The human brain’s innerworkings are still an enigma to scientists, especially when it comes to the mysteries of aging minds. A new study from researchers at the University of Toronto and Harvard University suggests there may be some benefits to reducing focus that could help keep brains over the age of 50 years old sharp.

Researchers have discovered that being distracted may help adults with tasks like problem solving and learning new information.

To reach these conclusions, the research team carried out lab-based behavioral experiments — which limited distractions and required participants to complete a specific set of tasks. They also utilized neuroimaging evidence of each participant's brain.

"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," said the study's co-author Tarek Amer, in a statement.

"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,” Amer explained.

Moving forward, researchers hope to expand beyond the aging population and examine how distractions can offer cognitive benefits to other demographics.

"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," said the study's co-author Lynn 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."

Source: Amer T, Campbell KL, Hasher L. Cognitive Control As a Double-Edged Sword. Trends In Cognitive Science. 2016.

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