Changes in cognition, affect, and brain function combine to promote a shift in the nature of mentation in older adulthood, favoring exploitation of prior knowledge over exploratory search as the starting point for thought and action.
In humans, the exploration versus exploitation trade-off has been extensively studied in young adults. Yet there is growing evidence that the determinants and criteria governing decisions to explore versus exploit are altered over the adult life span, with direct implications for mentation and real-world functioning in later life.
Age-related exploitation biases result from the accumulation of prior knowledge, reduced cognitive control, and a shift toward affective goals. These are accompanied by changes in cortical networks, as well as attention and reward circuits. By incorporating these factors into a unified account, the exploration-to-exploitation shift offers an integrative model of cognitive, affective, and brain aging.
- Exploration- and exploitation-based search processes underlie goal-directed cognition.
- Older adults rely more on exploitation-based search during goal-directed tasks.
- Emergence of an exploitation-biased mental mode is coincident with declining cognitive control, knowledge accumulation, altered motivational drives, and brain network changes in older adulthood.
- The exploitative mental mode hypothesis may offer a more unitary account of mental functions in late-life development.
- The age-related shift in mental mode has both adaptive and maladaptive implications for performance on laboratory-based tasks, as well as real-world functioning in later life.
There is – according to the review – emerging evidence that the shifting architecture of cognition, affect, and brain function leads to the emergence of an exploitation-biased mental mode in later life; one that favors the exploitation of prior knowledge over exploratory search for novel information, solutions, associations, and experiences. This shift in the exploration and exploitation trade-off reflects reduced cognitive control in the context of growing stores (and influence) of prior knowledge, as well as a shift toward affective goals, and parallels age-related changes to cortical brain networks, attention, and reward circuits.
By encapsulating the dual trajectories of aging cognition (reduced control and increased prior knowledge), as well as shifts in affectively driven motivations, age-related changes in the exploitation–exploration trade-off provide a more integrative marker, capturing multiple dimensions of aging mentation in a single behavioral outcome.
More importantly, reframing these changes in cognitive, affective, and brain architectures as resulting in a fundamentally altered mode of mentation, highlights the possibility, perhaps even the probability, that older adults approach all volitional mentation and action from a different starting position than younger adults; one that carries both the weight and the wisdom from decades of lived experience with evidence of both positive and negative outcomes.