A surprising discovery: How our minds wander with age

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Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming when you should be focused on a task? You’re not alone—mind-wandering is a common occurrence.

However, a recent study led by Matt Welhaf, a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, has uncovered a surprising trend: as we age, our minds tend to wander less, and when older adults do drift into daydreams, they’re more likely to be pleasant ones rather than worries.

The study, published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, includes co-authors Julie Bugg, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, and Jonathan Banks, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience.

To explore this phenomenon, the researchers recruited 175 younger adults aged 18 to 35 and 175 adults over 60.

During the study, participants were given a simple online task—hitting the spacebar whenever the name of an animal appeared on the screen.

Periodically, they received prompts asking if they were focused on the task, their performance, or something else entirely. If their minds had wandered, they were asked to categorize their thoughts as negative, positive, or neutral.

The findings revealed a clear difference between younger and older adults. Younger adults were more likely to have their thoughts stray from the task, a result consistent with previous studies.

Notably, this research delved deeper into the emotional content of these wandering thoughts. Younger participants reported more negative passing thoughts, such as finding the task boring or stressing about other responsibilities.

In contrast, older adults were less prone to distraction by negative thoughts. They exhibited a better ability to maintain focus on their designated task.

However, when their minds did wander, their thoughts encompassed a wide emotional spectrum. Interestingly, older adults were just as likely as younger ones to report positive passing thoughts.

This study provides the first evidence that older adults may have an advantage in tuning out negative thoughts when engaged in a task. According to Welhaf, “As we age, what we become concerned about changes.”

The study also hinted at potential consequences of wandering minds. Younger adults, despite responding more quickly to prompts, made more errors during the experiment. In contrast, older adults performed better overall.

This could be attributed to their higher motivation and focus on the task. They were enthusiastic about contributing to the study.

The research team aims to expand on these findings with further studies. They plan to conduct in-person tests that can capture the nuances of wandering thoughts, including their causes, contents, and consequences, which may not be fully evident in online experiments.

The ultimate goal is to gain a deeper understanding of how our minds wander with age and potentially discover new strategies to help younger adults redirect their focus away from negative thoughts and back to their current tasks and goals.

If you care about brain health, please read studies about how the Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and blueberry supplements may prevent cognitive decline.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about antioxidants that could help reduce dementia risk, and Coconut oil could help improve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s.

The research findings can be found in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

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