Benefits of being distracted


Most people are more easily distracted as they get older. There might be a benefit to that.

Research is finding that greater distractibility and a reduced ability to focus—what scientists call decreased cognitive control—is often associated with greater creativity in problem solving. It also can facilitate learning new information, according to a review of more than 100 studies that was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciencesearlier this month.

“There are things that people learn faster and remember better when they are not exercising careful control over what they’re doing,” says Lynn Hasher, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and senior author of the study. “Younger adults are focused on their goal and they’re missing all this other information.

Reduced cognitive control is generally associated with older people and children. Most of Dr. Hasher’s research has focused on older adults, between the ages of 60 and 75. Some of the studies she reviewed also found a decline in cognitive control in people in their 50s. It isn’t clear how young adults who get easily distracted might differ from others in their same age group.

In one set of experiments, Dr. Hasher and colleagues tested different age groups on face recognition. One group of 20 people was between 16 and 29 years old; the other group, of the same size, was 60 to 79.

The participants were shown faces, on which was written a name that they were told to ignore. In subsequent testing, the older participants performed better at matching the faces and names than the younger ones. The study was published earlier this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

“Older adults are experts at picking up information and using it in new situations to improve their performance,” Dr. Hasher says. “They’re picking up all this information about the behavior of other people and who they are and what they’re saying and doing, which contributes to wisdom.”

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