Cognitive training for older adults can also change a personality trait

February, 2012

A program designed to improve reasoning ability in older adults also increased their openness to new experiences.

Openness to experience – being flexible and creative, embracing new ideas and taking on challenging intellectual or cultural pursuits – is one of the ‘Big 5’ personality traits. Unlike the other four, it shows some correlation with cognitive abilities. And, like them, openness to experience does tend to decline with age.

However, while there have been many attempts to improve cognitive function in older adults, to date no one has tried to increase openness to experience. Naturally enough, one might think — it’s a personality trait, and we are not inclined to view personality traits as amenable to ‘training’. However, recently there have been some indications that personality traits can be changed, through cognitive interventions or drug treatments. In this new study, a cognitive training program for older adults also produced increases in their openness to experience.

The study involved 183 older adults (aged 60-94; average age 73), who were randomly assigned to a 16-week training program or a waiting-list control group. The program included training in inductive reasoning, and puzzles that relied in part on inductive reasoning. Most of this activity was carried out at home, but there were two 1-hour classroom sessions: one to introduce the inductive reasoning training, and one to discuss strategies for Sudoku and crosswords.

Participants came to the lab each week to hand in materials and pick up the next set. Initially, they were given crossword and Sudoku puzzles with a wide range of difficulty. Subsequently, puzzle sets were matched to each participant’s skill level (assessed from the previous week’s performance). Over the training period, the puzzles became progressively more difficult, with the steps tailored to each individual.

The inductive reasoning training involved learning to recognize novel patterns and use them to solve problems. In ‘basic series problems’, the problems required inference from a serial pattern of words, letters, or numbers. ‘Everyday serial problems’ included problems such as completing a mail order form and answering questions about a bus schedule. Again, the difficulty of the problems increased steadily over the training period.

Participants were asked to spend at least 10 hours a week on program activities, and according to the daily logs they filled in, they spent an average of 11.4 hours a week. In addition to the hopefully inherent enjoyment of the activities, those who recorded 10 hours were recognized on a bulletin board tally sheet and entered into a raffle for a prize.

Cognitive and personality testing took place 4-5 weeks prior to the program starting, and 4-5 weeks after program end. Two smaller assessments also took place during the program, at week 6 and week 12.

At the end of the program, those who had participated had significantly improved their pattern-recognition and problem-solving skills. This improvement went along with a moderate but significant increase in openness. Analysis suggested that this increase in openness occurred independently of improvement in inductive reasoning.

The benefits were specific to inductive reasoning and openness, with no significant effects on divergent thinking, processing speed, verbal ability, or the other Big 5 traits.

The researchers suggest that the carefully stepped training program was important in leading to increased openness, allowing the building of a growing confidence in their reasoning abilities. Openness to experience contributes to engagement and enjoyment in stimulating activity, and has also been linked to better health and decreased mortality risk. It seems likely, then, that increases in openness can be part of a positive feedback cycle, leading to greater and more sustained engagement in mentally stimulating activities.

The corollary is that decreases in openness may lead to declines in cognitive engagement, and then to poorer cognitive function. Indeed it has been previously suggested that openness to experience plays a role in cognitive aging.

Clearly, more research is needed to tease out how far these findings extend to other activities, and the importance of scaffolding (carefully designing cognitive activities on an individualized basis to support learning), but this work reveals an overlooked aspect to the issue of mental stimulation for preventing age-related cognitive decline.

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