In the 1990s, research led by Lynn Hasher, then at Duke University, identified some stark differences in how older and younger adults interpret narrative passages. They found that when reading passages, older adults form the same inferences that young adults do and when interpretations turn out to be wrong, both groups are able to correct their understanding. However, unlike young adults, older adults do not abandon their first interpretation.
“Older adults seemed to be holding two interpretations in mind when only one was needed,” says Brad Buchsbaum also of the Rotman. “What would prevent older adults from abandoning an interpretation they clearly knew was incorrect?”
These findings led to the development of the Inhibitory Deficit Theory, which, among other ideas, posits that older adults have trouble “deleting” information from memory once it is no longer relevant for current task goals. Buchsbaum and colleagues recently revisited the theory in a new study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Using fMRI and multivoxel pattern analysis, they wanted to examine how memories are selected and inhibited in working memory as people age. They found that indeed older adults retained irrelevant information in their memory longer than the younger participants.
We spoke with Buchsbaum about the origins of the study, its significance for understanding memory performance, and future directions.
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