attention problems

Video games and impaired attention: a vicious circle

April, 2012

A large, long-running study suggests both that children with attention difficulties tend to spend more time playing video games, and that extensive video game playing is bad for attention.

A three-year study involving 3,034 Singaporean children and adolescents (aged 8-17) has found that those who spent more time playing video games subsequently had more attention problems, even when earlier attention problems, sex, age, race, and socioeconomic status were statistically controlled. Those who were more impulsive or had more attention problems subsequently spent more time playing video games, even when initial video game playing was statistically controlled. These findings suggest that the cause-effect relationship between video game playing and attention problems/impulsiveness goes both ways.

While the particular content may have an effect on attention problems and impulsiveness (violent games appeared to be an additional, independent, factor in attention problems), it was the total time spent that was more important.

Participants completed questionnaires about their video game playing habits annually for three years running. They also completed questionnaires aimed to measure attention and impulsiveness (the Current ADHD Symptoms Scale Self-Report, and the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale-11, respectively). Regarding attention, the children answered questions such as how often they "fail to give close attention to details or make careless mistakes" in their work or "blurt out answers before questions have been completed." For the impulsivity test, they selected points they felt described themselves, such as "I often make things worse because I act without thinking" or "I concentrate easily."

How does this finding relate to other evidence showing that playing video games can improve visual attention for rapid and accurate recognition of information from the environment? The answer lies in the different nature of attention — the attention needed for visual search differs in important ways from the attention necessary for sustained concentration in contexts that are often effortful and/or boring.

The example of many attention-challenged individuals makes this more understandable. Many parents of children with ADHD find that the only thing their child can concentrate on for a lengthy period is video games. The answer to that riddle is the rapidly changing nature of video games, and the way they are designed to grab the attention, with flashing lights and loud noises and moving images etc. The young person is not, therefore, improving their ability to focus in a way that is helpful for the school environment, or indeed for everyday life.

Unfortunately, this study suggests that it is precisely those people who are most in need of such ‘external supports’ for attention (‘grabbing’ stimuli such as lights and sounds and movement) — that is, those individuals who are least able to control their own attention — who are most likely to spend a lot of time playing such games. The games then weaken their attentional control even more, and so the cycle continues.

So this research answers the question ADHD parents tend to have: should I encourage my child to play video games a lot (given that it’s the only thing that holds their attention) or not? The answer, unfortunately, would seem to be: not. However, all is not lost. There are computer ‘games’ that are designed to help those with ADHD learn to concentrate in a way that is more useful (see the Topic collection on ADHD for more on this).

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one hour per day of total media screen time (including TV, DVDs, video games, Internet, iPad, etc.) for children in elementary school, and two hours for children in secondary school.

Reference: 

Gentile, D.A., Swing, E.L., Lim, C.G. & Khoo, A. 2012. Video game playing, attention problems, and impulsiveness: Evidence of bidirectional causality. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Vol 1(1), Jan 2012, 62-70. doi: 10.1037/a0026969

Full text available at http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/ppm-1-1-62.pdf

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How family circumstance impacts learning and memory in children

February, 2012

A large study shows the impact of having multiple family disadvantages on cognitive development. A brain scan study finds childhood maltreatment significantly reduces the size of the hippocampus, while another finds parental care can increase it.

Quarter of British children performing poorly due to family disadvantage

A British study involving over 18,000 very young children (aged 9 months to 5 years) has found that those exposed to two or more “disadvantages” (28% of the children) were significantly more likely to have impaired intellectual development, expressed in a significantly reduced vocabulary and behavioral problems.

These differences were significant at three, and for the most part tended to widen between ages three or five (cognitive development, hyperactivity, peer problems and prosocial behaviors; the gap didn’t change for emotional problems, and narrowed for conduct problems). However, only the narrowing of the conduct problem gap and the widening of the peer problem gap was statistically significant.

Ten disadvantages were identified: living in overcrowded housing; having a teenage mother; having one or more parents with depression, parent with a physical disability; parent with low basic skills; maternal smoking during pregnancy; excessive alcohol intake; financial stress, unemployment; domestic violence..

Around 41% of the children did not face any of these disadvantages, and 30% faced only one of these disadvantages. Of those facing two or more, half of those (14%) only had two, while 7% of the total group experienced three risk factors, and fewer than 2% had five or more.

There was no dominant combination of risks, but parental depression was the most common factor (19%), followed by parental disability (15%). Violence was present in only 4% of families, and both parents unemployed in only 5.5%. While there was some correlation between various risk factors, these correlations were relatively modest for the most part. The highest correlations were between unemployment and disability; violence and depression; unemployment and overcrowding.

There were ethnic differences in rate: at 48%, Bangladeshi children were most likely to be exposed to multiple disadvantages, followed by Pakistani families (34%), other (including mixed) (33%), black African (31%), black Caribbean (29%), white (28%) and Indian (20%).

There were also differences depending on family income. Among those in the lowest income band (below £10,400 pa) — into which 21% of the families fell, the same proportion as is found nationally — nearly half had at least two risk factors, compared to 27% of those in families above this threshold. Moreover, children in families with multiple risk factors plus low income showed the lowest cognitive development (as measured by vocabulary).

