode network (a network of brain regions involved in internally based cognition
and typically deactivated during externally oriented tasks [67]) and interaction with the
executive control network (a network involved in the top-down selection of stimuli based
on task demands [68]). Older adults show preserved coupling between the default and
executive control networks when attention must be directed inward (e.g., during
autobiographical planning) [69,70] and this may contribute to older adults’ maintained
performance on tests of creativity [60,71], given the similarity in network interaction
patterns. Finally, it is worth noting that while reduced control may contribute to the
generation of creative ideas, creativity is typically considered to be a twofold process that
relies on a generative component, as well as an evaluative component that assesses the
usefulness of the generated ideas [65,66,72-74]. The latter component is thought to
depend on heightened cognitive control, which allows individuals to evaluate whether the
generated ideas fit the demands of the task at hand and to select those that are relevant to
the task. Thus, although older adults’ reduced control may boost the generative
component, it may also hinder the evaluative component that is essential for some
creativity tasks.
The dynamic nature of cognitive control
Although the degree of cognitive control is associated with general trends, such as
its decline with age, it is far from a stable construct. Multiple factors influence the
efficiency of cognitive control in both older and younger adults, and these factors play a
role in the magnitude of the age differences seen on a variety of widely used tasks. This
suggests the interesting possibility that individuals from each age group can show
tendencies more characteristic of the other group based on those factors. A growing
number of studies support this idea.
One of the factors that impacts cognitive control is the synchrony between the
time of performing a task and individual circadian arousal patterns (see [75]). Numerous
studies demonstrate that control varies in a circadian fashion, with older adults generally
showing peak efficiency in the morning and younger adults in the evening [76]. When
younger adults are tested at an off-peak time of day (morning), they display older adult-
like cognitive patterns. These include greater encoding of irrelevant information [61],
greater implicit memory for such information [41], and enhanced creativity and insight
problem solving [77]. On the other hand, improving cognitive control function in older
adults by testing them at a peak time of day reduces implicit memory of irrelevant
information and is associated with increased activation of frontoparietal control regions
during a selective attention task (see Figure 2) [78].
In addition to time of day, cognitive control is influenced by other factors
including mood and alcohol consumption. Moderate alcohol intoxication and positive
mood induction have both been shown to provide younger adults with some of the
benefits of reduced cognitive control. Positive mood, for example, widens younger
adults’ scope of attention [79] and increases their encoding of distractors and their ability
to use those distractors when they become relevant on a future task [80]. Moderate
alcohol intoxication has a similar effect and improves creative problem solving [81] and
the ability to quickly detect changes in a complex visual scene [82].
Concluding Remarks
Several lines of evidence indicate that a reduction in cognitive control actually
facilitates performance in certain learning, memory, and problem solving contexts.
Although high levels of control are necessary for goal-based tasks that depend on a
narrow focus of attention and on interference resolution, low levels of control can boost
performance on open-ended tasks that rely on the use of information from diverse sources
and after delays (see Figure 3, Key Figure). This lower level of control, which is typical
of older adults, is associated with automatic forms of learning that guide everyday
behavior [83,84] and influence intuitive judgment and decision-making [85]. In support
of that notion, old age is associated with the ability to incorporate life long experiences
into wise decision-making [52-54, 86]. While it is important to acknowledge that these
benefits may come at the expense of performance deficits on various tasks that depend on
selective attention (see [87-89]), one can argue that older adults’ cognitive pattern is well
suited for many challenges encountered in everyday life. For example, an individual does
not know whether environmental stimuli irrelevant in one context will become relevant in
a future one, and they do not know a priori what environmental patterns or co-
occurrences need to be learned. Implicit learning of that information, afforded by reduced
control, may aid problem solving in those settings, although further work is needed to
show a direct link between reduced control and performance (see Outstanding
Questions). It is no surprise then that age-related deficits often observed on laboratory-
based tasks do not always extend to everyday life [54,90], where many healthy older
adults are not only high functioning, but also strong contributors to society [91].
Box 1. Capitalizing on Reduced Cognitive Control
Reduced cognitive control is typically seen as a source of cognitive failure. Brain
training programs, which form a growing multimillion-dollar industry, focus on
improving cognitive control to enhance general cognitive function and moderate age-
related cognitive decline. While several studies have reported positive training effects in
both old and young adults [2-5,92,93], the efficacy and generalizability of these training
programs has been a topic of increasing debate. For example, several reports have
demonstrated a lack of far transfer effects, or general improvement in cognitive function,
as a result of cognitive training [94-97]. In healthy older adults, in particular, a recent
meta-analysis (which does not even account for unpublished negative results) showed
small to non-existent training effects, depending on the training task and procedure [98],
and other studies demonstrated a lack of maintenance [99] and far transfer [100] effects.
