Movie study confirms older people are more distractible

Idiosyncratic brain activity among older people watching a thriller-type movie adds to evidence that:

  • age may affect the ability to perceive and remember the order of events (explaining why older adults may find it harder to follow complex plots)
  • age affects the ability to focus attention and not be distracted
  • age affects the brain's connectivity — how well connected regions work together.

A study involving 218 participants aged 18-88 has looked at the effects of age on the brain activity of participants viewing an edited version of a 1961 Hitchcock TV episode (given that participants viewed the movie while in a MRI machine, the 25 minute episode was condensed to 8 minutes).

While many studies have looked at how age changes brain function, the stimuli used have typically been quite simple. This thriller-type story provides more complex and naturalistic stimuli.

Younger adults' brains responded to the TV program in a very uniform way, while older adults showed much more idiosyncratic responses. The TV program (“Bang! You're dead”) has previously been shown to induce widespread synchronization of brain responses (such movies are, after all, designed to focus attention on specific people and objects; following along with the director is, in a manner of speaking, how we follow the plot). The synchronization seen here among younger adults may reflect the optimal response, attention focused on the most relevant stimulus. (There is much less synchronization when the stimuli are more everyday.)

The increasing asynchronization with age seen here has previously been linked to poorer comprehension and memory. In this study, there was a correlation between synchronization and measures of attentional control, such as fluid intelligence and reaction time variability. There was no correlation between synchronization and crystallized intelligence.

The greatest differences were seen in the brain regions controlling attention (the superior frontal lobe and the intraparietal sulcus) and language processing (the bilateral middle temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus).

The researchers accordingly suggested that the reason for the variability in brain patterns seen in older adults lies in their poorer attentional control — specifically, their top-down control (ability to focus) rather than bottom-up attentional capture. Attentional capture has previously been shown to be well preserved in old age.

Of course, it's not necessarily bad that a watcher doesn't rigidly follow the director's manipulation! The older adults may be showing more informed and cunning observation than the younger adults. However, previous studies have found that older adults watching a movie tend to vary more in where they draw an event boundary; those showing most variability in this regard were the least able to remember the sequence of events.

The current findings therefore support the idea that older adults may have increasing difficulty in understanding events — somthing which helps explain why some old people have increasing trouble following complex plots.

The findings also add to growing evidence that age affects functional connectivity (how well the brain works together).

It should be noted, however, that it is possible that there could also be cohort effects going on — that is, effects of education and life experience.


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