Thursday, July 06, 2017

Cognitive control as a double-edged sword.

Amer et al. offer an implicit critique of the attention and resources dedicated to brain-training programs that aim to modify the cognitive performance of older adults to mirror that of younger adults, suggesting that reduced attentional control [on aging] can actually be beneficial in a range of cognitive tasks.
We elaborate on this idea using aging as a model of reduced control, and we propose that the broader scope of attention of older adults is well suited for tasks that rely less on top-down driven goals, and more on intuitive, automatic, and implicit-based learning. These tasks may involve learning statistical patterns and regularities over time, using accrued knowledge and experiences for wise decision-making, and solving problems by generating novel and creative solutions.
We review behavioral and neuroimaging evidence demonstrating that reduced control can enhance the performance of both older and, under some circumstances, younger adults. Using healthy aging as a model, we demonstrate that decreased cognitive control benefits performance on tasks ranging from acquiring and using environmental information to generating creative solutions to problems. Cognitive control is thus a double-edged sword – aiding performance on some tasks when fully engaged, and many others when less engaged.
I pass on the author's comments questioning the usefulness of brain training programs that seek to restore youth-like cognition:
Reduced cognitive control is typically seen as a source of cognitive failure. Brain-training programs, which form a growing multimillion-dollar industry, focus on improving cognitive control to enhance general cognitive function and moderate age-related cognitive decline. While several studies have reported positive training effects in both old and young adults, the efficacy and generalizability of these training programs has been a topic of increasing debate. For example, several reports have demonstrated a lack of far-transfer effects, or general improvement in cognitive function, as a result of cognitive training. In healthy older adults, in particular, a recent meta-analysis (which does not even account for unpublished negative results) showed small to non-existent training effects, depending on the training task and procedure, and other studies demonstrated a lack of maintenance and far-transfer effects. Moreover, even when modest intervention effects are reported, there is no evidence that these improvements influence the rate of cognitive decline over time.
Collectively, these results question whether interventions aimed at restoring youth-like levels of cognitive control in older adults are the best approach. One alternative to training is to take advantage of the natural pattern of cognition of older adults and capitalize on their propensity to process irrelevant information. A recent set of studies demonstrated that distractors can be used to enhance memory for previously or newly learned information in older adults. For example, one study illustrated that, unlike younger adults, older adults show minimal to no forgetting of words they learned on a previous memory task, when those words are presented again as distractors in a delay period between the initial and subsequent, surprise memory task. That is, exposure to distractors in the delay period served as a rehearsal episode to boost memory for previously learned information. Similarly, other studies showed that older adults show better learning for new target information that was previously presented as distraction. In one study, for example, older adults showed enhanced associative memory for faces and names (a task which typically shows large age deficits) when the names were previously presented as distractors on the same faces in an earlier task. Taken together, these findings suggest that greater gains may be made by interventions that capitalize on reduced control by designing environments or applications that enhance learning and memory through presentation of distractors.

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