Brain-training game creators have made millions peddling the benefits of regaining the brain of your youth – a sharper, more vibrant mind than your now confused, worn-out mind. The question is whether the games can really stimulate your noggin. But according to psychologists from Harvard and the University of Toronto, the question is whether you should want to.
In a literature review published Tuesday in Trends in Cognitive Science, the researchers argue that there is a silver lining to a gracefully aging mind: namely, that it is more creative and better at solving unconventional problems. Those traits, the researchers suggest, are more beneficial in the real world than simple, quick wits because they can lead to wiser decisions.
“It is therefore no surprise that age-related deficits commonly observed in laboratory tasks do not always extend to everyday life, where many healthy older adults not only function well, but also make strong contributions to society,” the authors conclude. .
Examining the data on cognitive functioning, the researchers found that age-related decline is a double-edged sword. Young minds excel at tight cognitive control, i.e. regulating processes in the brain to allow focused concentration on a specific goal-based task while shutting out distractions. For example, ignoring the hustle and bustle around you while trying to read a book in a crowded coffee shop. Over time, that cognitive control relaxes a bit, allowing some distractions and irrelevant information to come through while your noodle is processing. This can certainly slow things down and cripple performance on tasks that involve memory and attention.
However, the authors also note that such lax processing can sometimes improve learning and problem solving. Young children who have not yet mastered cognitive control – and are therefore not good at finding specific information – are particularly good at detecting patterns in large data sets. That talent is partly why children can easily sponge down languages and tricky grammatical structures.
Consistent with this idea, studies have shown that older adults are better than their younger peers at putting together faces and names after the information is presented to them as “distraction” during memory experiments. In other words, older adults picked up seemingly irrelevant information that a controlled mind might have ignored and then used that information to form associations later—an undoubtedly useful skill.
In addition, several studies have shown that tight cognitive control can also stifle creativity. In one study, patients with brain lesions that impeded their cognitive control were able to outperform healthy adults on so-called “insight problems.” These are creative thinking problems that usually get an “aha!” moment to solve, like match puzzles. Researchers hypothesize that such uncaged cognitive processing releases the ability to make broader or unexpected associations and connections. For example, in another study, older adults beat their younger peers in a “remote worker task.” This is a creativity task that requires “participants to produce a fourth word that is distantly related to word triples, for example, ‘room’ for the three words ship, outside, and crawl.”
Taking all the studies together, the authors suggest that an aged mind is a wiser mind that makes better decisions by inadvertently putting relevant and irrelevant information into new contexts. “The extensive knowledge or ‘wisdom’ of older adults can support decision-making that relies on previous experience,” they note. “Since real-world decisions are rarely isolated and often depend on past experience, older adults may be better equipped than young adults to make such decisions.”
Trends in Cognitive Science2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.10.002 (About DOIs).