Is Mind-wandering Less Common in Older Adults?

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We’re all guilty of allowing our thoughts to stray elsewhere when we should be focusing on something. Minor distractions are almost unavoidable.

However, as we age, our minds wander less, and when they do, pleasant thoughts are more likely to divert us than worries, according to a recent study by Matt Welhaf, a postdoctoral researcher in psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study enlisted the participation of 175 young persons aged 18 to 35 and 175 adults aged 60 and up. Subjects were required to complete a basic online assignment, such as pressing the spacebar every time an animal’s name appeared on the screen.

During the task, subjects periodically saw a prompt asking if they were thinking about the task, their performance, or something off-task. If their mind had strayed, they were asked if they were thinking about something negative, positive or neutral.

No Positivity Bias

When compared to older individuals, younger adults were more likely to be thinking about something other than the activity at hand, which is consistent with earlier research. However, this was the first study to investigate the emotional content of wandering thoughts.

Compared to older adults, younger adults reported more passing thoughts that they perceived as negative.

“They might have been thinking, ‘Wow this is so boring, and I have other things to do today’ or ‘I have bills I need to pay,'”

Welhaf suggested.

Older adults, in contrast, were less likely to be distracted by negative thoughts.

“They were more able to focus on what they are supposed to be doing,”

Welhaf said. But when their minds did wander, the thoughts spanned the emotional spectrum.

“There wasn’t a dominant emotional direction to their thoughts, yet, interestingly, older adults were just as likely as younger adults to report positive passing thoughts,”

he said.

Faster Response

This study offers the first evidence that older adults might be able to tune out negative thoughts when performing a task.

“As we age, what we become concerned about changes,”

Welhaf said.

There were signs that the wandering minds of younger adults may have hurt their performance in the experiment. Compared with older adults, the younger participants responded more quickly to the prompts—but they also made more errors.

“Older adults actually performed better overall,”

Welhaf said. They were probably more motivated and concentrated better as a result.

“They were happy to be contributing,”

he said.

The team aims to build on these findings with more research. Welhaf stated that they would like to undertake in-person studies to capture nuances regarding the causes, contents, and repercussions of wandering thoughts that do not appear in online research. In theory, he added, a better knowledge of the path of wandering minds could lead to new strategies to help younger folks refocus their attention away from negative ideas and toward their current work or goals.

  1. Matthew S Welhaf, Jonathan B Banks, Julie M Bugg. Age-Related Differences in Mind Wandering: The Role of Emotional Valence. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 2023;, gbad151, doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbad151