As we age, we tend to look more fondly on the world and on our memories, but does that mean we can’t detect threat?
While a great deal of research indicates that older individuals tend to focus on pleasurable or non-threatening aspects of experience and memories, it is unclear whether this means they are less able to recognize threating behaviors in other individuals. This is what Drs. Mara Mather and Marisa Knight sought to determine in a 2006 article.
This question tries to get at even deeper questions as to how the brain processes threatening information. Because our threat detection is mediated by the brain’s amygdala, perhaps this functions less effectively as we age. Alternatively, this may be due to “strategic processing” where older individuals’ brains use positive inclinations to better process information.
In order to critically evaluate this question, both young and older participants were recruited for an experimental study, asking preliminary questions to confirm that the older participants did tend to experience a more positive affect. Each participant was then exposed to a selection of nine facial images.
Half of the participants were only shown neutral faces, while another half had one emotional expression mixed into these neutral faces. Some of these treatment faces were threatening, but others were sad or friendly. After being exposed to the treatment, each individual was asked to identify whether the face appeared to be threatening.
Contrary to some of the theoretical expectations, age seemed to make no impact on accurate identification. They were also able to recognize threatening faces more quickly, confirming previous research, but age did not seem to make a difference here.
So, what does this tell us about our ability to detect threat? And more specifically, how does this help us do so?
First, it tells us that threat detection is a very fundamental underlying process in our brains. While a great deal of cognitive processes change as we age, it is notable that this one does not seem to.
Second, the almost instantaneous nature of threat detection not only underscores its fundamental role but also gives us practical tips on how to detect threat. Just like facial recognition, our brain automatically processes faces and gives us certain intuitions.
However, while it is good to trust these intuitions, they might not always be accurate. Our brains are pretty incredible, but they are not infallible. This is a great reason to get real, professional training to teach our brain what to look for. This can make an already incredible skill even more formidable!