Older People Find it Harder to See the Wood for the Trees

Changes in attention and visual perception are correlated with aging

Milan, Italy, 25 July 2011 
– When looking at a picture of many trees, young people will tend to say: “This is a forest”. However, the older we get, the more likely we are to notice a single tree before seeing the forest. This suggests that the speed at which the brain processes the bigger picture is slower in older people. In a new study published in the July-August issue of Elsevier´s Cortex, researchers have found that these age-related changes are correlated with a specific aspect of visual perception, known as Gestalt perception.

Markus Staudinger, together with Gereon R. Fink, Clare E. Mackey, and Silke Lux, investigated the brain’s ability to focus on the local and global aspects of visual stimuli, in a group of young and elderly healthy subjects. They also studied how this ability is related to Gestalt perception, which is the mind’s tendency to perceive many similar smaller objects as being part of a bigger entity. As expected, older people found it more difficult to concentrate on the global picture, but they also had trouble with the Gestalt principle of Good Continuation – the mind’s preference for continuous shapes.

Participants in the study were shown groups of letters which were arranged in a pattern so that they formed a larger letter (see below), and asked whether a letter appeared on the local or global level. Importantly, the number of small letters forming the pattern was then varied. Usually, the smaller the letters are in the pattern, the easier it is to perceive the larger letter, and this was indeed true for the younger participants in the study. However, varying the number or letters did not help the older people, who remained slower to notice the global figure.

These findings provide the first evidence that changes in attention - meaning, the ability to concentrate on one thing, while ignoring others - and in Gestalt perception are correlated to healthy aging. More generally, they show that there may be age-related changes in different cognitive domains which interact. Furthermore, the results help us understand which specific aspects of visual perception become impaired in healthy aging.


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Notes to Editors
The article is “Gestalt perception and the decline of global precedence in older subjects” by Markus R. Staudinger, Gereon R. Fink, Clare E. Mackay, and Silke Lux, and appears in Cortex, Volume 47, Issue 7 (July 2011)published by Elsevier in Italy. Full text of the article featured above is available to members of the media upon request. Please contact the Elsevier press office,newsroom@elsevier.com. To schedule an interview, contactDrSilke Lux,s.lux@fz-juelich.de.

About Cortex
Cortex is an international journal devoted to the study of cognition and of the relationship between the nervous system and mental processes, particularly as these are reflected in the behavior of patients with acquired brain lesions, normal volunteers, children with typical and atypical development, and in the activation of brain regions and systems as recorded by functional neuroimaging techniques. It was founded in 1964 by Ennio De Renzi. The Editor-in-Chief of Cortex is Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. Fax: 0131 6513230, e-mail: cortex@ed.ac.uk.Cortex is available online at  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00109452.

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a global information analytics company that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare and improve performance for the benefit of humanity. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support, and professional education; including ScienceDirect, Scopus, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, more than 35,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a world-leading provider of information and analytics to professionals and business customers, in a wide range of industries. www.elsevier.com

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