Distraction learning?

Latest research throws light on how a simple technique can aid older people remember their errands

Reminder ribbon

Our brains are so evolved that we learn even through distraction. New research is using this technique to help forgetful elders remember important things like making a phone call or posting a mail. Scientists at Baycrest Health Sciences' Rotman Research Institute [RRI] and the University of Toronto's Psychology Department helped seniors perform as well as younger adults in memory tests using this technique. Distraction learning may sound like an oxymoron, but recent studies have established that older brains are capable of processing irrelevant and relevant information in the environment, without conscious effort, to improve memory.

"Older brains may be doing something very adaptive with distraction to compensate for weakening memory," said Renée Biss, lead investigator and PhD student. "In our study we asked whether distraction can be used to foster memory-boosting rehearsal for older adults. The answer is yes!"

"To eliminate age-related forgetfulness across three consecutive memory experiments and help older adults perform like younger adults is dramatic and to our knowledge a totally unique finding," said Lynn Hasher, senior scientist on the study and a leading authority in attention and inhibitory functioning in younger and older adults. "Poor regulation of attention by older adults may actually have some benefits for memory."

The study, published online in Psychological Science, can help design better learning strategies for the mature, older students and helping old-age homes set up proper visual distraction cues throughout the building to serve as reminders of an upcoming appointment or medications to take. The elders may not consciously notice these signs but their forgetfulness would certainly drop with the signs being around.

How the study was conducted

In three experiments, the research team at University of Toronto studied a group of young adults [aged 17– 27] along with some healthy older adults [aged 60 – 78]. Both sets of people were asked to refer and then recall a list of words after a short delay and again, on a surprise test, after a 15-minute delay. During the delay, all of them did a very simple attention task on pictures. But half of both sets were shown the words from the list although the task was actually about pictures not words. Among the youngsters, the words as a distraction in the picture task did not affect the ability to recall the words. But for the elderly participants, the distraction of words in the picture task improved their ability to recall the words by 30 per cent over those who were not shown the words as a distraction.

"Our findings point to exciting possibilities for using strategically-placed relevant distraction as memory aids for older adults – whether it's in classroom, at home or in a long term care environment," said Biss.

Even as older adults watch television or play a game on a tablet, helping them remember their goals [such as remembering to make a phone call or send a holiday card] could be as simple as running a stream of reminders across the bottom of their tablet or TV.

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