Age-related changes in the temporal focus and self-referential content of spontaneous cognition during periods of low cognitive demand

19 September 2019

An intriguing aspect of human cognition is the unique capacity to mentally retreat from our immediate surroundings to consider perspectives distinct from the here and now. Despite increasing interest in this phenomenon, relatively little is known regarding age-related changes in off-task, self-generated thought (often referred to as “mind-wandering”), particularly under conditions of low cognitive demand. While a number of studies have investigated the temporal orientation of mind-wandering with increasing age, findings have been largely inconsistent. Here, we explored the frequency, temporal focus, and self-referential/social content of spontaneous task-unrelated, perceptually-decoupled thought in 30 young and 33 healthy older adults using the Shape Expectations task, a validated experimental paradigm in which discrete facets of inner mentation are quantified along a conceptual continuum using open-ended report. Participants also completed the daydreaming subscale of the Imaginal Process Inventory (IPI) as a trait measure of mind-wandering propensity. Significant group differences emerged on the Shape Expectations task, with reduced instances of mind-wandering in the context of elevated task-related thoughts in older relative to younger adults. In terms of temporal focus, a preponderance of present/atemporal off-task thoughts was evident irrespective of group; however, significantly higher levels of future-oriented thoughts were provided by younger adults, contrasting with significantly higher instances of retrospection in the older group. In addition, older adults displayed significantly fewer incidences of self-referential cognition relative to their younger counterparts. Our findings indicate a distinct attenuation of off-task, self-generated thought processes with increasing age, with evidence for a shift in temporal focus and self-referential quality, during periods of low cognitive demand.