Lost ability to automatize task performance in old age.


  • Maquestiaux François
  • Didierjean André
  • Ruthruff Eric
  • Chauvel Guillaume
  • Hartley Alan

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Can elderly adults automatize a new task? To address this question, 10 older adults each performed 10,080 training trials over 12 sessions on an easy but novel task. The psychological refractory period (PRP) procedure was then used to evaluate whether this highly practiced task, when presented as task 2 along with an unpracticed task 1, could proceed automatically. If automatic, task 2 processing should bypass the bottleneck and, therefore, not be delayed while central attention is devoted to task 1, yielding little dual-task interference. This is exactly what Maquestiaux, Laguë-Beauvais, Ruthruff, and Bherer (Memory and Cognition 36:1262-1282, 2008) previously observed for almost all younger adults, even with half the training on a more difficult task. Although extensive training reduced older adults' reaction times to only 307 ms, a value virtually identical to that attained by Maquestiaux et al.'s (Memory and Cognition 36:1262-1282, 2008) younger adults, the highly practiced task 2 was slowed by 485 ms in the dual-task PRP procedure. Such a large slowing in older adults is striking given the easy tasks and massive amounts of practice. These findings demonstrate a qualitative change with age, in which older adults lose the ability to automatize novel tasks, which cannot be attributed merely to generalized cognitive slowing.

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