Distraction Not So Bad After All

Distracted woman.jpg

The prolific writer Stephen King, in his seminal book on word-smithing On Writing, savaged 'distraction' as a writer's greatest foe. In a recent New York Times article that went viral, author and computer scientist Cal Newport lamented that “the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy.”

For people over 50, however, distraction might not be so bad.

That's the takeaway from a review of studies and some neuroimaging evidence compiled by researchers from the University of Toronto and Harvard University. The scientists uphold that being easily distracted can help adults with learning new information and problem solving among other neurological tasks.

"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," says first author Tarek Amer, a psychology PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and a graduate student at the Rotman Research Institute. "The literature gives us the impression that older adults are essentially doomed as their cognitive abilities decrease, when, in reality, many older adults get along just fine in their day-to-day lives, and we think that shows that aging adults don't always need to have high cognitive control."

We normally associate higher cognitive control with people who can stay focused, avoid distraction, and get things done. But the UToronto and Harvard teams discovered that people with reduced cognitive control had an easier time thinking of creative solutions to problems. They were also better at noticing patterns in the world around them.

"Many of the tasks that we study in classic cognitive psychology are tasks that require high cognitive control, but these assigned tasks might not accurately mirror what people do in the real world because they limit distractions," says co-author Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the Rotman Research Institute. "But a distraction in one setting can actually be useful information in another setting, and the more information you have, the better able you're going to be to address a current problem."

The next step for the scientists is use this information to determine exactly what tasks can benefit from reduced control in order to better simulate these experiences in a lab. They also are looking to expand their work beyond just the AARP set and into benefiting people of any age who may have cognitive impairments.

"There is a question about what really sustains performance in old age, and it's clear that working memory alone cannot provide us with the answer to that question," says Hasher. "But we think it's possible that studying reduced cognitive control can help us understand how older adults can still perform independently and successfully in their lives.”

The review has been published in the journal Cell.