Older brains make good use of 'useless' information

January, 2010

A new study finds a decision-making advantage to the increased difficulty older brains have in filtering out irrelevant information.

It’s now well established that older brains tend to find it harder to filter out irrelevant information. But now a new study suggests that that isn’t all bad. The study compared the performance of 24 younger adults (17-29) and 24 older adults (60-73) on two memory tasks separated by a 10-minute break. In the first task, they were shown pictures overlapped by irrelevant words, told to ignore the words and concentrate on the pictures only, and to respond every time the same picture appeared twice in a row. The second task required them to remember how the pictures and words were paired together in the first task. The older adults showed a 30% advantage over younger adults in their memory for the preserved pairs. It’s suggested that older adults encode extraneous co-occurrences in the environment and transfer this knowledge to subsequent tasks, improving their ability to make decisions.

Reference: 

[276] Campbell KL, Hasher L, Thomas RC. Hyper-binding: a unique age effect. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2010 ;21(3):399 - 405. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20424077

Full text available at http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/01/15/0956797609359910.full