Childhood maltreatment reduces size of hippocampus

In this context, it is interesting to note a recent finding that three key areas of the hippocampus were significantly smaller in adults who had experienced maltreatment in childhood. In this study, brain scans were taken of nearly 200 young adults (18-25), of whom 46% reported no childhood adversity and 16% reported three or more forms of maltreatment. Maltreatment was most commonly physical and verbal abuse from parents, but also included corporal punishment, sexual abuse and witnessing domestic violence.

Reduced volume in specific hippocampus regions (dentate gyrus, cornu ammonis, presubiculum and subiculum) was still evident after such confounding factors as a history of depression or PTSD were taken into account. The findings support the theory that early stress affects the development of subregions in the hippocampus.

While mother’s nurturing grows the hippocampus

Supporting this, another study, involving 92 children aged 7 to 10 who had participated in an earlier study of preschool depression, has found that those children who received a lot of nurturing from their parent (generally mother) developed a larger hippocampus than those who didn’t.

‘Nurturing’ was assessed in a videotaped interaction at the time of the preschool study. In this interaction, the parent performed a task while the child waited for her to finish so they could open an attractive gift. How the parent dealt with this common scenario — the degree to which they helped the child through the stress — was evaluated by independent raters.

Brain scans revealed that children who had been nurtured had a significantly larger hippocampus than those whose mothers were not as nurturing, and (this was the surprising bit), this effect was greater among the healthy, non-depressed children. Among this group, those with a nurturing parent had hippocampi which were on average almost 10% larger than those whose parent had not been as nurturing.

Reference: 

First study:
Sabates, R., Dex, S., Sabates, R., & Dex, S. (2012). Multiple risk factors in young children’s development. CLS Cohort Studies Working paper 2012/1.
Full text available at http://www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/news.aspx?itemid=1661&itemTitle=More+than+one+i...

Second study:
[2741] Teicher, M. H., Anderson C. M., & Polcari A.
(2012).  Childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced volume in the hippocampal subfields CA3, dentate gyrus, and subiculum.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/02/07/1115396109.abstract?sid=f73...

Third study:
[2734] Luby, J. L., Barch D. M., Belden A., Gaffrey M. S., Tillman R., Babb C., et al.
(2012).  Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Poverty-related stress affects cognitive ability

November, 2011

Stress in the lives of young children from low-income homes negatively affects their executive function and IQ, and these associations are mediated through parenting behavior and household risk.

The study involved 1,292 children followed from birth, whose cortisol levels were assessed at 7, 15, and 24 months. Three tests related to executive functions were given at age 3. Measures of parenting quality (maternal sensitivity, detachment, intrusiveness, positive regard, negative regard, and animation, during interaction with the child) and household environment (household crowding, safety and noise levels) were assessed during the home visits.

Earlier studies have indicated that a poor environment in and of itself is stressful to children, and is associated with increased cortisol levels. Interestingly, in one Mexican study, preschool children in poor homes participating in a conditional cash transfer scheme showed reduced cortisol levels.

This study found that children in lower-income homes received less positive parenting and had higher levels of cortisol in their first two years than children in slightly better-off homes. Higher levels of cortisol were associated with lower levels of executive function abilities, and to a lesser extent IQ, at 3 years.

African American children were more affected than White children on every measure. Cortisol levels were significantly higher; executive function and IQ significantly lower; ratings of positive parenting significantly lower and ratings of negative parenting significantly higher. Maternal education was significantly lower, poverty greater, homes more crowded and less safe.

The model derived from this data shows executive function negatively predicted by cortisol, while the effect on IQ is marginal. However, both executive function and IQ are predicted by negative parenting, positive parenting, and household risk (although this last variable has a greater effect on IQ than executive function). Neither executive function nor IQ was directly predicted by maternal education, ethnicity, or poverty level. Cortisol level was inversely related to positive parenting, but was not directly related to negative parenting or household risk.

Indirectly (according to this best-fit model), poverty was related to executive function through negative parenting; maternal education was related to executive function through negative parenting and to a lesser extent positive parenting; both poverty and maternal education were related to IQ through positive parenting, negative parenting, and household risk; African American ethnicity was related to executive function through negative parenting and positive parenting, and to IQ through negative parenting, positive parenting, and household risk. Cortisol levels were higher in African American children and this was unrelated to poverty level or maternal education.

Executive function (which includes working memory, inhibitory control, and attention shifting) is vital for self-regulation and central to early academic achievement. A link between cortisol level and executive function has previously been shown in preschool children, as well as adults. The association partly reflects the fact that stress hormone levels affect synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions are carried out. This is not to say that this is the only brain region so affected, but it is an especially sensitive one. Chronic levels of stress alter the stress response systems in ways that impair flexible regulation.

What is important about this study is this association between stress level and cognitive ability at an early age, that the effect of parenting on cortisol is associated with positive aspects rather than negative ones, and that the association between poverty and cognitive ability is mediated by both cortisol and parenting behavior — both positive and negative aspects.

A final word should be made on the subject of the higher cortisol levels in African Americans. Because of the lack of high-income African Americans in the sample (a reflection of the participating communities), it wasn’t possible to directly test whether the effect is accounted for by poverty. So this remains a possibility. It is also possible that there is some genetic difference. But it also might reflect other sources of stress, such as that relating to prejudice and stereotype threat.