Moreover, even when modest intervention effects are reported, there is no evidence that
these improvements influence the rate of cognitive decline over time [100].
Collectively, these results question whether interventions aimed at restoring
youth-like levels of cognitive control amongst older adults are the best approach. One
alternative to training is to take advantage of older adults’ natural pattern of cognition and
capitalize on their propensity to process irrelevant information. A recent set of studies
demonstrated that distractors can be used to enhance memory for previously or newly
learned information in older adults. For example, one study illustrated that, unlike
younger adults, older adults show minimal to no forgetting of words they learned on a
previous memory task, when those words are presented again as distractors in a delay
period between the initial and subsequent, surprise memory task [43]. That is, exposure to
distractors in the delay period served as a rehearsal episode to boost memory for
previously learned information (see Figure 1). Similarly, other studies showed that older
adults show better learning for new target information that was previously presented as
distraction [44,101]. In one study [44], for example, older adults showed enhanced
associative memory for faces and names (a task which typically shows large age deficits
[102]), when the names were previously presented as distractors on the same faces in an
earlier task. Taken together, these findings suggest that greater gains may be made by
interventions that capitalize on reduced control by designing environments or
applications that enhance learning and memory through presentation of distractors.
Box 2. Cognitive Aging and Decision-Making
Old age and wisdom are commonly linked to one another. While research on this
topic has yielded mixed findings, considerable evidence suggests that older adults make
better decisions than young adults when they can incorporate their knowledge and
experiences into those decisions. For example, although several studies have found an
association between declining cognitive abilities and poor decision-making in older
adults [103-105], other studies have demonstrated that this association is context-
dependent (i.e., restricted to decisions that are highly dependent on cognitive control or
“fluid” cognitive abilities [106,107]). For other decision types, older adults’ knowledge,
or “crystallized” cognitive abilities, offset their lower levels of cognitive control and can
result in better, more informed decisions relative to young adults [53,54,86]. Hence, in
certain circumstances, older adults’ greater knowledge can provide an alternate route to
better decisions.
Given older adults’ natural tendency to carry previously acquired relevant or
irrelevant information into new contexts [41,42,45,46], it is possible that such a tendency
provides them with an advantage when making decisions that rely on applying
accumulated knowledge. Indeed, one study [52] demonstrated that older adults
outperform young adults on decision-making tasks when the optimal choice depends on
holistic learning of a reward structure based on previous trials (see also [55]). Other
studies have also demonstrated that older adults are better than young adults at
approximating the value of future rewards, which ultimately leads to more optimal
decisions and is possibly linked to their greater experience. In particular, in tasks
involving immediate versus future monetary gains and losses, older adults show a lesser
tendency to discount future rewards than do young adults [108]. Neurally, older adults
show equivalent activity in the nucleus accumbens (which processes reward) for both
immediate and delayed rewards, while young adults show greater activity for immediate
relative to future rewards [109,110]. Finally, older adults’ experiences likely contribute to
their reduced susceptibility to the sunk-cost fallacy; relative to young adults, older adults
are better at making decisions to discontinue failing commitments when prior
investments have been made [111,112]. Taken together, these studies suggest that older
adults’ extended knowledge or “wisdom” may support decision-making that relies on
prior experience. Given that real world decisions rarely occur in isolation and often
depend on past experiences, older adults may be better equipped than young adults to
make such decisions.
Outstanding Questions
What is the contribution of reduced cognitive control to everyday behavior?
Although reduced control can contribute to idea generation in a range of
situations, evaluation is also required for success, and this process likely relies on
control. Thus, how do these different processes interact across a range of
everyday situations, and, what is the overall benefit of reduced control to
Very much of what we remember in everyday life comes to mind involuntarily,
cued by environmental stimuli. Does the frequency of these memories, which
require no cognitive control, increase with old age, and, are these memories more
or less accurate than intentionally retrieved memories (shown to be susceptible to
What is the role of the default mode network in older adults’ tendency to carry
previous information into new tasks? Given that older adults generally show less
deactivation of the default network than young adults, could it be the likely source
of continued influence of recently encountered information on current task
Although older adults often show poorer performance than young adults on
intentional laboratory-based tasks, the degree of disruption is influenced by both
general knowledge and by the personal relevance of the task. Age differences can
disappear even on difficult tasks for familiar stimuli (e.g., grocery prices). Do
older adults selectively engage high levels of control on meaningful tasks, and if
so, does that tendency conserve their declining control abilities?
