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Memory Fitness a Guide for Successful Aging-Mantesh

Memory Fitness a Guide for Successful Aging-Mantesh

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So, what happens to our sensitivity to distractions as we get older? As
described in Chapter 2, one prominent theory of aging is that our
ability to keep irrelevant thoughts out of working memory dimin-
ishes as we get older. According to Hasher and Zacks, during normal
cognition we employ an inhibitory mechanism that functions to sup-
press or dampen off-task information; that is, information that is ir-
relevant to our cognitive goals. Consider again listening to a speech in
an auditorium. Presumably, your major goal is to follow the speech

60

WORKING MEMORY AND AVOIDING DISTRACTIONS

and understand it. However, there are all kinds of distractions that
can potentially interfere with your full attention or full processing of
the lecture. Thus, it is quite adaptive to have a properly functioning
inhibitory mechanism that inhibits thoughts that are irrelevant to the
task at hand. A second major function of the inhibitory mechanism is
to clear working memory of no longer useful or relevant information.
This function is also quite important because if you can’t remove
something from working memory that is no longer relevant or is only

WORKING MEMORY AND AVOIDING DISTRACTIONS

61

Speech

Spe

Dinner

Weekend

Working Memory–Younger

Working Memory–Older

Figure 4.1How problems in inhibition can affect one’s functional working memory
capacity.

marginally relevant, this will interfere with full processing of the
speech.6

In summary, the current thinking is that two of the important
functions of this inhibitory mechanism are to prevent irrelevant in-
formation from entering working memory and to delete no longer or
marginally relevant information from working memory. Further, an
impressive body of scientific evidence supports the idea that aging
disrupts the efficient functioning of the inhibitory mechanism such
that older adults are less able to keep off-task thoughts out of working
memory.7

Consider, for example, an experiment by Connelly, Hasher, and
Zacks in which they asked younger and older people to read texts that
were either entirely relevant (control texts) or contained irrelevant
distraction.8

The task in this experiment was to read the passage
aloud, and participants also knew that they would be tested for their
comprehension of the passage. When receiving passages containing
distracting information, they were further told to read only the text in
italics and to ignore distracting material, which appeared in nonitalic
font. Sample passages from this experiment are presented in Demon-
stration 4.2—before going further, try to read them in order to gauge
your own performance. Although all participants were slower in read-
ing the text containing distraction as compared to the control pas-
sage, older participants in particular were slower to read the passage
containing italic text. These results are consistent with the idea that
older adults have difficulty mentally suppressing irrelevant informa-
tion.

A recent study by May also supports the view that aging disrupts
the effective inhibition of irrelevant information. She presented par-
ticipants with a modified version of the Remote Associates Test. As
Figure 4.2 shows, in this task people were presented with sets of three
words and for each set were asked to come up with one word related
to all three words. This type of problem tends to be difficult because
the three words are not obviously related to one another. In order to
discover the relationship among the words, one needs to explore the
less common interpretations of each of the words (hence the name
Remote Associates Test). The interesting aspect of May’s research is

62

WORKING MEMORY AND AVOIDING DISTRACTIONS

Demonstration 4.2 An actual passage from the Connelly,
Hasher, and Zacks study

1. Time yourself as you read this passage.

Control Passage

The car ride was getting bumpy now that George had left the
main road to use the dirt road. He was out of school, not hav-
ing to study during the summer break. He was glad to get out
of the stuffy offices of the archaeology department and get out
into. . . .

2. Now, time yourself as you read the passage below. Read only
the italicized words and try to ignore the others.

Passage with Distraction

The car rideriver was getting bumpyjeepnow that religious
George hadreligious left the main digging tools road to use the
religious dirt road.Hedigging tools river was out ofjeepschool,
not having
digging tools to studydigging tools river during the
summer
jeep religious break. He was jeep river glad todigging
toolsget out of jeepthe stuffy religious officesriver ofreligious
the archaeolgy religious departmentriver jeep and get out
into. . . .