Based on mother’s ethnic status, 58% of the families were Caucasian and 42% African American. Two-thirds of the participants had an income-to-need ratio (estimated total household income divided by the 2005 federal poverty threshold adjusted for number of household members) less than 200% of poverty. Just over half of the mothers weren’t married, and most of them (89%) had never been married. The home visits at 7, 15, and 24 months lasted at least an hour, and include a videotaped free play or puzzle completion interaction between mother and child. Cortisol samples were taken prior to an emotion challenge task, and 20 minutes and 40 minutes after peak emotional arousal.

Long-term genetic effects of childhood environment

The long-term effects of getting off to a poor start are deeper than you might believe. A DNA study of forty 45-year-old males in a long-running UK study has found clear differences in gene methylation between those who experienced either very high or very low standards of living as children or adults (methylation of a gene at a significant point in the DNA reduces the activity of the gene). More than twice as many methylation differences were associated with the combined effect of the wealth, housing conditions and occupation of parents (that is, early upbringing) than were associated with the current socio-economic circumstances in adulthood (1252 differences as opposed to 545).

The findings may explain why the health disadvantages known to be associated with low socio-economic position can remain for life, despite later improvement in living conditions. The methylation profiles associated with childhood family living conditions were clustered together in large stretches of DNA, which suggests that a well-defined epigenetic pattern is linked to early socio-economic environment. Adult diseases known to be associated with early life disadvantage include coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and respiratory disorders.

Reference: 

[2589] Blair, C., Granger D. A., Willoughby M., Mills-Koonce R., Cox M., Greenberg M. T., et al.
(2011).  Salivary Cortisol Mediates Effects of Poverty and Parenting on Executive Functions in Early Childhood.
Child Development. no - no.

Fernald, L. C., & Gunnar, M. R. (2009). Poverty-alleviation program participation and salivary cortisol in very low-income children. Social Science and Medicine, 68, 2180–2189.

[2590] Borghol, N., Suderman M., McArdle W., Racine A., Hallett M., Pembrey M., et al.
(2011).  Associations with early-life socio-economic position in adult DNA methylation.
International Journal of Epidemiology.

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High levels of city pollution linked to brain damage in children

November, 2011
  • A small Mexican study provides more evidence for the negative effect of pollution on developing brains, with cognitive impairment linked to reduced white matter in specific regions.

In yet another study of the effects of pollution on growing brains, it has been found that children who grew up in Mexico City (known for its very high pollution levels) performed significantly worse on cognitive tests than those from Polotitlán, a city with a strong air quality rating.

The study involved 30 children aged 7 or 8, of whom 20 came from Mexico City, and 10 from Polotitlán. Those ten served as controls to the Mexico City group, of whom 10 had white matter hyperintensities in their brains, and 10 had not. Regardless of the presence of lesions, MC children were found to have significantly smaller white matter volumes in right parietal and bilateral temporal regions. Such reduced volumes were correlated with poorer performance on a variety of cognitive tests, especially those relating to attention, working memory, and learning.

It’s suggested that exposure to air pollution disturbs normal brain development, resulting in cognitive deficits.

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Dealing with math anxiety

November, 2011

A new study shows that some math-anxious students can overcome performance deficits through their ability to control their negative responses. The finding indicates that interventions should focus on anticipatory cognitive control.

Math-anxiety can greatly lower performance on math problems, but just because you suffer from math-anxiety doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to perform badly. A study involving 28 college students has found that some of the students anxious about math performed better than other math-anxious students, and such performance differences were associated with differences in brain activity.

Math-anxious students who performed well showed increased activity in fronto-parietal regions of the brain prior to doing math problems — that is, in preparation for it. Those students who activated these regions got an average 83% of the problems correct, compared to 88% for students with low math anxiety, and 68% for math-anxious students who didn’t activate these regions. (Students with low anxiety didn’t activate them either.)

The fronto-parietal regions activated included the inferior frontal junction, inferior parietal lobule, and left anterior inferior frontal gyrus — regions involved in cognitive control and reappraisal of negative emotional responses (e.g. task-shifting and inhibiting inappropriate responses). Such anticipatory activity in the fronto-parietal region correlated with activity in the dorsomedial caudate, nucleus accumbens, and left hippocampus during math activity. These sub-cortical regions (regions deep within the brain, beneath the cortex) are important for coordinating task demands and motivational factors during the execution of a task. In particular, the dorsomedial caudate and hippocampus are highly interconnected and thought to form a circuit important for flexible, on-line processing. In contrast, performance was not affected by activity in ‘emotional’ regions, such as the amygdala, insula, and hypothalamus.

In other words, what’s important is not your level of anxiety, but your ability to prepare yourself for it, and control your responses. What this suggests is that the best way of dealing with math anxiety is to learn how to control negative emotional responses to math, rather than trying to get rid of them.

Given that cognitive control and emotional regulation are slow to mature, it also suggests that these effects are greater among younger students.

The findings are consistent with a theory that anxiety hinders cognitive performance by limiting the ability to shift attention and inhibit irrelevant/distracting information.

Note that students in the two groups (high and low anxiety) did not differ in working memory capacity or in general levels of anxiety.

