Where there is a forest, older people only see one tree

Age-related changes are correlated with a specific aspect of visual perception, a new study published in the Elsevier´s Cortex July-August issue says.

The team of scientists – Markus Staudinger, 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,what is commonly known as Gestalt perception, the mind’s tendency to perceive many similar smaller objects as being part of a bigger entity.

They took two different groups of subjects, by age: young and elderly healthy subjects. 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.

The older we get, the more likely we are the speed at which our brain processes the bigger picture gets slower and slower.  The example used in the study is that of two men, of different age – one in his youth, the other already an elder – looking at the same picture, a panorama with many trees. The young man will see a forest in the picture, while the older one is more likely to see a single tree only, before seeing the forest.

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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