Crowded environments reduce spatial memory in older but not younger adults
Previous studies have reported an age-related decline in spatial abilities. However, little is known about whether the presence of other, task-irrelevant stimuli during learning further affects spatial cognition in older adults. Here we embedded virtual environments with moving crowds of virtual human pedestrians (Experiment 1) or objects (Experiment 2) whilst participants learned a route and landmarks embedded along that route. In subsequent test trials we presented clips from the learned route and measured spatial memory using three different tasks: a route direction task (i.e. whether the video clip shown was a repetition or retracing of the learned route); an intersection direction task; and a task involving identity of the next landmark encountered. In both experiments, spatial memory was tested in two separate sessions: first following learning of an empty maze environment and second using a different maze which was populated. Older adults performed worse than younger adults in all tasks. Moreover, the presence of crowds during learning resulted in a cost in performance to the spatial tasks relative to the ‘no crowds’ condition in older adults but not in younger adults. In contrast, crowd distractors did not affect performance on the landmark sequence task. There was no age-related cost on performance with object distractors. These results suggest that crowds of human pedestrians selectively capture older adults’ attention during learning. These findings offer further insights into how spatial memory is affected by the ageing process, particularly in scenarios which are representative of real-world situations.
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