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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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... Although the literature has typically focused on the role of the hippocampus in pattern separation, the contribution of processes in extra-hippocampal regions has received less attention. However, a distinct but substantial literature has illustrated that regions in the frontoparietal control network contribute to functions similar to pattern separation (or result in outcomes that are consistent with pattern separation function), such as resolving interference between competing memories or stimuli (e.g., Badre and Wagner, 2007;Amer et al., 2016). This raises important questions about whether and how these processes directly contribute to, or modulate, hippocampal pattern separation. ...
... Finally, an aging study provided similar evidence by demonstrating that well-documented pattern separation deficits in older adults can, at least partly, be accounted for by representations maintained in regions that feed into the hippocampus (Weeks et al., 2020). Specifically, in a delayed match-to-sample task that required participants to maintain in memory only a subset of presented (relevant) images for a subsequent old-lure discrimination task, older adults with reduced cognitive control abilities (e.g., Amer et al., 2016), maintained information from irrelevant images in MTL regions (including the hippocampus) and in regions that feed into the hippocampus (including the lateral occipital cortex), relative to young adults. Importantly, the extent to which this irrelevant information was maintained was associated with behavioral performance on the mnemonic discrimination task across both age groups. ...
... In the case of older adults, given that pattern separation deficits are considered one of the defining features of aging, one potentially important outcome of the CHiPS framework is to examine the extent of the contribution of the distinct stages of pattern separation, and their interaction, to these deficits. Starting with the well-documented age-related cognitive control deficits (e.g., Amer et al., 2016), it will be important to investigate how reduced top-down modulation of downstream regions (and overrepresentation of irrelevant information/features) feeding into the hippocampus impacts hippocampal computations, representations, and memory structure (see Amer et al., 2022 for a discussion of changes in memory structure with old age). Additionally, studying interactions between age-related attentional or control deficits and structural and functional alterations of MTL regions, including the hippocampus (e.g., Yassa et al., 2011a;Reagh et al., 2018) will be critical for our understanding of how age-related changes in brain-wide function contribute to pattern separation deficits and mnemonic interference with old age. ...
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Pattern separation, or the process by which highly similar stimuli or experiences in memory are represented by non-overlapping neural ensembles, has typically been ascribed to processes supported by the hippocampus. Converging evidence from a wide range of studies, however, suggests that pattern separation is a multistage process supported by a network of brain regions. Based on this evidence, considered together with related findings from the interference resolution literature, we propose the 'cortico-hippocampal pattern separation' (CHiPS) framework, which asserts that brain regions involved in cognitive control play a significant role in pattern separation. Particularly, these regions may contribute to pattern separation by (1) resolving interference in sensory regions that project to the hippocampus, thus regulating its cortical input, or (2) directly modulating hippocampal processes in accordance with task demands. Considering recent interest in how hippocampal operations are modulated by goal states likely represented and regulated by extra-hippocampal regions, we argue that pattern separation is similarly supported by neocortical-hippocampal interactions.
... This is supported by neuroimaging findings, showing that while younger participants engaged the proactive control network when asked to filter out task-irrelevant distractors (inhibiting distractors before they have appeared), older adults recruited a reactive control mechanism for distractor inhibition (inhibiting distractors only after they have appeared; Ashinoff et al., 2020;Braver, 2012;Paxton et al., 2008;Vadaga et al., 2016). Novel theorizing suggests that the reduced attentional control associated with normal aging can be beneficial in a range of cognitive tasks that rely less on top-down mechanisms and more on automatic implicitbased learning (for a recent review, see Amer et al., 2016). This idea stems from the findings that attentional selection history effects are preserved in older adults. ...
... Taken together, these findings support the notion that the preservation of habitual attention in older adults may allow them to proficiently allocate visuospatial attention. More in general, these results may suggest that automatic and implicit-based attentional learning mechanisms may be preserved even despite a more general deficit in attentional mechanisms and reduced cognitive control induced by aging or development and neurocognitive disease (Amer et al., 2016). In line with this notion, unimpaired spatial location probability learning has been demonstrated not only in older adults (Jiang, 2018;Jiang et al., 2016;Twedell et al., 2017) but also in patients with Parkinson's disease (Sisk et al., 2018), in children (Lee et al., 2020;Yang & Song, 2021), and in autistic spectrum disorder (Jiang, Capistrano, et al., 2013). ...
