Objective: To investigate changes in novelty-seeking behavior (curiosity) associated with normal aging.
Background: Recently, we demonstrated that patients with a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer's disease display diminished novelty-seeking behavior as measured by exploratory eye movements. Nondemented, elderly individuals are often depicted in clinical descriptions as exhibiting diminished curiosity and increased disengagement from their surroundings. However, this behavior has not been systematically investigated as a function of normal aging.
Setting: University hospital center studying aging and dementia.
Subjects: Fourteen active, healthy elderly subjects (mean age, 72 years) and 16 middle-aged subjects (mean age, 42 years) matched for education and estimated IQ.
Measures: Exploratory eye movements were recorded in response to visual stimuli that varied in novelty, complexity, and incongruity.
Results: Both older and middle-aged subjects (1) spent significantly more time exploring the more irregular or incongruous of two simultaneously presented stimuli, (2) spent increasingly less time looking at a repeating visual stimulus paired with a stimulus that changed with each trial, and (3) exhibited the same degree of overall exploration of a visual scene and devoted an approximately equal amount of attention to an unexpected element within it. As a group, older subjects spent slightly less time than middle-aged subjects examining incongruous stimuli. However, 71% (10/14) of older subjects performed within 1 SD of the mean of middle-aged subjects and 21% (3/14) performed as well as the top 50% (8/16) of middle-aged controls.
Conclusions: The drive for curiosity, as measured by exploratory eye movements, can be well preserved in older individuals. Further research is needed to determine if the integrity of this drive can serve as a marker of "successful aging" and to identify which physiological and psychological factors influence its preservation through the life cycle.