With many of us coming up to the one-year mark of being at home due to the pandemic, it can be easy to get caught up in comparing what we did/are still doing during our time at home. Some people seemed to whiz through it and experienced an even greater uptick in productivity without having to deal with the office bureaucracy, and others of us went numb and binged tv; while others of us ran out of things to do and were more bored than ever. If you felt like you couldn’t focus on anything in the same way that you had before the structural changes to your daily life, you aren’t alone!
In fact, the way we experience the pandemic may also have a lot to do with age. Did you notice how older people may have seemed more centered and confident that we’d get through it (eventually)? Some of that was due to life experience, and sometimes the experience of having gone through global events such as WW2--but some of it was just down to how many days on earth their brains had been firing.
Mind wandering can be one of the hardest habits to break, but research from this past February has shown that it’s a trait that may be outgrown. It’s completely natural to daydream and have difficulty concentrating. What we learned from this recent study is that enforcing focus is similar to building up strength in a muscle over time, and that older adults simply don’t experience the amount of mind wandering that youngsters do.
With so many of us focusing on protecting the brain as it ages and anticipating some form of cognitive decline, it seems that the practice of having to focus over an entire lifetime gives older adults an advantage. Think of the grandma who has everything in order in her garden but the college student who can’t keep a plant alive; or the grandpa who keeps his car inwardly and outwardly pristine compared to the middle-aged parent who keeps forgetting to get the oil changed. Consider that older adults have incurred a reputation for being more absentminded than is fair when looking at some of the key points from the current research.
Older adults may have had poorer overall scores on the cognitive function tests than their younger counterparts, but they had better focus, less anxiety, and more motivation. Older adults had less mind-wandering, while the younger adults exhibited restlessness and experienced mind wandering 45% of the time. The older participants reduced that mind wandering to 27%.
The current hypothesis is that older adults are paying closer attention as a result of the adaptations they make, both cognitive and physical, as they age. Older adults have to take more care with their physical surroundings to avoid falls and accidents, and they have to take greater care of their finances, etc., because they rarely have a person to fall back on should a mistake be made in paying the mortgage. Younger adults can afford to mind wander, and young brains have adapted to switch quickly between focuses, even if it is to the detriment of the task at hand.
We could learn a lot from this approach and remember to try not to multi-task as much as we do. Perhaps when we look at the overall slowness of older adults, we should be appreciating the approach their brains have taken to accommodate aging. There is a kind of magic to their deliberate focus that we will all experience one day. Slow and steady wins the race,
Catherine N. Moran, David P. McGovern, Greta Warren, et al. Young and restless, old and focused: Age-differences in mind-wandering frequency and phenomenology.. Psychology and Aging, 2021; DOI: 10.1037/pag0000526