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In recent years, the use of implicit mechanisms based on statistical learning (SL) has emerged as a strong factor in biasing visuospatial attention, so that target selection is improved at frequently attended locations and distractor filtering is facilitated at frequently suppressed locations. Although these mechanisms have been consistently described in younger adults, similar evidence in healthy aging is scarce. Therefore, we studied the learning and persistence of SL of target selection and distractor suppression in younger and older adults in visual search tasks where the frequency of target (Experiment 1) or distractor (Experiment 2) was biased across spatial locations. The results show that SL of target selection was preserved in the older adults so, similar to their younger counterparts, they showed a strong and persistent advantage in target selection at locations more frequently attended. However, unlike young adults, they did not benefit from implicit SL of distractor suppression, so that distractor interference was maintained throughout the experiment independently of the contingencies associated with distractor locations. Taken together, these results provide novel evidence of distinct developmental patterns for SL of task-relevant and task-irrelevant visual information, likely reflecting differences in the implementation of proactive suppression attentional mechanisms between younger and older adults. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).
... Finally, older adults exhibit a decline in their ability to ignore irrelevant information or inhibit impulses to focus on relevant information (Hasher and Zacks, 1988;Reuter-Lorenz et al., 2021). Age has also been associated with retaining information that is no longer task relevant, which can hinder or benefit performance depending on the task (Amer et al., 2016(Amer et al., , 2022. Inefficient inhibitory control leads to more distractibility and decreased attentional control. ...
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Cognitive control is one of the most fundamental aspects of human life. Its ageing is an important contemporary research area due to the needs of the growing ageing population, such as prolonged independence and quality of life. Traditional ageing research argued for a global decline in cognitive control with age, typically characterised by slowing processing speed and driven by changes in the frontal cortex. However, recent advances questioned this perspective by demonstrating high heterogeneity in the ageing data, domain-specific declines, activity changes in resting state networks, and increased functional connectivity. Moreover, improvements in neuroimaging techniques have enabled researchers to develop compensatory models of neural reorganisation that helps negate the effects of neural losses and promote cognitive control. In this article on typical ageing, we review recent behavioural and neural findings related to the decline in cognitive control among older adults. We begin by reviewing traditional perspectives and continue with how recent work challenged those perspectives. In the discussion section, we propose key areas of focus for future research in the field.
... Across two studies, we show that event distinctiveness (i.e., the within > between cued-recall effect) relates to better overall memory for the movie in older adults. While inferring connections between events is naturally important in forming coherent narrative representations in memory (e.g., Stine- Morrow & McCall, 2022), and this may be one of the hidden benefits of reduced inhibitory control with age (Amer et al., 2016), cross-event associations may also contribute to disordered recall and memory failures (Diamond & Levine, 2020). Encoding distinct events into memory may be particularly important for older adults, as attentional control is also required to resolve interference and guide search processes at retrieval (Healey et al., 2013;Jacoby et al., 2005). ...
We experience the world as a continuous flow of information but segment it into discrete events in long-term memory. As a result, younger adults are more likely to recall details of an event when cued with information from the same event (within-event cues) than from the prior event (between-event cues), suggesting that stronger associations are formed within events than across event boundaries. The present study aimed to investigate the effects of age and working memory updating on this within > between cued-recall effect and the consequences for subsequent memory. Across two studies, participants viewed two different films (Hitchcock's Bang You're Dead and BBC's Sherlock). They were later shown clips taken from either the beginning/middle (within-event cues) or end (between-event cues) of a scene and asked to recall what happened next in the film. While the main effect of age was not significant in either experiment, overall memory performance related to the within > between effect in older, but not younger, adults. Low-performing older adults showed less of a difference in cued recall for within- and between-event cues than high performers. In Study 2, better two-back task performance also related to a greater within > between effect in older, but not younger, adults, suggesting that working memory updating relates to the distinctiveness of events stored in long-term memory, at least in older adults. Taken together, these findings suggest that age differences in event memory are not inevitable and may critically depend on one's ability update working memory at event boundaries. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).
... In the original Autobiographical Interview study (Levine et al., 2002), older adults showed reduced production of internal details for autobiographical events selected from five periods across the life span, replicating age-related effects on contextual recall (e.g., McIntyre & Craik, 1987). Older adults also produced more external details relative to younger adults, consistent with the notion that they have trouble suppressing off-target information during recall (Arbuckle & Gold, 1993;Hasher & Zacks, 1988) potentially due to impaired cognitive control capacity (Amer et al., 2016). Alternatively, external detail production may be due to compensation for reduced internal detail production (Devitt et al., 2017; but see Grilli & Sheldon, 2022). ...