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Aging - specific failures

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Failing recall not an inevitable consequence of aging

New research suggests age-related cognitive decay may not be inevitable. Tests of 36 adults with an average age of 75 years found that about one out of four had managed to avoid memory decline. Those adults who still had high frontal lobe function had memory skills “every bit as sharp as a group of college students in their early 20s." (But note that most of those older adults who participated were highly educated – some were retired academics). The study also found that this frontal lobe decline so common in older adults is associated with an increased susceptibility to false memories – hence the difficulty often experienced by older people in recalling whether they took a scheduled dose of medication.

The research was presented on August 8 at the American Psychological Association meeting in Toronto.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-08/wuis-fmf080703.php

Older adults better at forgetting negative images

It seems that this general tendency, to remember the good, and let the bad fade, gets stronger as we age. Following recent research suggesting that older people tend to regulate their emotions more effectively than younger people, by maintaining positive feelings and lowering negative feelings, researchers examined age differences in recall of positive, negative and neutral images of people, animals, nature scenes and inanimate objects. The first study tested 144 participants aged 18-29, 41-53 and 65-80. Older adults recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and neutral images. For the older adults, recognition memory also decreased for negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults remembered the negative pictures better. Preliminary brain research suggests that in older adults, the amygdala is activated equally to positive and negative images, whereas in younger adults, it is activated more to negative images. This suggests that older adults encode less information about negative images, which in turn would diminish recall.

Charles, S.T., Mather, M. & Carstensen, L.L. 2003. Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132(2), 310-24.

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Inattention, not hyperactivity, is associated with educational failure

October, 2011

A large, long-running study reveals that academic achievement for those with ADHD is hindered by attention problems not hyperactivity.

Data from parents and teachers of 2000 randomly selected children has revealed that only 29% of children with attention problems finished high school compared to 89% of children without such problems. When it came to hyperactivity, the difference was smaller: 40% versus 77%. After taking account of factors such as socioeconomic status and health issues that are correlated with ADHD, inattention was still a highly significant contributor, but hyperactivity was not.

Yearly assessments of the children were taken from age 6 to 12, and high school graduation status was obtained from official records. Attention problems were evaluated by teachers on the basis of behavior such as an inability to concentrate, absentmindedness, or a tendency to give up or be easily distracted. Hyperactivity was identified by behavior such as restlessness, running around, squirming and being fidgety.

The researchers make the excellent point that those with attention difficulties are often forgotten because, unlike hyperactive children, they don't disturb the class.

The findings point to the need to distinguish inattention and hyperactivity, and to provide early preventive intervention for attention problems.

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Attention

See separate pages for

Attention problems

Attention training

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Attention is more about reducing the noticeability of the unattended

No visual scene can be processed in one fell swoop — we piece it together from the bits we pay attention to (which explains why we sometimes miss objects completely, and can’t understood how we could have missed them when we finally notice them). We know that paying attention to something increases the firing rate of neurons tuned for that type of stimulus, and until a recent study we thought that was the main process underlying our improved perception when we focus on something. However a macaque study has found that the main cause — perhaps four times as important — is a reduction in the background noise, allowing the information coming in to be much more noticeable.

[1093] Mitchell, J. F., Sundberg K. A., & Reynolds J. H.
(2009).  Spatial Attention Decorrelates Intrinsic Activity Fluctuations in Macaque Area V4.
Neuron. 63(6), 879 - 888.

http://esciencenews.com/articles/2009/09/23/rising.above.din

Brainwaves regulate our searching

A long-standing question concerns how we search complex visual scenes. For example, when you enter a crowded room, how do you go about searching for your friends? Now a monkey study reveals that visual attention jumps sequentially from point to point, shifting focus around 25 times in a second. Intriguingly, and unexpectedly, it seems this timing is determined by brainwaves. The finding connects speed of thinking with the oscillation frequency of brainwaves, giving a new significance to brainwaves (whose function is rather mysterious, but of increasing interest to researchers), and also suggesting an innovative approach to improving attention.

[1118] Buschman, T. J., & Miller E. K.
(2009).  Serial, Covert Shifts of Attention during Visual Search Are Reflected by the Frontal Eye Fields and Correlated with Population Oscillations.
Neuron. 63(3), 386 - 396.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-08/miot-tme080609.php

Ability to ignore distraction most important for attention

Confirming an earlier study, a series of four experiments involving 84 students has found that students with high working memory capacity were noticeably better able to ignore distractions and stay focused on their tasks. The findings provide more evidence that the poor attentional capacity of individuals with low working memory capacity result from a reduced ability to ignore attentional capture (stimuli that involuntarily “capture” your attention, like a loud noise or a suddenly appearing object), rather than an inability to focus.

[828] Fukuda, K., & Vogel E. K.
(2009).  Human Variation in Overriding Attentional Capture.
J. Neurosci.. 29(27), 8726 - 8733.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-08/uoo-bbo080609.php

Stress disrupts task-switching, but the brain can bounce back

A new neuroimaging study involving 20 male M.D. candidates in the middle of preparing for their board exams has found that they had a harder time shifting their attention from one task to another after a month of stress than other healthy young men who were not under stress. The finding replicates what has been found in rat studies, and similarly correlates with impaired function in an area of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in attention. However, the brains recovered their function within a month of the end of the stressful period.

[829] Liston, C., McEwen B. S., & Casey B. J.
(2009).  Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106(3), 912 - 917.

Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/106/3/912.abstract
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-01/ru-sdh012709.php

Attention, it’s all about connecting

An imaging study in which volunteers spent an hour identifying letters that flashed on a screen has shed light on what happens when our attention wanders. Reduced communication in the ventral fronto-parietal network, critical for attention, was found to predict slower response times 5-8 seconds before the letters were presented.

Daniel Weissman presented the results at the 38th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, held Nov. 15 to 19 in Washington, DC.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20026865.600-bored-your-brain-is-disconnecting.html

The importance of acetylcholine

A rat study suggests that acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter known to be important for attention, is critical for "feature binding"— the process by which our brain combines all of the specific features of an object and gives us a complete and unified picture of it. The findings may lead to improved therapies and treatments for a variety of attention and memory disorders.

[1265] Botly, L. C. P. [1], & De Rosa E.
(2008).  A Cross-Species Investigation of Acetylcholine, Attention, and Feature Binding.
Psychological Science. 19, 1185 - 1193.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-11/afps-bba111808.php

Attention grabbers snatch lion's share of visual memory

It’s long been thought that when we look at a visually "busy" scene, we are only able to store a very limited number of objects in our visual short-term or working memory. For some time, this figure was believed to be four or five objects, but a recent report suggested it could be as low as two. However, a new study reveals that although it might not be large, it’s more flexible than we thought. Rather than being restricted to a limited number of objects, it can be shared out across the whole image, with more memory allocated for objects of interest and less for background detail. What’s of interest might be something we’ve previously decided on (i.e., we’re searching for), or something that grabs our attention.  Eye movements also reveal how brief our visual memory is, and that what our eyes are looking at isn’t necessarily what we’re ‘seeing’ — when people were asked to look at objects in a particular sequence, but the final object disappeared before their eyes moved on to it, it was found that the observers could more accurately recall the location of the object that they were about to look at than the one that they had just been looking at.

[1398] Bays, P. M., & Husain M.
(2008).  Dynamic shifts of limited working memory resources in human vision.
Science (New York, N.Y.). 321(5890), 851 - 854.

http://www.physorg.com/news137337380.html

How Ritalin works to focus attention

Ritalin has been widely used for decades to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but until now the mechanism of how it works hasn’t been well understood. Now a rat study has found that Ritalin, in low doses, fine-tunes the functioning of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, and has little effect elsewhere in the brain. It appears that Ritalin dramatically increases the sensitivity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex to signals coming from the hippocampus. However, in higher doses, PFC neurons stopped responding to incoming information, impairing cognition. Low doses also reinforced coordinated activity of neurons, and weakened activity that wasn't well coordinated. All of this suggests that Ritalin strengthens dominant and important signals within the PFC, while lessening weaker signals that may act as distractors.

[663] Devilbiss, D. M., & Berridge C. W.
(2008).  Cognition-Enhancing Doses of Methylphenidate Preferentially Increase Prefrontal Cortex Neuronal Responsiveness.
Biological Psychiatry. 64(7), 626 - 635.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-06/uow-suh062408.php

Disentangling attention

A new study provides more evidence that the ability to deliberately focus your attention is physically separate in the brain from the part that helps you filter out distraction. The study trained monkeys to take attention tests on a video screen in return for a treat of apple juice. When the monkeys voluntarily concentrated (‘top-down’ attention), the prefrontal cortex was active, but when something distracting grabbed their attention (‘bottom-up’ attention), the parietal cortex became active. The electrical activity in these two areas vibrated in synchrony as they signaled each other, but top-down attention involved synchrony that was stronger in the lower-frequencies and bottom-up attention involved higher frequencies. These findings may help us develop treatments for attention disorders.

[1071] Buschman, T. J., & Miller E. K.
(2007).  Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up Control of Attention in the Prefrontal and Posterior Parietal Cortices.
Science. 315(5820), 1860 - 1862.

http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2007/03/29/attention_hea.html?category=health

Asymmetrical brains let fish multitask

A fish study provides support for a theory that lateralized brains allow animals to better handle multiple activities, explaining why vertebrate brains evolved to function asymmetrically. The minnow study found that nonlateralized minnows were as good as those bred to be lateralized (enabling it to favor one or other eye) at catching shrimp. However, when the minnows also had to look out for a sunfish (a minnow predator), the nonlateralized minnows took nearly twice as long to catch 10 shrimp as the lateralized fish.

[737] Dadda, M., & Bisazza A.
(2006).  Does brain asymmetry allow efficient performance of simultaneous tasks?.
Animal Behaviour. 72(3), 523 - 529.

http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2006/623/2?etoc

Why are uniforms uniform? Because color helps us track objects

Laboratory tests have revealed that humans can pay attention to only 3 objects at a time. Yet there are instances in the real world — for example, in watching a soccer match — when we certainly think we are paying attention to more than 3 objects. Are we wrong? No. Anew study shows how we do it — it’s all in the color coding. People can focus on more than three items at a time if those items share a common color. But, logically enough, no more than 3 color sets.

[927] Halberda, J., Sires S. F., & Feigenson L.
(2006).  Multiple spatially overlapping sets can be enumerated in parallel.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 17(7), 572 - 576.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-06/jhu-wau062106.php

An advantage of age

A study comparing the ability of young and older adults to indicate which direction a set of bars moved across a computer screen has found that although younger participants were faster when the bars were small or low in contrast, when the bars were large and high in contrast, the older people were faster. The results suggest that the ability of one neuron to inhibit another is reduced as we age (inhibition helps us find objects within clutter, but makes it hard to see the clutter itself). The loss of inhibition as we age has previously been seen in connection with cognition and speech studies, and is reflected in our greater inability to tune out distraction as we age. Now we see the same process in vision.

