My Ph.D. research explored the costs and benefits of the increased distractibility that is associated with healthy aging. Along with Karen Campbell and Lynn Hasher, my research has demonstrated that distraction from the past can interfere with older adults' learning of new associations (Biss, Campbell, & Hasher, 2013). In my dissertation research, I examined whether healthy older adults’ susceptibility to distraction can be co-opted to help them remember. More specifically, younger and older adults recalled a word-list on immediate and delayed tests; critically, implicit reminders of the memory-list words were presented as distraction in an ostensibly unrelated task during the retention interval (Biss, Ngo, Hasher, Campbell, & Rowe, 2013). We found that  older adults’ forgetting of words that were repeated as distraction was minimized, and this manipulation even eliminated age differences in delayed recall. In other words, we found that age-related decreases in attentional control counterintuitively benefitted older adults’ memory, by helping them to rehearse important information even without their explicit awareness of the rehearsal opportunity.


Given that this effect appears to rely upon implicit memory, such a mechanism may be a promising means to improve memory in clinical populations with explicit memory impairments. I collaborated on research suggesting that implicit memory processes may be enhanced as explicit memory declines among patients with mild memory difficulties (Rowe, Troyer, Murphy, Biss, & Hasher, under review). My postdoctoral research, funded by the Alzheimer's Society of Canada and supervised by Kelly Murphy at Baycrest, explores whether distracting reminders can also serve as a source of rehearsals in older adults with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), a likely precursor to Alzheimer Disease that is characterized by memory impairments greater than expected from one’s age. We are testing whether this method can improve memory for face-name associations for individuals with aMCI, given that forgetting people’s names is a primary memory concern for these patients.


With collaborators at Baycrest and health care and technology organizations (Ontario Telemedicine Network, Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, and AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence) to explore new models of care to help older adults with dementia age at home in the community. We are conducting an umbrella review (a systematic review of systematic reviews) of effective models of care to support people with dementia who live at home and their care partners. We are comparing the level of evidence for the full range of studied interventions, including care partner information and support programs, case management, respite care, physical fitness programs, assistive technologies, and cognitive rehabilitation, in terms of their effect on delaying institutionalization and improving functional ability, cognition, and quality of life.


Colleagues and I at AGE-WELL NCE are interested in developing therapeutic games to improve cognitve and physical fitness for older adults living in an institutional environment (i.e., nursing and long-term care homes).


I am also interested in how positive emotional states influence what we attend to in the environment and how we remember information. In two studies (Biss, Hasher, & Thomas, 2010Biss & Hasher, 2011), we found that younger adults in a positive mood pick up more distracting information from the environment and are able to use this information on future tasks. This is one example of younger adults in positive moods tending to process information in a similar way to older adults. Since older adults generally report being much happier than their younger counterparts, we have also explored how older adults’ more positive affective states may contribute to their increased distractibility (Biss, Weeks, & Hasher, 2012). That is, effects normally attributed to cognitive aging may also be tied to emotional differences between younger and older adults.


It is well-known that most younger adults like to sleep in late, while older adults prefer to wake up early. Some past research has demonstrated that the few morning-type younger adults report feeling happier than their night owl peers. In one study, we explored whether the association between morningness and mood is also true for older adults (Biss & Hasher, 2012). We found that this is indeed the case: Morning-type individuals reported higher positive affect and better subjective health compared to evening-type individuals, and this was true for both young and older adults. We also found that the shift towards earlier time preferences with age partially contributed to older adults' improved moods relative to younger adults. Thus, becoming an early bird as you age may have positive emotional consequences.

Contact me to learn more about my research.


References and Links to Articles

Biss, R. K., Rowe, G., Hasher, L., & Murphy, K. J. (2020). An incidental learning method to improve face-name memory in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. Advance online publication. [abstract]

Roy, S., Svoboda, T., Issacs, B., Budin, R., Sidhu, A., Biss, R. K., Lew, B., & Connelly, J. (2020). Examining the cognitive and mental health related disability rates among the homeless: Policy implications of changing the definition of disability in Ontario. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 61(2), 118–126. [abstract]

Biss, R. K., Rowe, G., Weeks, J. C., Hasher, L., & Murphy, K. J. (2018). Leveraging older adults’ susceptibility to distraction to improve memory for face-name associations. Psychology and Aging , 33, 158-164. [abstract]

Ngo, K. W. J., Biss, R. K., & Hasher, L. (2018). Time of day effects on the use of distraction to minimise forgetting. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 71, 2334-2341. [abstract] [pdf]

Weeks, J. C., Biss, R. K., Murphy, K. J., & Hasher, L. (2016). Face-name learning in older adults: A benefit of hyper-binding. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23, 1559-1565.

Biss, R. K., Ngo, K. W. J., Hasher, L., Campbell, K. L., & Rowe, G. (2013). Distraction can reduce age-related forgetting. Psychological Science, 24, 448-455. [abstract] [pdf]

Biss, R. K., Campbell, K. L., & Hasher, L. (2013). Interference from previous distraction disrupts older adults’ memory. Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 68, 558-561. [abstract] [pdf]

Biss, R. K., & Hasher, L. (2012). Happy as a lark: Morning-type younger and older adults are higher in positive affect. Emotion, 12, 437-441. [abstract] [pdf]

Biss, R. K., Weeks, J. C., & Hasher, L. (2012). Happily distracted: Mood and a benefit of attention dysregulation in older adults. Frontiers in Psychology. 3:399. [abstract] [pdf]

Biss, R. K., & Hasher, L. (2011). Delighted and distracted: Positive affect increases priming for irrelevant information. Emotion, 11, 1474-1478. [abstract] [pdf]

Biss, R. K., Hasher, L., & Thomas, R. C. (2010). Positive mood is associated with the implicit use of distraction. Motivation & Emotion, 34, 73-77. [abstract] [pdf]



March 15, 2013

Des distractions pour aider la mémoire des seniors


March 1, 2013

How Facebook Improves Memory


June 21, 2012

Why Early Birds Smile More


June 27, 2012

University of Toronto sleep study says early birds are happier, healthier

COLLABORATORS (Past & Present)

Karen Campbell, Brock University

Charlene Chu, University of Toronto

Lynn Hasher, University of Toronto & Rotman Research Institute

Guang Ying Mo, Ryerson University

Kelly Murphy, Baycrest Health Sciences & University of Toronto

Kristoffer Romero, University of Windsor

Sylvain Roy, Inner City Family Health Team & York University