Emma V. Ward and David R. Shanks
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Please check back later for the full article.
It is well documented that explicit (declarative, conscious) memory declines in normal aging. Studies have shown a progressive reduction in this form of memory with age, and healthy older adults (typically aged 65+ years) usually perform worse than younger adults (typically aged 18–30 years) on laboratory tests of explicit memory such as recall and recognition. In contrast, it is less clear whether implicit (procedural, unconscious) memory declines or remains stable in normal aging. Implicit memory is evident when previous experiences affect (e.g., facilitate) performance on tasks that do not require conscious recollection of those experiences. This can manifest in rehearsed motor skills, such as playing a musical instrument, but is typically indexed in the laboratory by the greater ease with which previously studied information is processed relative to non-studied information (e.g., repetition-priming). While a vast amount of research has accumulated to suggest that implicit memory remains relatively stable over the adult life span and is similar in samples of young and older adults, other studies have, in contrast, revealed that implicit memory is subject to age-related decline. Improving methods for determining whether implicit memory declines or remains stable with age is an important goal for future research, as the conclusion not only holds fundamental implications for an aging society, but can also inform our theoretical understating of human memory systems.
DeMond M. Grant and Evan J. White
Cognitive control is the ability to direct attention and cognitive resources toward achieving one’s goals. However, research indicates that anxiety biases multiple cognitive processes, including cognitive control. This occurs in part because anxiety leads to excessive processing of threatening stimuli at the expense of ongoing activities. This enhanced processing of threat interferes with several cognitive processes, which includes how individuals view and respond to their environment. Specifically, research indicates that anxious individuals devote their attention toward threat when considering both early, automatic processes and later, sustained attention. In addition, anxiety has negative effects on working memory, which involves the ability to hold and manipulate information in one’s consciousness. Anxiety has been found to decrease the resources necessary for effective working memory performance, as well as increase the likelihood of negative information entering working memory. Finally, anxiety is characterized by focusing excessive attention on mistakes, and there is also a reduction in the cognitive control resources necessary to correct behavior. Enhancing our knowledge of how anxiety affects cognitive control has broad implications for understanding the development of anxiety disorders, as well as emerging treatments for these conditions.
Erica H. Wojcik, Irene de la Cruz-Pavía, and Janet F. Werker
Language is a structured form of communication that is unique to humans. Within the first few years of life, typically developing children can understand and produce full sentences in their native language or languages. For centuries, philosophers, psychologists, and linguists have debated how we acquire language with such ease and speed. Central to this debate has been whether the learning process is driven by innate capacities or information in the environment. In the field of psychology, researchers have moved beyond this dichotomy to examine how perceptual and cognitive biases may guide input-driven learning and how these biases may change with experience. There is evidence that this integration permeates the learning and development of all aspects of language—from sounds (phonology), to the meanings of words (lexical-semantics), to the forms of words and the structure of sentences (morphosyntax). For example, in the area of phonology, newborns’ bias to attend to speech over other signals facilitates early learning of the prosodic and phonemic properties of their native language(s). In the area of lexical-semantics, infants’ bias to attend to novelty aids in mapping new words to their referents. In morphosyntax, infants’ sensitivity to vowels, repetition, and phrase edges guides statistical learning. In each of these areas, too, new biases come into play throughout development, as infants gain more knowledge about their native language(s).
Markus Wettstein, Hans-Werner Wahl, and Michael Schwenk
When referring to life space, researchers usually mean the area in which individuals move in their everyday lives. Life space can be measured based on different approaches, by means of self-reports (i.e., questionnaires or diaries) or by more recent approaches of technology-based objective assessment (e.g., via Global Positioning System [GPS] devices or smartphones). Life space is an important indicator of older adults’ out-of-home mobility and is meaningfully associated with autonomy, well-being, and quality of life. Substantial relationships between life space and socio-demographic indicators, health, and cognitive abilities have been reported in previous research. Future research on life space in old age will benefit from a more comprehensive and stronger interdisciplinary perspective, from taking into account different time scales (i.e., short- and long-term variability), and from considering life space as a multidimensional measure that can be best assessed based on multi-method approaches with multiple indicators.