[1356] Betts, L. R., Taylor C. P., Sekuler A. B., & Bennett P. J.
(2005).  Aging Reduces Center-Surround Antagonism in Visual Motion Processing.
Neuron. 45(3), 361 - 366.

http://psychology.plebius.org/article.htm?article=739
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-02/mu-opg020305.php

We weren't made to multitask

A new imaging study supports the view that we can’t perform two tasks at once, rather, the tasks must wait their turn — queuing up for their turn at processing.

[1070] Jiang, Y., Saxe R., & Kanwisher N.
(2004).  Functional magnetic resonance imaging provides new constraints on theories of the psychological refractory period.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 15(6), 390 - 396.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-06/aps-wwm060704.php

More light shed on memory encoding

Anything we perceive contains a huge amount of sensory information. How do we decide what bits to process? New research has identified brain cells that streamline and simplify sensory information, markedly reducing the brain's workload. The study found that when monkeys were taught to remember clip art pictures, their brains reduced the level of detail by sorting the pictures into categories for recall, such as images that contained "people," "buildings," "flowers," and "animals." The categorizing cells were found in the hippocampus. As humans do, different monkeys categorized items in different ways, selecting different aspects of the same stimulus image, most likely reflecting different histories, strategies, and expectations residing within individual hippocampal networks.

[662] Hampson, R. E., Pons T. P., Stanford T. R., & Deadwyler S. A.
(2004).  Categorization in the monkey hippocampus: A possible mechanism for encoding information into memory.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 101(9), 3184 - 3189.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-02/wfub-nfo022604.php

Neural circuits that control eye movements play crucial role in visual attention

Everyone agrees that to improve your memory it is important to “pay attention”. Unfortunately, noone really knows how to improve our ability to “pay attention”. An important step in telling us how visual attention works was recently made in a study that looked at the brain circuits that control eye movements. It appears that those brain circuits that program eye movements also govern whether the myriad signals that pour in from the locations where the eyes could move should be amplified or suppressed. It appears that the very act of preparing to move the eye to a particular location can cause an amplification (or suppression) of signals from that area. This is possible because humans and primates can attend to something without moving their eyes to that object.

[741] Moore, T., & Armstrong K. M.
(2003).  Selective gating of visual signals by microstimulation of frontal cortex.
Nature. 421(6921), 370 - 373.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-01/pu-ssh012303.php

Different aspects of attention located in different parts of the brain

We all know attention is important, but we’ve never been sure exactly what it is. Recent research suggests there’s good reason for this – attention appears to be multi-faceted, far less simple than originally conceived. Patients with specific lesions in the frontal lobes and other parts of the brain have provided evidence that different types of attentional problems are associated with injuries in different parts of the brain, suggesting that attention is not, as has been thought, a global process. The researchers have found evidence for at least three distinct processes, each located in different parts of the frontal lobes. These are: (1) a system that helps us maintain a general state of readiness to respond, in the superior medial frontal regions; (2) a system that sets our threshold for responding to an external stimulus, in the left dorsolateral region; and (3) a system that helps us selectively attend to appropriate stimuli, in the right dorsolateral region.

[260] Stuss, D. T., Binns M. A., Murphy K. J., & Alexander M. P.
(2002).  Dissociations within the anterior attentional system: effects of task complexity and irrelevant information on reaction time speed and accuracy.
Neuropsychology. 16(4), 500 - 513.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-10/apa-pda100702.php

tags memworks: 

tags problems: 

tags strategies: 

Multitasking

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Improving your multitasking skills

Teaching older brains to regain youthful skills

Researchers have succeeded in training seniors to multitask at the same level as younger adults. Over the course of two weeks, both younger and older subjects learned to identify a letter flashed quickly in the middle of a computer screen and simultaneously localize the position of a spot flashed quickly in the periphery as well as they could perform either task on its own. The older adults did take longer than the younger adults to reach the same level of performance, but they did reach it.

[571] Richards, E., Bennett P. J., & Sekuler A. B.
(2006).  Age related differences in learning with the useful field of view.
Vision Research. 46(25), 4217 - 4231.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-10/mu-yct100206.php

Age and individual differences

Teen's ability to multi-task develops late in adolescence

A study involving adolescents between 9 and 20 years old has found that the ability to multi-task continues to develop through adolescence. The ability to use recall-guided action to remember single pieces of spatial information (such as looking at the location of a dot on a computer screen, then, after a delay, indicating where the dot had been) developed until ages 11 to 12, while the ability to remember multiple units of information in the correct sequence developed until ages 13 to 15. Tasks in which participants had to search for hidden items in a manner requiring a high level of multi-tasking and strategic thinking continued to develop until ages 16 to 17. "These findings have important implications for parents and teachers who might expect too much in the way of strategic or self-organized thinking, especially from older teenagers."

