As we age our cognitive control and the brain’s ability to focus diminishes. It’s been assumed that this is a handicap natural to old age. But this is not true. People don’t require high levels of cognitive control for inherent, day-to-day tasks, like walking or learning new information. Many people live highly active lives and even pursue dreams well into their 80s, like this Russian grandma who’s spending her retirement traveling the world. There are benefits to the aging brain and one of them is reduced focus.
A new report from researchers at the University of Toronto and Harvard University suggest there may be benefits to reduced focus, especially in people over 50. Being easily distracted can help adults engage in things like problem solving and learning new information.
When people have high cognitive control, they are able to maintain their focused attention and ignore distractions to get things done. But the study found that people with reduced cognitive control had an easier time thinking of creative solutions to problems, and they were better at noticing patterns in the world around them. These findings also indicated that older adults could outperform their younger counterparts on certain problem-solving tasks, as they were able to broaden their attention more easily.
Most people have a tendency to inadvertently reduce focus by multi-tasking. Studies have found that we are not programmed to multi-task. When we do, high cognitive control is disrupted. Reduced focus during multi-tasking does not engage the brain in problem-solving or learning new information. Multi-tasking only disrupts. As people age the ability to multi-task decreases. Perhaps this is another reason why it’s easier for older brains to focus on one task.
What keeps the brain focused is a “brake system” that permits it to slow down and concentrate. It’s located in the right and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), sitting just behind the right and left temple. Author David Rock explained in Psychology Today:
The VLPFC inhibits many types of responses. When you inhibit a motor response, a cognitive response or an emotional response, this region becomes active. It appears that the brain has many different ‘accelerators’, with different parts of the brain involved in language, emotions, movement, and memories. Yet there is only one central braking system used for all types of braking.
Using the VLPFC well correlates to how well you can focus.
The good news is that we don’t have to wait till we’re older to have better focus. One way we can fine tune focus throughout our lives is by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness brings one’s mind to the present using the simplicity of breathing. It helps keep negative thoughts and emotions from overwhelming our thinking and exercises our brake system. Mindfulness meditation is a method of training the mind into focused attention.
Maybe it’s not so bad that aging diminishes our cognitive control while increasing the brain’s ability to focus. Maybe it’s nature’s way of giving us a chance to live in the moment before we check out.