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Young and Restless, Old and Focused: Age-Differences in Mind-Wandering

Older adults can be more focused, less mentally restless, and not as impeded by anxiety than those in younger generations

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New research from Trinity College Dublin suggests that older adults can be more focused, less impeded by anxiety and less mentally restless than younger adults. The team at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) show that older adults appear to mitigate the negative aspects of cognitive decline by increasing motivation and adopting more efficient strategies to suspend the wandering mind when focus is required.

The study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging is the first to adjudicate between competing theories of age-related mind-wandering dominant in the field. It highlights the influential roles of affective and motivational factors in driving age-related differences in unintentional mind-wandering and provide reasons to be less persuaded by previous cognitive resources accounts.

The human mind has a natural and frequent tendency to wander. In everyday life, our thoughts often stray from the here-and-now. Mind-wandering is broadly defined as the mental state whereby our attention shifts away from a task or our current environment to unrelated and self-generated mental content. Recent research within healthy ageing populations has demonstrated a confusing yet consistent finding of reduced mind-wandering frequency with advancing age.

Although different theories have been suggested to explain this finding, previous studies have been afflicted by varying methodological challenges for capturing incidences of mind-wandering. As such, the neuropsychological mechanisms underlying age-related differences in mind-wandering remain unclear. Further, there is a lack of research exploring the mechanisms underlying different mind-wandering dynamics; specifically, mind-wandering that occurs with and without intention.

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