[547] Luciana, M., Conklin H. M., Hooper C. J., & Yarger R. S.
(2005).  The Development of Nonverbal Working Memory and Executive Control Processes in Adolescents.
Child Development. 76(3), 697 - 712.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-05/sfri-tat051205.php

About multitasking

Stress disrupts task-switching, but the brain can bounce back

A new neuroimaging study involving 20 male M.D. candidates in the middle of preparing for their board exams has found that they had a harder time shifting their attention from one task to another after a month of stress than other healthy young men who were not under stress. The finding replicates what has been found in rat studies, and similarly correlates with impaired function in an area of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in attention. However, the brains recovered their function within a month of the end of the stressful period.

[829] Liston, C., McEwen B. S., & Casey B. J.
(2009).  Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106(3), 912 - 917.

Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/106/3/912.abstract
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-01/ru-sdh012709.php

Asymmetrical brains let fish multitask

A fish study provides support for a theory that lateralized brains allow animals to better handle multiple activities, explaining why vertebrate brains evolved to function asymmetrically. The minnow study found that nonlateralized minnows were as good as those bred to be lateralized (enabling it to favor one or other eye) at catching shrimp. However, when the minnows also had to look out for a sunfish (a minnow predator), the nonlateralized minnows took nearly twice as long to catch 10 shrimp as the lateralized fish.

[737] Dadda, M., & Bisazza A.
(2006).  Does brain asymmetry allow efficient performance of simultaneous tasks?.
Animal Behaviour. 72(3), 523 - 529.

http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2006/623/2?etoc

How much can your mind keep track of?

A recent study has tried a new take on measuring how much a person can keep track of. It's difficult to measure the limits of processing capacity because most people automatically break down large complex problems into small, manageable chunks. To keep people from doing this, therefore, researchers created problems the test subjects wouldn’t be familiar with. 30 academics were presented with incomplete verbal descriptions of statistical interactions between fictitious variables, with an accompanying set of graphs that represented the interactions. It was found that, as the problems got more complex, participants performed less well and were less confident. They were significantly less able to accurately solve the problems involving four-way interactions than the ones involving three-way interactions, and were completely incapable of solving problems with five-way interactions. The researchers concluded that we cannot process more than four variables at a time (and at that, four is a strain).

[415] Halford, G. S., Baker R., McCredden J. E., & Bain J. D.
(2005).  How many variables can humans process?.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 16(1), 70 - 76.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-03/aps-hmc030805.php

We weren't made to multitask

A new imaging study supports the view that we can’t perform two tasks at once, rather, the tasks must wait their turn — queuing up for their turn at processing.

[1070] Jiang, Y., Saxe R., & Kanwisher N.
(2004).  Functional magnetic resonance imaging provides new constraints on theories of the psychological refractory period.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 15(6), 390 - 396.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-06/aps-wwm060704.php

Why multitasking is a problem

Talking, walking and driving with cell phone users

Another cellphone-multitasking study! Compared with people walking alone, in pairs, or listening to their ipod, cell phone users were the group most prone to oblivious behavior: only 25% of them noticed a unicycling clown passing them on the street, compared to 51% of single individuals, 61% of music player users, and 71% of people in pairs. In fact, cell phone users even had problems walking — walking more slowly, changing direction more often, being prone to weaving, and acknowledging other people more rarely.

Hyman, I.E.Jr, Boss, S. M., Wise, B. M., McKenzie, K. E., & Caggiano, J. M. (2009). Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9999(9999), n/a. doi: 10.1002/acp.1638.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-10/w-tuc101909.php

Chronic media multitasking correlated with poor attention

Media multitasking — keeping tabs on email, texts, IM chat, the web — is routine among young people in particular. We know that humans can’t really multitask very successfully — that what we do is switch tracks, and every time we do that there’s a cost, in terms of your efficiency at the task. But what about long-term costs of chronic multitasking? A study that selected 19 students who multitasked the most and 22 who multitasked least, from a pool of 262 students, found those who multitasked least performed better on three cognitive tests that are thought to reflect ability to ignore distracting information, ability to organize things in working memory, and ability to switch between tasks. The findings can’t answer whether chronic media multitasking reduces these abilities, or whether people who are poor at these skills are more likely to succumb to chronic media multitasking, but they do demonstrate that chronic media multitasking is associated with this particular information processing style.

[890] Ophir, E., Nass C., & Wagner A. D.
(2009).  From the Cover: Cognitive control in media multitaskers.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106(37), 15583 - 15587.

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/multitasking/

Cell phone ringtones can pose major distraction, impair recall

Cell phones ringing during a concert is not simply irritating. It appears that in a classroom, a cell phone left to ring for 30 seconds significantly affected the students’ recall for the information presented just prior to and during the ringing. The effect was even greater when the phone’s owner rummaged frantically through her bag. Ringtones that are popular songs were even greater distractions. However, with repeated trials, people could be trained to reduce the negative effects; being warned about the distracting effects also helped people be less affected.

[1299] Shelton, J. T., Elliott E. M., Eaves S. D., & Exner A. L.
(2009).  The distracting effects of a ringing cell phone: An investigation of the laboratory and the classroom setting.
Journal of Environmental Psychology. 29(4), 513 - 521.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-06/wuis-cpr060209.php

Police with higher multitasking abilities less likely to shoot unarmed persons

In a study in which police officers watched a video of an officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of the officer before participating in a computer-based simulation where they were required to make split-second decisions whether to shoot or not to shoot someone, based on slides showing a person holding either a gun or a harmless object like a cell phone, it was found that among those more stressed by the video, those with a lower working memory capacity were more likely to shoot unarmed people. Working memory capacity was not a significant factor for those who did not show heightened negative emotionality in response to the video.

