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: firstname.lastname@example.org (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-
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
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 . 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
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 . 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  or simply thought about  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 ).
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  and
processing speed , 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 ).
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 . 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 . 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 . 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
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 , 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 . 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 . Moreover, reduction of these processes
through dual task engagement  and hypnosis  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 .
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  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  and is enhanced with disruption of the left dorsolateral PFC .
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 . 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 , 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 , 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 , but
they also do so for non-attended streams , 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 , 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 . 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 ) and interaction with the
executive control network (a network involved in the top-down selection of stimuli based
on task demands ). 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
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 ). 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 . 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 ,
greater implicit memory for such information , and enhanced creativity and insight
problem solving . 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) .
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  and increases their encoding of distractors and their ability
to use those distractors when they become relevant on a future task . Moderate
alcohol intoxication has a similar effect and improves creative problem solving  and
the ability to quickly detect changes in a complex visual scene .
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 . 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 .
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 ,
and other studies demonstrated a lack of maintenance  and far transfer  effects.
Moreover, even when modest intervention effects are reported, there is no evidence that
these improvements influence the rate of cognitive decline over time .
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 . 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 , for example, older adults showed enhanced
associative memory for faces and names (a task which typically shows large age deficits
), 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
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  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 ). 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 . 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.
• 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 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 .!
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 . 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 3 (Key Figure)