The Pomona College Project on Cognition and Aging investigates changes in cognitive abilities that occur over the adult lifespan.

Our research is carried out by a team of undergraduate and graduate students under the direction of Dr. Deborah Burke. Major funding for this research has been provided by the National Institute on Aging since 1980. Our primary research goal is to increase our understanding of how normal aging affects basic cognitive processes that are fundamental to language and memory. The long-term goal is to develop a theory of cognitive aging that applies to a broad spectrum of cognitive abilities.

On this website, you can find links to our published papers and conference presentations, as well as to some of our stimulus materials. You can meet current members of the lab and obtain information on how to join our panel of research participants, who have generously contributed to our research.


  • Cognitive problems that older adults report as their most frequent or troubling:
    The tip-of-the-tongue experience
  • Everyday practices that may help language production
  • Cognitive processes that are well maintained in old age: Semantic processes
    and emotional regulation

Our research focuses on cognitive problems that older adults report as their most frequent and troubling (for example, tip-of-the-tongue experiences and forgetting proper names) and identifies conditions that exacerbate or reduce these problems. The tip-of-the-tongue experience (or TOT) is the irritating experience of knowing that you know a word but being unable to retrieve the word. In our previous research we demonstrated that TOTs increase during normal aging and we detected an increase in the frequency of TOTs by age 40 years (Burke, MacKay, Worthley & Wade, 1991).

Our further research found that TOTs are caused by difficulty in retrieving the sound of the target word and can be repaired by pronouncing other words that share some of the component sounds of the target word (James & Burke, 2000; Burke, Locantore, Austin & Chae, 2004; Rastle & Burke 1996). In a recent neuroimaging study, we identified a brain region, the insula, where gray matter atrophies with aging and where the degree of atrophy is related to frequency of TOTs. (Shafto, Burke, Stamatakis, Tam & Tyler, 2007). Consistent with our model of TOTs, the insula has been linked to retrieval of word sounds. This research and our model of TOTs predict that daily activities that increase language production should mitigate word-finding failures like TOTs. Using language in ordinary activities like socializing or in games like Scrabble may help keep words accessible and off the tip of the tongue!

We also are interested in why some cognitive processes are well maintained in old age. Semantic processes (for example, vocabulary size and world knowledge) increase during adulthood and semantic processes essential for language comprehension show little difference in young and older adults (Burke & Shafto, 2008; Laver & Burke, 1993; Taylor & Burke, 2002). We have also demonstrated that contrary to negative stereotypes about the elderly, older adults are not more verbose and off-topic in their discourse than young adults. Indeed, we found that both young and older adults rated older adults' discourse about experiences such as a vacation as more interesting and informative and of higher quality than young adults' discourse (James, Burke, Austen & Hulme, 1998).

Recently, we have investigated cognitive processes involved in the regulation of emotion. These processes appear to be well maintained in old age. We have demonstrated that older adults are as efficient as young adults in ignoring irrelevant negative emotional information (Burke, Graham & MacKay, 2007; Osborne, May & Burke, 2006; Osborne, Burke & Clausen, 2006) and that older adults express more positive emotion in generating stories (Rosa & Burke, 2008). An important goal of our research is to understand why older adults' cognitive processes operate so efficiently with emotional material.

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