3. If you are like most people, you found the irrelevant words
in the second passage distracting. These tend to slow down
reading and reduce comprehension

Source: S. L. Connelly, L. Hasher, and R. T. Zacks, “Aging and Reading: The Impact of
Distraction,”Psychology and Aging 6 (1991): 533–541.

that she varied whether the words appeared with distraction and the
kind of distraction that was present. Thus, on some trials participants
received only the cue words (the typical form of the Remote Associ-
ates Test). On the irrelevant distraction trials, the distractors rein-
forced the primary interpretation of each word, which would likely
interfere with solving the problem. On other trials, participants re-
ceived relevant distraction or distraction that biased the interpreta-
tion of the cue words in the direction of a meaning that encouraged a

64

WORKING MEMORY AND AVOIDING DISTRACTIONS

Normal Version of the Remote Associates Test
The task is to find the concept that relates all three cue words. As
you can see, this is a difficult task because the unifying concept is
only remotely related to each of the cue words.

Cue words

Solution

ship, outer, crawl

space

Misleading Distraction
As you can see, the distractor items in parentheses bias the domi-
nant interpretation of each of the cue words. Thus, to the extent
that you cannot ignore the distraction, it will be more difficult to
discover the solution.

Cue words

Solution

ship (ocean), outer (inner), crawl (floor)

space

Leading Distraction
In this case, the distractors encourage the relevant interpretaion of
each word for solving the problem. Thus, problems in ignoring
the distraction in this condition should improve performance.
Cue words

Solution

ship (rocket), outer (atmosphere), crawl (attic)

space

Figure 4.2Materials from the Remote Associates Test.

solution to the problem. On these trials, processing of the distractor
information was expected to facilitate discovery of the solution.9
Importantly, all the participants were instructed to ignore the dis-
tracting words
that appeared within parentheses. Thus, to the extent
that people were able to ignore the distraction, they should have been
minimally affected by it. But, if they weren’t able to suppress or in-
hibit the distraction, they should have been either helped or harmed
by the distractor items. The results were entirely in line with Hasher
and Zacks’s theory that aging disrupts inhibitory processes. Specifi-
cally, relative to the control condition, younger adults were mini-
mally affected by the relevant and irrelevant distractors. By contrast,
older adults were more affected by the distractor items such that they
showed substantial decrements in performance with the irrelevant
distractors and marked improvements in performance with the rele-
vant distractors. These results provide further evidence for the exis-
tence of age-related deficits and a diminishing ability to inhibit or
suppress irrelevant information.

Reduce Distraction and Increase Working Memory Capacity

Given that irrelevant and distracting information can take up valu-
able working memory resources, what can you do to minimize these
influences? First, you can eliminate distractions.

Turn off the television or radio in the background.

Go somewhere where you can do your work in a quiet place.

Take care of annoying concerns before you take on a challeng-
ing task. If there is something you are dying to tell a friend or
if the height of your lawn is really bothering you, it is probably
wise to take care of these matters first; otherwise, they are
likely to intrude on your thoughts and occupy your valuable
working memory resources.

In summary, try to minimize the presence of both external and inter-
nal (mental) distractions.

WORKING MEMORY AND AVOIDING DISTRACTIONS

65

Second, research has shown that closing your eyes can help you
disengage from distraction in your visual environment. Some studies
have found that people who close their eyes either during learning or
while trying to remember information improved their performance
by as much as 33 percent over groups in which people had their eyes
open while looking at distracting information. Thus, closing your
eyes may be a relatively simple way of preserving working memory re-
sources for cognitively demanding tasks such as encoding and retriev-
ing.10

Third, effortful actions tend to recruit mental resources and thus
reduce the amount available for thinking and learning. Thus, your
memory of a conversation is likely to be poorer when riding a station-
ary bike or lifting heavy packages. This may be obvious, but research
has also shown that even walking can interfere with learning. Walking
is something that for most of us is relatively automatic, which means
that we have learned it so well that it can be done with minimal work-
ing memory resources. Walking can become effortful, however, such
as when you are walking in a very crowded area where you have to
watch your step or if you may have a physical ailment that makes
walking difficult. Under these conditions, walking can demand
working memory resources and interfere with the effective processing
of information.11

To the extent that walking has become less auto-
matic for you, you may no longer have sufficient working memory
capacity to perform strenuous mental operations while walking. Un-
der these conditions, it is worthwhile to delay important conversa-
tions until you are comfortably seated.

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