Little is known about the tradeoff, if any, between the processing of irrelevant
versus relevant information. Does the encoding of distracting information (e.g.,
non-relevant words in a 1-back task on pictures) come at the expense of relevant
information (e.g., memory for the pictures themselves)? !
Figure Legends
Figure 1. Reduced forgetting of words repeated as distractors between an initial and
a delayed free recall task in older, but not younger, adults. Across 3 experiments,
older and younger adults recalled a list of words on an initial test and again on a surprise
test after a 15-minute delay period. Half of the words on the list were repeated as
distractors on a 1-back task during the delay period, and the other half were unrepeated.
Forgetting scores for both word types were calculated by subtracting the proportion of
words recalled on the surprise test after the delay period from the proportion of words
recalled on the initial test. Relative to younger adults, who showed forgetting for both
repeated and unrepeated words, older adults showed no forgetting for words repeated as
distractors. This suggests that older adults’ tendency to process irrelevant information can
be used to enhance memory for previously learned information. Error bars show 95%
confidence intervals of the mean. Figure adapted from [43].!
Figure 2. Increased activation in control regions in older adults tested at a peak time
of day. Three participant groups (young adults, older adults tested at a peak time of day
or morning, and older adults tested at a nonpeak time of day or evening) completed a
distraction control task while being scanned. Participants first performed a 1-back task on
pictures with superimposed irrelevant words or nonwords then performed a word-
fragment completion to test their knowledge for the previous distractor words. A set of
control regions - warm coloured regions in (A) – showed increased activation during the
1-back task. As demonstrated in (B), only young adults and older adults tested in the
morning showed significant activation (indicated by the “brain score”) in those regions,
with young adults showing the greatest activation. For all 3 groups, there was a linear
increase (statistically significant for the more difficult ignore words condition only) in
activation from the older adults tested in the evening, to those tested in the morning, to
young adults. Greater activation in those regions was associated with reduced knowledge
or priming for previous distractors across all 3 groups, as illustrated in (C). This shows
that the level of cognitive control is influenced by factors such as synchrony between
time of performing a task and individual circadian arousal patterns. Error bars show 95%
confidence intervals of the mean. Figure adapted from [78]. Abbreviations: S, sagittal; L,
left; R, right; Older PM / AM, older adults tested in the evening / morning.
Figure 3 (Key Figure). Relationship between task performance and level of cognitive
control. Different levels of cognitive control are optimal for different types of tasks.
Reduced cognitive control resulting from factors such as old age and alcohol intoxication
aids tasks that benefit from diffuse attention. In contrast, high cognitive control, typical of
young adults and being tested at a peak time of day, aids tasks that benefit from focused
attention. Engaging a non-optimal level of control (based on task requirements) hurts
We are grateful to Jordana Wynn for her comments on earlier versions of the manuscript
and John Anderson for his assistance with the figures. This work was supported by the
Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Grant MOP89769 to Lynn Hasher), and by the
National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Grant 487235 to Lynn
Hasher and Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship–Doctoral to Tarek
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Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3 (Key Figure)
... The combined action of DMN and ECN affects creative behaviour through two Persistence, executive and cognitive control activity stimulates ECN in order to focus attention on a task; refers to the capacity to focus on pertinent information and keep distracting information away (Amer, Campbell, & Hasher, 2016;Boot et al., 2017;Khalil et al., 2019). Persistence increases performance in tasks that require focused and selective attention and is responsible for hard work and dedication to purposeful investigation of creative prospects leading to both generation and evaluation of creative ideas (Amer et al., 2016). ...
... The combined action of DMN and ECN affects creative behaviour through two Persistence, executive and cognitive control activity stimulates ECN in order to focus attention on a task; refers to the capacity to focus on pertinent information and keep distracting information away (Amer, Campbell, & Hasher, 2016;Boot et al., 2017;Khalil et al., 2019). Persistence increases performance in tasks that require focused and selective attention and is responsible for hard work and dedication to purposeful investigation of creative prospects leading to both generation and evaluation of creative ideas (Amer et al., 2016). (Boot et al., 2017;Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017;Jia et al., 2019;Khalil et al., 2019;Nijstad et al., 2010;Rubenstein et al., 2018;Wang & Nickerson, 2017). ...
