PUMPING IRONY: An Attraction to Distraction

Geezers are prone to distraction, but new research suggests that we can learn to improve our focus. At least I think that’s what I read. . . .

You may have missed an article in the latest issue of the journal Neuron reporting some groundbreaking research into geezer distractibility, which apparently is sort of a given among people my age and older. I would’ve missed it, too, except that I was particularly focused yesterday on searching for research that would explain why my attention span has receded at a rate comparable to that of my hairline.

I’m apparently not alone. The older we get, the Neuron piece reminds us, the harder it is to ignore distractions. Something having to do with the aging process, I suspect; I didn’t make it through the whole article.

Wandering Mind

What I did glean, before my attention shifted to the dishes left over from breakfast, was that researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, now believe that geezers like me can learn to ignore distractions by training the brain to discriminate more effectively between sounds.

I’d try to explain their approach in layman’s terms, but just now I needed to check on the Packers-Vikings score. Going back to the article and trying to parse all the scientific verbiage and make it accessible is a bit out of my league now that I’m wondering whether I should head downstairs and catch the second half. So here’s the deal, straight from the press release. Think of it as a distractibility test:

“The investigators used sounds at various frequencies as targets and distractors, with the goal of having trainees focus on the target frequencies while ignoring the distractor frequencies. In both aged rats and older humans, trainees implicitly learned to identify the target tone in each training session through reinforcement feedback, and then they had to continue to correctly identify that target tone amidst progressively more challenging distractor frequencies. Distractor frequencies were progressively made more similar to the target after trainees made correct discriminations, or they were made more dissimilar after incorrect discriminations. All the while, the target frequency was kept constant.”

How did you do? Did you make it through the whole thing? Vikings lost, by the way.

Anyway, the upshot of the study was that the sound-recognition training resulted in fewer “distraction-related errors” and improved memory and attention spans among the participants. I’m not at all sure, however, that it would work for me, given that I already have a hearing problem (tinnitus) that prevents me from distinguishing between various sound frequencies as well as the various levels of importance My Lovely Wife attaches to whatever she might be telling me at any particular moment.

Which, of course, begs a question that eluded me just a moment ago as I was checking email: Could it be that the cicadas in my ears are the real source of my distractibility? That would certainly be a problem, as tinnitus is pretty much incurable. Or is it? Maybe I’ll do a little research. Right after I feed the cats.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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