Nicole D. Anderson
Healthy aging is accompanied by decrements in episodic memory and working memory. Significant efforts have therefore been made to augment episodic and working memory in healthy older adults. Two principal approaches toward memory rehabilitation adults are restorative approaches and compensatory approaches. Restorative approaches aim to repair the affected memory processes by repeated, adaptive practice (i.e., the trained task becomes more difficult as participants improve), and have focused on recollection training, associative memory training, object-location memory training, and working memory training. The majority of these restorative approaches have been proved to be efficacious, that is, participants improve on the trained task, and there is considerable evidence for maintenance of training effects weeks or months after the intervention is discontinued. Transfer of restorative training approaches has been more elusive and appears limited to other tasks relying on the same domains or processes. Compensatory approaches to memory strive to bypass the impairment by teaching people mnemonic and lifestyle strategies to bolster memory performance. Specific mnemonic strategy training approaches as well as multimodal compensatory approaches that combine strategy training with counseling about other factors that affect memory (e.g., memory self-efficacy, relaxation, exercise, and cognitive and social engagement) have demonstrated that older adults can learn new mnemonics and implement them to the benefit of memory performance, and can adjust their views and expectations about their memory to better cope with the changes that occur during healthy aging. Future work should focus on identifying the personal characteristics that predict who will benefit from training and on developing objective measures of the impact of memory rehabilitation on older adults’ everyday functioning.
Christopher Hertzog and Taylor Curley
Metamemory is defined as cognitions about memory and related processes. Related terms in the literature include metacognition, self-evaluation, memory self-efficacy, executive function, self-regulation, cognitive control, and strategic behavior. Metamemory is a multidimensional construct that includes knowledge about how memory works, beliefs about memory (including beliefs about one’s own memory such as memory self-efficacy), monitoring of memory and related processes and products, and metacognitive control, in which adaptive changes in processing approaches and strategies may be contemplated if monitoring of memory processes (encoding, retention, retrieval) indicates that alternative strategies may be required. Older adults generally believe that their memory has declined and that, on average, they have less control over memory and lower memory self-efficacy than young and middle-aged adults. Many but not all aspects of online memory monitoring are well preserved in old age, such as the ability to discriminate between information that has been learned versus not learned. A major exception concerns confidence judgments concerning whether recognition memory decisions are correct; older adults are more prone to high-confidence memory errors, believing they are recognizing something they have not encountered previously. The evidence regarding metacognitive control is more mixed, with some hints that older adults do not use monitoring to adjust control behaviors (e.g., devoting more time and effort to studying items they believe have not yet been well-learned). However, any age deficits in self-regulation based on memory monitoring or adaptive strategy use can probably be addressed through instructions, practice, or training. In general, older adults seem capable of exerting metacognitive control in memory studies, although they may not necessarily do so without explicit support or prompting.
Scott P. Johnson
Visual scenes tend to be very complex: a multitude of overlapping surfaces varying in shape, color, texture, and depth relative to the observer. Yet most observers effortlessly perceive that the visual environment is composed of distinct objects, laid out across space, each with a particular shape that can be inferred from partial views and incomplete information. Moreover, observers generally expect objects to be continuous across space and time, to have a certain shape, and to be solid in three-dimensional (3D) space. The cortical visual system processes information for objects first by coding visual features, then by linking features into units, and last by interpretation of units as objects that may be recognizable or otherwise relevant to the observer. This way of conceptualizing object perception maps roughly onto processes of lower-, middle-, and higher-level visual processing that have long formed the basis for investigations of visual perception in adults, as well as theories of object perception, the ways visual deprivation reduces object perception skills, and the developmental time course of object perception in infancy.
Patrick D. Gajewski and Michael Falkenstein
Healthy aging is associated with changes in sensory, motor, cognitive, and emotional functions. Such changes depend on various factors. In particular, physical activity not only improves physical and motor but also cognitive and emotional functions. Observational (i.e., associations) and cross-sectional studies generally show a positive effect of regular physical exercise on cognition in older adults. Most longitudinal randomized controlled intervention studies also show positive effects, but the results are inconsistent due to large heterogeneity of methodological setups. Positive changes accompanying physical activity mainly impact executive functions, memory functions, and processing speed. Several factors influence the impact of physical activity on cognition, mainly the type and format of the activity. Strength training and aerobic training yield comparable but also differential benefits, and all should be used in physical activities. Also, a combination of physical activity with cognitive activity appears to enhance its effect on cognition in older age. Hence, such combined training approaches are preferable to homogeneous trainings. Studies of brain physiology changes due to physical activity show general as well as specific effects on certain brain structures and functions, particularly in the frontal cortex and the hippocampus, which are those areas most affected by advanced age. Physical activity also appears to improve cognition in patients with mild cognitive dysfunction and dementia and often ameliorates the disease symptoms. This makes physical training an important intervention for those groups of older people.