... -Fluid intelligence: subtract of general intelligence associated with the ability to come up with solutions to problems and think in a logical way regardless of the level of knowledge that they acquired previously; related to rational thinking and executive control; positively correlated with creative outcomes and prominent within organizational literature (Sternberg, 1997) (Silvia, 2015) -Memory: relevant for different stages of creativity (Kenett & Faust, 2019;Silvia, 2015). Working memory capacity, quantity of information that can kept within working memory at any time, has been related with persistence (Amer et al., 2016;Boot et al., 2017;Khalil et al., 2019). High working memory capacity can increase cognitive flexibility, leading to more creative problem solving (Amer et al., 2016). ...
... They explained the effect as being due to difficulty inhibiting irrelevant information. In general, reducing distraction enhances performance in a wide variety of cognitive tasks (for a review, see Amer et al., 2016). According to a recent review by (Campbell et al. 2020), although they can be moderated by various factors (e.g., motivation and time of testing), age-related differences in inhibition are now wellestablished. ...
... Importantly, some reviews have tackled the role of distraction when evaluating episodic memory. For example, Amer et al. (2016) described cognitive control as a "double-edged sword" in ageing, since reduced cognitive control leads to greater attention to distractions in the environment and can enhance performance when distractors are relevant (see also Brédart, 2019). Along those lines, several studies have explicitly investigated the impact of relevant distractors on memory performance and have provided evidence of the specific boosting effects of distraction on cognition (Campbell et al., 2020). ...
Healthy ageing is characterized by changes in several cognitive functions, including episodic memory and inhibition. While the age-related decrease in the ability to inhibit irrelevant stimuli is often associated with lower performance, especially in episodic memory, some studies have highlighted the boosting effect of distraction in several tasks in older adults, including episodic memory tasks related to recollection. The aim of this article is to review and compare previous studies according to specific study features and to consider the results in light of the dual-process model of recollection and familiarity that were used by the authors of the reviewed articles. This work led to the identification of two major points of comparison between the studies: the timeline of the distraction intervention and the implicit nature of the processes at play, which both allowed for different implications to the relationship with recollection. The use of distraction in memory tasks can enhance episodic memory, and especially recollective processes, due to specific actions at encoding and retrieval. These findings open the door to further investigations but also raise several questions concerning the role of implicit processes and the negative impact of distraction, for example. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).
... Studies of rsfMRI connectivity have found that age-related decreases in cognitive task performance were associated with reduced anticorrelation between the dorsal attention network (DAN) and default mode network (DMN), possibly as a consequence of disrupted frontoparietal network (FPN) engagement (Esposito et al., 2018;Avelar-Pereira, Bäckman, Wåhlin, Nyberg, & Salami, 2017;Dixon et al., 2017;Amer, Campbell, & Hasher, 2016;Grady, Sarraf, Saverino, & Campbell, 2016;Spreng, Stevens, Viviano, & Schacter, 2016;Prakash, Heo, Voss, Patterson, & Kramer, 2012;Sala-Llonch et al., 2012;Fox et al., 2005). More generally, aging has also been correlated with increased connectivity between networks (i.e., network integration) and decreased connectivity within networks (i.e., network segregation; Damoiseaux, 2017;Chan, Park, Savalia, Petersen, & Wig, 2014). ...
... We then repeated this analysis after disaggregating the data by self-reported sex to investigate whether both sexes exhibited similar age-and performance-related patterns of connectivity. We hypothesized that age would be correlated with decreased connectivity between DAN and FPN and increased connectivity between DAN and DMN, and memory performance would exhibit the opposite patterns of network associations (Esposito et al., 2018;Avelar-Pereira et al., 2017;Dixon et al., 2017;Amer et al., 2016;Grady et al., 2016;Spreng et al., 2016;Prakash et al., 2012;Sala-Llonch et al., 2012;Turner & Spreng, 2012;Fox et al., 2005). Based on prior activation analyses of sex differences in the effect of age and memory accuracy on task-related brain activity across the adult lifespan (Subramaniapillai et al., 2019), we hypothesized that both sexes will exhibit similar patterns of performance-related functional connectivity at encoding, but not retrieval. ...
