Aging and the development of automaticity in visual search

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The rate of short-term memory search has previously been reported to be slower for older individuals than for college-age Ss (F. I. Craik, 1977). Current research has suggested that after extensive practice with the same population of stimuli, performance in memory-search and visual-search tasks can become "automatic," or independent of memory load. The present experiment examined age differences in the development of automatic processing in a hybrid memory-search/visual-search paradigm; 8 young (18-25 yrs old) and 8 older (61-74 yrs old) Ss participated. Although older Ss demonstrated a significantly slower rate of search, the 2 age groups shifted toward automatic processing, over practice, at equivalent rates. The slower rate of search thus represents an age-related increase in the time required to compare the memory-set items against those in a visual array, rather than a change in the mode of processing available. (20 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved). © 1980 American Psychological Association.





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Madden, DJ, and RD Nebes (1980). Aging and the development of automaticity in visual search. Developmental Psychology, 16(5). pp. 377–384. 10.1037/0012-1649.16.5.377 Retrieved from

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David Joseph Madden

Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

My research focuses primarily on the cognitive neuroscience of aging: the investigation of age-related changes in perception, attention, and memory, using both behavioral measures and neuroimaging techniques, including positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).

The behavioral measures have focused on reaction time, with the goal of distinguishing age-related changes in specific cognitive abilities from more general effects arising from a slowing in elementary perceptual processes. The cognitive abilities of interest include selective attention as measured in visual search tasks, semantic and episodic memory retrieval, and executive control processes.

The behavioral measures are necessary to define the cognitive abilities of interest, and the neuroimaging techniques help define the functional neuroanatomy of those abilities. The PET and fMRI measures provide information regarding neural activity during cognitive performance. DTI is a recently developed technique that images the structural integrity of white matter. The white matter tracts of the brain provide critical pathways linking the gray matter regions, and thus this work will complement the studies using PET and fMRI that focus on gray matter activation.

A current focus of the research program is the functional connectivity among regions, not only during cognitive task performance but also during rest. These latter measures, referred to as intrinsic functional connectivity, are beginning to show promise as an index of overall brain functional efficiency, which can be assessed without the implementation of a specific cognitive task. From DTI, information can be obtained regarding how anatomical connectivity constrains intrinsic functional connectivity. It will be important to determine the relative influence of white matter pathway integrity, intrinsic functional connectivity, and task-related functional connectivity, as mediators of age-related differences in behavioral measures of cognitive performance.

Ultimately, the research program can help link age-related changes in cognitive performance to changes in the structure and function of specific neural systems. The results also have implications for clinical translation, in terms of the identification of neural biomarkers for the diagnosis of neural pathology and targeting rehabilitation procedures.

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