The outward changes that come with age are the most obvious. What’s happening in people’s minds is more of a black box. There’s no direct information we have on the content of people’s thoughts without actually asking.
So a group of researchers in Canada and the United States decided to do just that: ask people about their thoughts, and compare the responses given by younger and older adults.
The researchers were especially interested in people’s experiences with mind-wandering. As we age, does our tendency toward mind-wandering change? And does what we actually think about when our minds wander change?
The results of the study suggest that the answer to both of these questions is yes.
For starters, the older adults in the study reported experiencing less mind-wandering overall than the younger adults. Among both younger and older adults, people experiencing more negative emotions and moods also experienced more mind-wandering – which makes sense, considering excessive daydreaming has been linked to a range of mental health conditions.
But where does the mind wander when it wanders? That was the next question the researchers addressed, and once again, the answer appeared to be different for older and younger adults. Younger adults reported having more thoughts that were strange, new or dreamlike, as well as more racing thoughts.
For older adults, the experience of mind-wandering appeared to be more relaxing. They described the content of their thoughts as pleasant, clear and interesting.
These findings echo previous studies showing that older adults are less prone to mind-wandering in laboratory settings (for example, here and here). This principle appears to be true both for intentional mind-wandering and unintentional mind-wandering.
But the latest study specifically looked at people’s experiences of mind-wandering in daily life. In other words, it’s not just in laboratory tests that younger adults are more susceptible to mind-wandering than older ones. In everyday life, too, the mind seems to wander less with age.