Apart from cognition, physical activity leads to improvement of emotional functions. Exercise can lead to improvement of psychological well-being in older adults. Most importantly, exercise appears to reduce symptoms of depression in seniors. In future intervention studies it should be clarified who profits most from physical activity. Further, the conditions that influence the cognitive and emotional benefits older people derive from physical activity should be investigated in more detail. Finally, measures of brain activity that can be easily applied should be included as far as possible.
Jennifer L. Etnier
There is substantial interest in identifying the behavioral means by which to improve cognitive performance. Recent research and commercial ventures have focused on cognitive training interventions, but evidence suggests that the effects of these programs are small and task-specific. Researchers have also shown interest in exploring the potential benefits of physical activity for cognitive performance. Because the effects of physical activity have been found to be small to moderate and to be more global in nature, interest in physical activity has been growing over the past several decades. Evidence regarding the efficacy of physical activity is provided through cross-sectional studies, longitudinal prospective studies, and randomized controlled trials. When reviewed meta-analytically, small-to-moderate beneficial effects are reported for children, adults, older adults, and cognitively impaired older adults, and these effects are evident for a wide range of cognitive domains, including executive function, memory, and information processing. Researchers are currently focused on identifying the mechanisms of these effects. Most of this research has been conducted using animal models, but there is a growing body of literature with humans. From this evidence, there is support for the role of changes in cerebral structure, hippocampal perfusion, and growth factors in explaining the observed benefits. Thus far, however, the literature is quite sparse, and future research is needed to clarify our understanding of the mechanisms that provide the causal link between physical activity and cognitive performance. Research is also focused on understanding how to increase the benefits by potentially combining cognitive training with physical activity and by identifying the genetic moderators of the effects. These lines of work are designed to elucidate ways of increasing the magnitude of the benefits that can be obtained. At this point in time, the evidence with respect to the potential of physical activity for benefiting cognitive performance is quite promising, but it is critical that funding agencies commit their support to the continued exploration necessary to allow us to ultimately be able to prescribe physical activity to specific individuals with the express purpose of improving cognition.
Jiaying Zhao and Brandon M. Tomm
Scarcity is the condition of having insufficient resources to cope with demands. This condition presents significant challenges to the human cognitive system. For example, having limited financial resources requires the meticulous calculation of expenses with respect to a budget. Likewise, having limited time requires the stringent management of schedules with respect to a deadline. As such, scarcity consumes cognitive resources such as attention, working memory, and executive control and elicits a range of systematic and even counter-productive cognitive and behavioral responses as a result. Specifically, scarcity induces an attentional focus on the problem at hand, which facilitates performance by enhancing cognitive processing of information relevant to the problem, increasing the efficiency of resource use, and stabilizing the perception of value. Such prioritization of the problem at hand may seem advantageous, but it can produce undesirable consequences. For example, scarcity causes myopic and impulsive behavior, prioritizing short-term gains over long-term gains. Ironically, scarcity can also result in a failure to notice beneficial information in the environment that alleviates the condition of scarcity. More detrimentally, scarcity directly impairs cognitive function, which can lead to suboptimal decisions and choices that exacerbate the condition of scarcity. Thus, scarcity means not only a shortage of physical resources (e.g., money or time) but also a deficit of cognitive resources (e.g., attention, executive control). The cognitive deficits under scarcity are particularly problematic because they impair performance and lead to counter-productive behaviors that deepen the cycle of scarcity. In addition, people under financial scarcity suffer from stigmas and stereotypes associated with poverty. These social perceptions of poverty further burden the mind by consuming cognitive resources, weakening performance in the poor. Understanding the cognitive and behavioral responses to scarcity provides new insights into why the poor remain poor, identifying the psychological causes of scarcity, and illuminating potential interventions to stop the cycle of scarcity. These insights have important implications for the design and the implementation of policies and services targeting the populations under scarcity.