Oct. 2 , 2006

You can teach an old brain new tricks

Study shows that seniors can learn to multi-task

Hamilton, ON - Can’t walk and chew gum at the same time? Chances are you’ve got a problem with multi-tasking, and that problem will likely get worse as you get older.


The good news is that multi-tasking can be re-learned. Researchers at McMaster University have found that seniors, who typically have more difficulty than younger people dividing attention between two or more tasks at a time, can overcome these difficulties with practice. In fact, with practice, seniors can learn to do two tasks at the same time just as well as they can do one of those tasks in isolation.


The study will be published tomorrow in the online edition of the international journal Vision Research.


“Our research essentially shows that you can teach an old brain new tricks,” said Allison Sekuler, professor of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour and a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience. “Before training, our participants had a much harder time multi-tasking than performing one of our tasks on its own. After training, both younger and older participants were able to perform both tasks simultaneously, with no cost in performance.”  Sekuler led the study along with McMaster professor Patrick Bennett and postdoctoral fellow Eric Richards.


The McMaster team tested their subjects on a variant of the Useful Field of View task, originally developed by Sekuler’s father, Prof. Robert Sekuler, and his students. In the task, people are asked to identify a letter flashed quickly in the middle of a computer screen, to localize the position of a spot flashed quickly in the periphery, or to do both tasks at the same time.


Previous research from Sekuler’s and Bennett’s lab showed that older subjects suffered more from having to do both tasks at the same time than did younger subjects. The current study, however, showed that the age-related disadvantage could be removed by giving older subjects more time to do the task. The study also showed that, over the course of about two-weeks of training, both younger and older subjects learned to multi-task as well as they could perform a single task, although older subjects seemed to require more practice to get to that level of learning than did younger subjects. And the benefits of learning were long-lasting – older subjects performed just as well when they were re-tested up to three months later as they had right after training.


Jocelyn Faubert, professor on vision and ageing at the Université de Montréal, and NSERC-Essilor chair on presbyopia and visual perception, says the study is an important one in demonstrating that the elderly can regain youthful capacities.


“They show that training on a task where more than a single element must be processed [divided attention] can improve the performance of the elderly to levels comparable to young adults,” says Faubert. “This is particularly important for naturalistic tasks where the need to simultaneously attend to multiple elements is commonplace such as when someone is moving through crowds in a shopping mall or driving. This generates much hope for systematic interventions in the elderly population in an attempt to increase their quality of life.”


The research was funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Canada Research Chair program.


McMaster University, a world-renowned, research-intensive university, fosters a culture of innovation, and a commitment to discovery and learning in teaching, research and scholarship. Based in Hamilton, the University, one of only four Canadian universities to be listed on the Top 100 universities in the world, has a student population of more than 23,000, and an alumni population of more than 120,000 in 128 countries.