Are We More Easily Distracted As We Age?


You’re sitting there with seven tabs open on your internet browser. Plus another one for your email. Your phone is also going off — three texts from a friend who has been wanting to catch up. There’s an Instagram notification that someone “liked” that picture you just posted. And you have an incoming message in WhatsApp …

All while trying to get your daily tasks done.

Some people might be able to focus on their task at hand — and filter out distractions. However, research is indicating that as we age — we’re not able to do this as easily — an aging brain is a distracted one.

Even simpler things, things that we may take for granted when we’re younger, like sitting across from your friend and having a conversation at a restaurant, may prove to be difficult to an again brain. Shutting out other conversations and distractions in public spaces becomes less easy as our brains become less able to filter out irrelevant stimuli and hone in on what’s important — like your friend telling you about an amazing opportunity they just received.

Researchers at Brown University and the University of California, Riverside conducted an experiment involving older people and college-age students. Participants were shown a letter and number sequence — and asked to report back only the numbers — while simultaneously disregarding a series of dots that they were presented with. The dots were not stationary — they moved either at random or along a straight line, which makes them more difficult to ignore because your eye’s “instinct” is to follow the motion.

The older participants had a tendency to follow the dots and even learn their motions. College-age participants were more able to ignore the dots and thus focus on the numbers.

Nevertheless, these results do not prove that this will be the case for everyone as they get older. Being distracted more easily doesn’t have to be your reality — your brain is plastic — and can therefore be trained to filter out extraneous stimuli.


In another study, researchers from McGill University and the University of California, San Francisco examined this association between aging and distraction — and investigated ways to help your brain learn to refocus. Both older rats and people were utilized in this research, who were presented with three different sounds, along with a target tone. This target tone was to be identified by participants, while the other sounds were to be ignored. With each improvement, people and animals were given more difficult tasks, with sounds becoming less distinguishable from the others.

After training, both rats and humans showed improvement, as indicated by electrophysiological brain recordings, which showcased how their neural responses to distracting tones decreased.

Of course, ignoring a stimulus or focusing on a task are not sides of the same coin. Older brains can still focus on tasks as well as younger brains — their issue lies in filtering out stimuli irrelevant to the task at hand. However, with training, distractibility can becomes less of a reality — and more of an old habit dropped in favor of a more focused mind.

Younger brains can benefit from this training as well. With today’s fast-paced, technologically driven society, it becomes much easier to allows ourselves to be distracted by all the text messages, emails, and social media posts that our smartphones allow. It’s important to develop the habit of shutting off distractions intentionally — and taking time to be mindful — so that the ability to focus more easily becomes a way of life.

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Tags: 2022 Possibilities

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