Objective: A meta-analytic review was conducted to assess the effects of healthy aging, amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer's Disease (AD) on naturalistic autobiographical memory using the Autobiographical Interview, a widely used, standardized assessment that derives measures of internal (episodic) and external (non-episodic) details from freely recalled autobiographical narratives. Method: A comprehensive literature search identified 21 aging, 6 MCI, and 7 AD studies (total N =1556 participants). Summary statistics for internal and external details for each comparison (younger vs. older or MCI/AD vs. age-matched comparison groups) and effect size statistics were extracted and summarized using Hedges' g (random effects model) and adjusted for the presence of publication bias. Results: The pattern of reduced internal and elevated external details in aging was robust and consistent across nearly all 21 studies. MCI and - to a greater extent - AD were associated with reduced internal details, whereas the external detail elevation faded with MCI and AD. Although there was evidence of publication bias on reporting of internal detail effects, these effects remained robust after correction. Discussion: The canonical changes to episodic memory observed in aging and neurodegenerative disease are mirrored in the free recall of real-life events. Our findings indicate that the onset of neuropathology overwhelms the capacity of older adults to draw upon distributed neural systems to elaborate on past experiences, including both episodic details specific to identified events and non-episodic content characteristic of healthy older adults' autobiographical narratives.
In a visual search task, attention to task-irrelevant distractors impedes search performance. However, is it maladaptive to future performance? Here, I showed that attended distractors in a visual search task were better remembered in long-term memory (LTM) in the subsequent surprise recognition task than non-attended distractors. In four experiments, participants performed a visual search task using real-world objects of a single color. They encoded color in working memory (WM) during the task; because each object had a different color, participants directed their attention to the WM-matching colored distractor. Then, in the surprise recognition task, participants were required to indicate whether an object had been shown in the earlier visual search task, regardless of its color. The results showed that attended distractors were remembered better in LTM than non-attended distractors (Experiments 1 and 2). Moreover, the more participants directed their attention to distractors, the better they explicitly remembered them. Participants did not explicitly remember the color of the attended distractors (Experiment 3) but remembered integrated information with object and color (Experiment 4). When the color of the distractors in the recognition task was mismatched with the color in the visual search task, LTM decreased compared to color-matching distractors. These results suggest that attention to distractors impairs search for a target but is helpful in remembering distractors in LTM. When task-irrelevant distractors become task-relevant information in the future, their attention becomes beneficial.
This study investigated the validity of the Japanese Remote Associates Test (RAT) as an insight problem task. In Experiment 1, participants completed 25 RAT problems as well as insight, creativity, and vocabulary tasks. Controlling for participants’ vocabulary, RAT performance was not associated with the insight and creativity tasks. In Experiment 2, using the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), we focused on the ability to inhibit biased responses when an individual faces new insight problems. Each CRT problem has a common incorrect answer, which has to be eliminated to reach the right solution. Correlation analyses revealed a negative association between the RAT performance and the number of typical errors made in the CRT, even after controlling for participants’ vocabulary. As a result, this study unexpectedly revealed the limitations of examining a task’s validity as an insight problem based on the correlation between performances of the task and other insight tasks. The study showed that the RAT could measure a solver’s inhibition function from their typical errors and that RAT performance strongly depended on their vocabulary.
The present study investigated global behavioral adaptation effects to conflict arising from different distractor modalities. Three experiments were conducted using an Eriksen flanker paradigm with constant visual targets, but randomly varying auditory or visual distractors. In Experiment 1, the proportion of congruent to incongruent trials was varied for both distractor modalities, whereas in Experiments 2A and 2B, this proportion congruency (PC) manipulation was applied to trials with one distractor modality (inducer) to test potential behavioral transfer effects to trials with the other distractor modality (diagnostic). In all experiments, mean proportion congruency effects (PCEs) were present in trials with a PC manipulation, but there was no evidence of transfer to diagnostic trials in Experiments 2A and 2B. Distributional analyses (delta plots) provided further evidence for distractor modality-specific global behavioral adaptations by showing differences in the slope of delta plots with visual but not auditory distractors when increasing the ratio of congruent trials. Thus, it is suggested that distractor modalities constrain global behavioral adaptation effects due to the learning of modality-specific memory traces (e.g., distractor-target associations) and/or the modality-specific cognitive control processes (e.g., suppression of modality-specific distractor-based activation). Moreover, additional analyses revealed partial transfer of the congruency sequence effect across trials with different distractor modalities suggesting that distractor modality may differentially affect local and global behavioral adaptations.
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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.
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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.
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.