Focus. It is what allows a law student to study for the bar exam, keeps a ballerina concentrated on her craft long enough to become a master dancer and ultimately helps little kids learn to tie their shoes. Being able to hone in on a single element of our lives, focus and practice is the cornerstone of many of mankind’s accomplishments. As we get older, however, focus wanes. We become forgetful. Our minds begin to wander more than they did before. We become more easily distracted.
These characteristics have long been labelled “cognitive decline,” the general wear and tear of the mind as it ages. They are seen as negative changes. Many doctors, researchers and patients have spent copious amounts of time and money trying to slow or stop this process. Researchers from the University of Toronto, however, are asking whether a decline in our ability to focus is really such a bad thing.
“Different types of tasks benefit from a more broad focus of attention, and this is usually seen in tasks that involve thinking creatively or using information that was previously irrelevant,” reports first author Tarek Amer. An older person has a wealth of information buried deep in their mind, more so than a younger person. Less focused, freely wandering thought patterns may be able to access this information and creatively construct methods of problem solving and learning that work very well. A less focused mind is also more likely to see patterns emerge around them.
Researchers found that in certain problem solving tasks, older participants outperformed younger individuals. This was especially true in tasks that required individuals to use environmental information or come up with creative, outside-the-box solutions. Instead of constructing tasks where distraction would be an obstacle, as the scientists point out is often how other studies are conducted, this study looks at actual behavior and neuroimaging information.
The take home message is that we shouldn’t be too quick the discount the benefits of different types of minds. One mind may be better for one situation, while another excels in other areas.