Full-text available
Aging is associated with episodic memory decline and changes in functional brain connectivity. Understanding whether and how biological sex influences age- and memory performance-related functional connectivity has important theoretical implications for the cognitive neuroscience of memory and aging. Here, we scanned 161 healthy adults between 19 and 76 years of age in an event-related fMRI study of face–location spatial context memory. Adults were scanned while performing easy and difficult versions of the task at both encoding and retrieval. We used multivariate whole-brain partial least squares connectivity to test the hypothesis that there are sex differences in age- and episodic memory performance-related functional connectivity. We examined how individual differences in age and retrieval accuracy correlated with task-related connectivity. We then repeated this analysis after disaggregating the data by self-reported sex. We found that increased encoding and retrieval-related connectivity within the dorsal attention network (DAN), and between DAN and frontoparietal network and visual networks, were positively correlated to retrieval accuracy and negatively correlated with age in both sexes. We also observed sex differences in age- and performance-related functional connectivity: (a) Greater between-networks integration was apparent at both levels of task difficulty in women only, and (b) increased DAN–default mode network connectivity with age was observed in men and was correlated with poorer memory performance. Therefore, the neural correlates of age-related episodic memory decline differ in women and men and have important theoretical and clinical implications for the cognitive neuroscience of memory, aging, and dementia prevention.
... Moreover, there is a clear lack of research is a variety of cognitive domains and tasks that needs to be addressed. On top of that, we suggest that future research ventures beyond the analysis of cognitive tasks based on their content (e.g., verbal or non-verbal materials) and considers the level of cognitive control required to perform the cognitive processes involved in those tasks (some tasks benefit from high-level cognitive control whereas some benefit from a more relaxed cognitive state; Amer et al., 2016). Correspondingly, the potential evaluations could be (1) whether different types of BgM would differentially affect tasks that demand high and low cognitive control, and (2) whether there are multiplicative interactions among the types of music, types of tasks, as well as the level of cognitive control required by those tasks on performance. ...
Full-text available
Research on the effect of background music (BgM) on cognitive task performance is marked by inconsistent methods and inconclusive findings. In order to provide clarity to this area, we performed a systematic review on the impact of BgM on performances in a variety of tasks whilst considering the contributions of various task, music, and population characteristics. Following the PRISMA and SWiM protocols, we identified 95 articles (154 experiments) that comprise cognitive tasks across six different cognitive domains—memory; language; thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving; inhibition; attention and processing speed. Extracted data were synthesized using vote counting based (solely) on the direction of effects and analyzed using a sign test analysis. Overall, our results demonstrate a general detrimental effect of BgM on memory and language-related tasks, and a tendency for BgM with lyrics to be more detrimental than instrumental BgM. Only one positive effect (of instrumental BgM) was found; and in most cases, we did not find any effect of BgM on task performance. We also identified a general detrimental impact of BgM towards difficult (but not easy) tasks; and towards introverts (but not extraverts). Taken together, our results show that task, music, and population-specific analyses are all necessary when studying the effects of BgM on cognitive task performance. They also call attention to the necessity to control for task difficulty as well as individual differences (especially level of extraversion) in empirical studies. Finally, our results also demonstrate that many areas remain understudied and therefore a lot more work still needs to be done to gain a comprehensive understanding of how BgM impacts cognitive task performance.
... Regarding the top-down explanation, research indicates that top-down processing is impaired in older adults (e.g., Amer et al., 2016;Braver & Barch, 2002;Lee et al., 2012). Furthermore, this impairment has been found to impact performance on tests of episodic and autobiographical episodic memory (e.g., Piolino et al., 2010). ...
Full-text available
Research has demonstrated that performing a sequence of saccadic horizontal eye movements prior to retrieval facilitates performance on tests of episodic memory. This has been observed in both laboratory tasks of retention and autobiographical memory. To date, the work has centred on performance in younger individuals. This paper extends previous investigations by examining the effects of saccadic eye movements in older persons. Autobiographical episodic and semantic memory fluency was assessed in younger (age range 18-35, mean = 22.50), and older (age range 55-87, mean = 70.35) participants following saccadic (vs. fixation control) manipulations. The main effects of eye movements and age were found for episodic autobiographical memory (greater fluency after eye movements and in younger participants). Semantic autobiographical memory showed a main effect of age (greater fluency in younger participants), whereas general semantic memory showed no effect of age or eye movement. These findings indicate that saccadic horizontal eye movements can enhance episodic personal memory in older individuals. This has implications as a technique to improve autobiographical recollection in the elderly and as an adjunct in reminiscence therapy.
... One prediction of R2R is that aging is associated with increases in the propensity and intensity of attention and goal-state lapses before remembering, which partially account for age-related memory decline. This prediction is consistent with known age-related differences in sustained attention [14], reactive (versus proactive) control [132], dedifferentiation of neural responses [128], motivational selectivity [137], and the representation and use of task-irrelevant goals and information [138,139]. These age-related differences may partially explain why older adults often exhibit differential declines in pattern completion-dependent episodic remembering (e.g., tests of associative versus item-based memory [140]), as well as in episodic simulation [97]. ...
