When I first learned about aging in a cognitive psychology course as an undergraduate, it seemed depressing. After college I joined a lab that studied longitudinal change in emotional experience and most of the findings were refreshing. On average, people seem to experience more positive and less negative emotion as they get older and might even be better at regulating emotion. Older adults maintain motivation well into older age, but the focus of that motivation shifts toward satisfying social goals and maximizing well being. The findings were (and to some extent still are) seemingly at odds with quite a bit of research on brain aging, which is mostly a story of decline and loss. Specifically, cognitive neuroscience research suggests that the same brain systems that are essential for emotion regulation are some of the systems that show the steepest declines with age. Dopamine is the primary neural mechanism supporting motivation, and the dopamine system is one of the most well-documented neural systems showing decline with age. According to brain science, older adults should be emotionally dysregulated and unmotivated. According to behavioral science, the opposite is true. As a graduate student, post-doc, and now faculty member I’ve spent the last 15 or so years trying to figure out how any of this possibly makes sense. I’ll share some progress we’ve made using PET imaging to understand how the dopamine system changes with age and some recent experience sampling data on how self-regulation in everyday life (specifically, controlling temptations) might shift as we get older.
Gross Hall, Room 270