Scientists from the University of Cambridge have shown, using a program, which demonstrates how our thinking patterns diverge as we age. Young people tend to respond to events in a similar way, whereas older people get easily distracted, as reported in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.

How Thinking Changes With Age: Brain After Age 40

As we age, neural networking and brain responses change. However, previous studies examining these changes have used artificial experiments and basic stimuli.

First author Dr Karen Campbell from the Department of Psychology, explained that the process of aging results in a decline in attentiveness, resulting in shorter concentration spans as compared to young adults. This is why older adults interpret to a variety of stimuli and are more likely to understand everyday situations differently as compared to younger individuals.

To encourage a wide range of audiences to respond to television programs and movies similarly (shared experiences), cinematographers and directors use various techniques to focus attention on a central item. If the stimulus is less engaging, a character talking monotonously, a decreased overlap in neural patterns are observed. This suggests that a stimulus needs to be captivating enough to draw the audience’s attention. However, simply attracting the audience is not enough – maintaining focus or at least limiting attention to specific information is extremely relevant.

The Study: Investigating The Effects Of Age On Thinking Patterns

Researchers at the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) investigated how people respond to intricate, life-like stimuli. They enrolled 218 participants between the ages of 18 and 88 who were shown an edited episode from the Hitchcock TV series. Brain activity was measured via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Results revealed that young people exhibited surprisingly similar patterns of thinking. Their brains ‘lit-up’ in identical ways and at identical points while watching the program. However, it was seen that this similarity disappeared in older subjects – the thought processes became idiosyncratic and more distracted.

Scientists observed the most significant differences in the ‘higher order’ frontal regions of the brain that controls attention (superior frontal lobe and intraparietal sulcus) and language processing (bilateral middle temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus).

Drawing Inferences

The results indicate that our responses to daily life events differ with age, possibly attributable to an altered attention span.

Moreover, Dr Campbell and colleagues argue that the changes exhibited in brain activity of older adults indicate an altered ability to control attention, since attentional capture to environmental stimulus is known to remain relatively consistent with age. This corroborates previous researches claiming that older individuals remember material and emotional content better.

“We know that regions at the front of the brain are responsible for maintaining our attention – the areas demonstrating greatest structural changes as we age – and these changes are being reflected in our study. However, there might be benefits to this distractibility – attending to lots of different information could help with creativity”, explained Dr Campbell.