Learning and remembering are fundamental to our lives, so what causes us to forget? Answers often highlight preparatory processes that precede learning, as well as mnemonic processes during the act of encoding or retrieval. Importantly, evidence now indicates that preparatory processes that precede retrieval attempts also have powerful influences on memory success or failure. Here, we review recent work from neuroimaging, electroencephalography, pupillometry, and behavioral science to propose an integrative framework of retrieval-period dynamics that explains variance in remembering in the moment and across individuals as a function of interactions among preparatory attention, goal coding, and mnemonic processes. Extending this approach, we consider how a 'readiness to remember' (R2R) framework explains variance in high-level functions of memory and mnemonic disruptions in aging.
... Integrative body-mind training (IBMT): a type of effortless training that stresses no effort to control or manipulate thoughts and feelings, but emphasizes an awareness of the natural state of body and mind, and accepts whatever arises in one's awareness at Effortless training refers to practices that involve minimal mental effort or effortless experiences such as nature exposure and flow experience [6,10,[34][35][36][37]. Recent behavioral evidence indicates that reduced control and effort can enhance cognitive performance [38], suggesting promising effects of effortless training on cognition (Box 1). Effortless training changes brain and bodily states effortlessly and is different from effortful training, which involves cognitively demanding tasks or processes to achieve benefits. ...
Full-text available
For the past 50 years, cognitive scientists have assumed that training attention and self-control must be effortful. However, growing evidence suggests promising effects of effortless training approaches such as nature exposure, flow experience, and effortless practice on attention and self-control. This opinion article focuses on effortless training of attention and self-control. We begin by introducing our definitions of effortful and effortless training and reviewing the growing literature on these two different forms of training. We then discuss the similarities and differences in their respective behavioral outcomes and neural correlates. Finally, we propose a putative neural mechanism of effortless training. We conclude by highlighting promising directions for research, development, and application of effortless training.
... Besides the critical role of cognitive control in creativity, previous studies have shown that low control processes in certain contexts may favor creativity and that the optimal level of cognitive control is task-dependent (Amer et al., 2016;Chrysikou, 2019Chrysikou, , 2018Wiley and Jarosz, 2012). To further support this idea, proposed the Matched Filter Hypothesis for cognitive control. ...
Creativity is a high-level cognitive function at the basis of various domains of human activity. However, this human capacity, while essential to face the challenges of our society as well as our daily lives, is still poorly understood. Previous research indicates that individual differences in semantic memory structure and processes contribute to individual’s creative abilities. In this thesis, we aim to better understand the relationships between semantic memory and creativity and the underlying brain correlates. In the first part of this thesis, we performed two studies to explore how the properties of semantic memory and brain networks relate to creative behavior. First, in a behavioral study, we investigated the relationships between semantic memory organization and creative thinking. By means of network-based methods, we built individual semantic networks as a proxy of the semantic memory structure and explored their properties in relation to creative abilities. We found that individual differences in semantic network properties correlated to divergent thinking and to creative behavior in real life. Then, in a second study, we replicated these findings and explored the brain functional connectivity underlying the semantic network properties predicting real-life creativity. We found that unique brain functional connectivity patterns underlying the modularity of individual semantic networks predicted individual differences in real-life creative behavior. In the second part, we examined the cognitive processes of semantic memory search that allow higher creative abilities and explored their brain correlates. We found two components that reflected 1) attentional focus allowing persistent search behavior and 2) the flexibility in memory. The first component related to divergent thinking while the second one related to convergent creative thinking. Finally, in the last part, by means of the semantic priming approach, we explored the different types of relationships that participate in the organization of semantic memory. We specifically investigated whether the implicit retrieval of a thematic and taxonomic category is facilitated by two words belonging to this category more than by a single exemplar. We found larger and additive priming in the double priming compared to the single priming condition at the behavioral and electrophysiological level. Our findings improved the actual knowledge on the organization of semantic memory into categories and how related concepts implicitly associate to each other in memory. Altogether, these findings shed light on several neurocognitive mechanisms related to semantic memory structure and processes involved in creativity. This work may also provide new tools that could be useful in future research on creativity.
