Age-related changes in ongoing thought relate to external context and individual cognition

Adam Turnbull*, Giulia L. Poerio, Nerissa SP Ho, Léa M. Martinon, Leigh M. Riby, Feng V. Lin, Elizabeth Jefferies, Jonathan Smallwood

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding how age-related changes in cognition manifest in the real world is an important goal. One means of capturing these changes involves “experience sampling” participant's self-reported thoughts. Research has shown age-related changes in ongoing thought: e.g., older adults have fewer thoughts unrelated to the here-and-now. However, it is currently unclear how these changes reflect cognitive aging or lifestyle changes. 78 younger adults and 35 older adults rated their thought contents along 20 dimensions and the difficulty of their current activity in their daily lives. They also performed cognitive tasks in the laboratory. In a set of exploratory analyses, we found that older adults spent more time thinking positive, wanted thoughts, particularly in demanding contexts, and less time mind wandering about their future selves. Past-related thought related to episodic memory differently in older and younger adults. These findings inform the use of experience sampling to understand cognitive aging.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103226
Number of pages17
JournalConsciousness and cognition
Early online date21 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This project was supported by European Research Council Consolidator awarded to Jonny Smallwood ( WANDERINGMINDS – 646927 ).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Inc.


  • Aging
  • Everyday cognition
  • Mind wandering
  • Ongoing thought

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