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Attentional lapses have been found to impair everything from basic perception to learning and memory. Yet, despite the well documented costs of lapses on cognition, recent work suggests that lapses might unexpectedly confer some benefits. One potential benefit is that lapses broaden our learning to integrate seemingly irrelevant content that could later prove useful–a benefit that prior research focusing only on goal relevant memory would miss. Here, we measure how fluctuations in sustained attention influence the learning of seemingly goal-irrelevant content that competes for attention with target content. Participants completed a correlated flanker task in which they categorized central targets (letters or numbers) while ignoring peripheral flanking symbols that shared hidden probabilistic relationships with the targets. We found that across participants, higher rates of attentional lapses correlated with greater learning of the target-flanker relationships. Moreover, within participants, learning was more evident during attentional lapses. These findings address long-standing theoretical debates and reveal a benefit of attentional lapses: they expand the scope of learning and decisions beyond the strictly relevant.
Older adults are frequent targets and victims of financial fraud. They may be especially susceptible to revictimization because of age-related changes in both episodic memory and social motivation. Here we examined these factors in a context where adaptive social decision-making requires intact associative memory for previous social interactions. Older adults made more maladaptive episodic memory-guided social decisions but not only because of poorer associative memory. Older adults were biased toward remembering people as being fair, while young adults were biased toward remembering people as being unfair. Holding memory constant, older adults engaged more with people that were familiar (regardless of the nature of the previous interaction), whereas young adults were prone to avoiding others that they remembered as being unfair. Finally, older adults were more influenced by facial appearances, choosing to interact with social partners that looked more generous, even though those perceptions were inconsistent with prior experience.
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Previous event-related potential (ERP) and neuroimaging evidence suggests that directing attention toward single item-context associations compared to intra-item features at encoding improves context memory performance and reduces demands on strategic retrieval operations in young and older adults. In everyday situations, however, there are multiple event features competing for our attention. It is not currently known how selectively attending to one contextual feature while attempting to ignore another influences context memory performance and the processes that support successful retrieval in the young and old. We investigated this issue in the current ERP study. Young and older participants studied pictures of objects in the presence of two contextual features: a color and a scene, and their attention was directed to the object's relationship with one of those contexts. Participants made context memory decisions for both attended and unattended contexts and rated their confidence in those decisions. Behavioral results showed that while both groups were generally successful in applying selective attention during context encoding, older adults were less confident in their context memory decisions for attended features and showed greater dependence in context memory accuracy for attended and unattended contextual features (i.e., hyper-binding). ERP results were largely consistent between age groups but older adults showed a more pronounced late posterior negativity (LPN) implicated in episodic reconstruction processes. We conclude that age-related suppression deficits during encoding result in reduced selectivity in context memory, thereby increasing subsequent demands on episodic reconstruction processes when sought after details are not readily retrieved.
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Recent research has suggested that an episodic specificity induction-brief training in recollecting the details of a past experience-enhances divergent creative thinking on the alternate uses task (AUT) in young adults, without affecting performance on tasks thought to involve little divergent thinking; however, the generalizability of these results to other populations and tasks is unknown. In the present experiments, we examined whether the effects of an episodic specificity induction would extend to older adults and a different index of divergent thinking, the consequences task. In Experiment 1, the specificity induction significantly enhanced divergent thinking on the AUT in both young and older adults, as compared with a control induction not requiring specific episodic retrieval; performance on a task involving little divergent thinking (generating associates for common objects) did not vary as a function of induction. No overall age-related differences were observed on either task. In Experiment 2, the specificity induction significantly enhanced divergent thinking (in terms of generating consequences of novel scenarios) in young adults, relative to another control induction not requiring episodic retrieval. To examine the types of creative ideas affected by the induction, the participants in both experiments also labeled each of their divergent-thinking responses as an "old idea" from memory or a "new idea" from imagination. New, and to some extent old, ideas were significantly boosted following the specificity induction relative to the control. These experiments provide novel evidence that an episodic specificity induction can boost divergent thinking in young and older adults, and indicate that episodic memory is involved in multiple divergent-thinking tasks.
The authors investigated the possibility that working memory span tasks are influenced by interference and that interference contributes to the correlation between span and other measures. Younger and older adults received the span task either in the standard format or one designed to reduce the impact of interference with no impact on capacity demands. Participants then read and recalled a short prose passage. Reducing the amount of interference in the span task raised span scores, replicating previous results (C. P. May, L. Hasher, & M. J. Kane, 1999). The same interference-reducing manipulations that raised span substantially altered the relation between span and prose recall. These results suggest that span is influenced by interference, that age differences in span may be due to differences in the ability to overcome interference rather than to differences in capacity, and that interference plays an important role in the relation between span and other tasks.
Attentional control declines in older adults and is paralleled by changes in event-related brain potentials (ERPs). The N200 is associated with attentional control, thus training-related improvements in attentional control should be paralleled by enhancements to the N200. Older participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups, which focused on training different levels of attentional control: (1) single-task training (single), where participants trained on 2 tasks in isolation; (2) fixed divided attention training (fixed), where participants trained on 2 tasks simultaneously; and (3) variable divided attention training (variable), where participants trained on 2 tasks simultaneously but were instructed to alternatively prioritize each of the 2 tasks. After training, the amplitude of the N200 wave increased in dual-task conditions for the variable group, and this enhancement was correlated with improved dual-task performance. Participants in the variable group also had the greatest improvement in the ability to modulate their allocation of attention in accordance with task instructions to the less salient and less complex of the 2 tasks. Training older adults to modulate their division of attention between tasks improves neural functions associated with attentional control of the trained tasks.
Language learners must place unfamiliar words into categories, often with few explicit indicators about when and how that word can be used grammatically. Reeder, Newport, and Aslin (2013) showed that college students can learn grammatical form classes from an artificial language by relying solely on distributional information (i.e., contextual cues in the input). Here, 2 experiments revealed that healthy older adults also show such statistical learning, though they are poorer than young at distinguishing grammatical from ungrammatical strings. This finding expands knowledge of which aspects of learning vary with aging, with potential implications for second language learning in late adulthood. (PsycINFO Database Record
Difficulty remembering faces and corresponding names is a hallmark of cognitive aging, as is increased susceptibility to distraction. Given evidence that older adults spontaneously encode relationships between target pictures and simultaneously occurring distractors (a hyper-binding phenomenon), we asked whether memory for face–name pairs could be improved through prior exposure to faces presented with distractor names. In three experiments, young and older adults performed a selective attention task on faces while ignoring superimposed names. After a delay, they learned and were tested on face–name pairs that were either maintained or rearranged from the initial task but were not told of the connection between tasks. In each experiment, older but not younger participants showed better memory for maintained than for rearranged pairs, indicating that older adults’ natural propensity to tacitly encode and bind relevant and irrelevant information can be employed to aid face–name memory performance.
Older and younger adults performed a state-based decision-making task while undergoing functional MRI (fMRI). We proposed that younger adults would be more prone to base their decisions on expected value comparisons, but that older adults would be more reactive decision-makers who would act in response to recent changes in rewards or states, rather than on a comparison of expected values. To test this we regressed BOLD activation on two measures from a sophisticated reinforcement learning (RL) model. A value-based regressor was computed by subtracting the immediate value of the selected alternative from its long-term value. The other regressor was a state-change uncertainty signal that served as a proxy for whether the participant's state improved or declined, relative to the previous trial. Younger adults' activation was modulated by the value-based regressor in ventral striatal and medial PFC regions implicated in reinforcement learning. Older adults' activation was modulated by state-change uncertainty signals in right dorsolateral PFC, and activation in this region was associated with improved performance in the task. This suggests that older adults may depart from standard expected-value based strategies and recruit lateral PFC regions to engage in reactive decision-making strategies.
Creative thinking is central to the arts, sciences, and everyday life. How does the brain produce creative thought? A series of recently published papers has begun to provide insight into this question, reporting a strikingly similar pattern of brain activity and connectivity across a range of creative tasks and domains, from divergent thinking to poetry composition to musical improvisation. This research suggests that creative thought involves dynamic interactions of large-scale brain systems, with the most compelling finding being that the default and executive control networks, which can show an antagonistic relationship, actually cooperate during creative cognition and artistic performance. These findings have implications for understanding how brain networks interact to support complex cognitive processes, particularly those involving goal-directed, self-generated thought.
There has recently been a great deal of interest in cognitive interventions, particularly when applied in older adults with the goal of slowing or reversing age-related cognitive decline. Although seldom directly investigated, one of the fundamental questions concerning interventions is whether the intervention alters the rate of cognitive change, or affects the level of certain cognitive measures with no effect on the trajectory of change. This question was investigated with a very simple intervention consisting of the performance of three versions (treatment) or one version (control) of the relevant cognitive tests at an initial occasion. Participants were retested at intervals ranging from less than 1 to 12 years, which allowed rates of change to be examined in the control and treatment groups. Although the intervention can be considered modest, participants in the treatment group had about .25 standard deviations less negative cognitive change over an interval of approximately three years than those in the control group, which is comparable to effect sizes reported with more intensive interventions. However, there were no interactions of the intervention with length of the interval between occasions, and thus there was no evidence that the intervention affected the course of age-related cognitive decline.