[739] Kleider, H. M., Parrott D. J., & King T. Z.
(2009).  Shooting behaviour: How working memory and negative emotionality influence police officer shoot decisions.
Applied Cognitive Psychology. 9999(9999), n/a - n/a.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-03/gsu-pwh033009.php

Switchboard in the brain helps us learn and remember at the same time

It’s very common that we are required to both process new information while simultaneously recalling old information, as in conversation we are paying attention to what the other person is saying while preparing our own reply. A new study confirms what has been theorized: that there is a bottleneck in our memory system preventing us from doing both simultaneously. Moreover, the study provides evidence that a specific region in the left prefrontal cortex can resolve the bottleneck, possibly by allowing rapid switching between learning and remembering. This is supported by earlier findings that patients with damage to this area have problems in rapidly adapting to new situations and tend to persevere in old rules. The same region is also affected in older adults.

[1355] Huijbers, W., Pennartz C. M., Cabeza R., & Daselaar S. M.
(2009).  When Learning and Remembering Compete: A Functional MRI Study.
PLoS Biol. 7(1), e1000011 - e1000011.

Full text is available at http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.1000011
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-01/plos-sit010909.php

Neural bottleneck found that thwarts multi-tasking

An imaging study has revealed just why we can’t do two things at once. The bottleneck appears to occur at the lateral frontal and prefrontal cortex and the superior frontal cortex. Both areas are known to play a critical role in cognitive control. These brain regions responded to tasks irrespective of the senses involved, and could be seen to 'queue' neural activity — that is, a response to the second task was postponed until the response to the first was completed. Such queuing occurred when two tasks were presented within 300 milliseconds of each other, but not when the time gap was longer.

[896] Dux, P. E., Ivanoff J., Asplund C. L., & Marois R.
(2006).  Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI.
Neuron. 52(6), 1109 - 1120.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-01/vu-nbf011807.php

How multitasking impedes learning

A number of studies have come out in recent years demonstrating that the human brain can’t really do two things at once, and that when we do attempt to do so, performance is impaired. A new imaging study provides evidence that we tend to use a less efficient means of learning when distracted by another task. In the study, 14 younger adults (in their twenties) learned a simple classification task by trial-and-error. For one set of the cards, they also had to keep a running mental count of high tones that they heard while learning the classification task. Imaging revealed that different brain regions were used for learning depending on whether the participants were distracted by the other task or not — the hippocampus was involved in the single-task learning, but not in the dual-task, when the striatum (a region implicated in procedural and habit learning) was active. Although the ability of the participants to learn didn’t appear to be affected at the time, the distraction did reduce the participants' subsequent knowledge about the task during a follow-up session. In particular, on the task learned with the distraction, participants could not extrapolate from what they had learned.

[1273] Foerde, K., Knowlton B. J., & Poldrack R. A.
(2006).  Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 103(31), 11778 - 11783.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/07/060726083302.htm

Doing two things at once

Confirmation of what many of us know, and many more try to deny - you can't do two complex tasks simultaneously as well as you could do either one alone. Previous research has showed that when a single area of the brain, like the visual cortex, has to do two things at once, like tracking two objects, there is less brain activation than occurs when it watches one thing at a time. This new study sought to find out whether something similar happened when two highly independent tasks, carried out in very different parts of the brain, were done concurrently. The two tasks used were language comprehension (carried out in the temporal lobe), and mental rotation (carried out in the parietal lobe). The language task alone activated 37 voxels of brain tissue. The mental rotation task alone also activated 37 voxels. But when both tasks were done at the same time, only 42 voxels were activated, rather than the sum of the two (74). While overall accuracy did not suffer, each task took longer to perform.

[2546] Just, M A., Carpenter P. A., Keller T. A., Emery L., Zajac H., & Thulborn K. R.
(2001).  Interdependence of Nonoverlapping Cortical Systems in Dual Cognitive Tasks.
NeuroImage. 14(2), 417 - 426.

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/31/health/anatomy/31BRAI.html

The costs of multitasking

Technology increasingly tempts people to do more than one thing (and increasingly, more than one complicated thing) at a time. New scientific studies reveal the hidden costs of multitasking. In a study that looked at the amounts of time lost when people switched repeatedly between two tasks of varying complexity and familiarity, it was found that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar. They got "up to speed" faster when they switched to tasks they knew better. These results suggest that executive control involves two distinct, complementary stages: goal shifting ("I want to do this now instead of that") and rule activation ("I'm turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this").

[1124] Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer D. E., & Evans J. E.
(2001).  Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching,.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 27(4), 763 - 797.

http://www.apa.org/journals/xhp/press_releases/august_2001/xhp274763.html

Brain's halves compete for attention

Claus Hilgetag, of Boston University, and his colleagues fired focused magnetic pulses through healthy subjects' skulls for 10 minutes to induce 'hemispatial neglect'. This condition, involving damage to one side of the brain, leaves patients unaware of objects in the opposite half of their visual field (which sends messages to the damaged half of the brain). The subjects showed the traditional symptoms of hemispatial neglect. They were worse at detecting objects opposite to the numb side of their brain, and worse still if there was also an object in the functioning half of the visual field. Yet numbed subjects were better at spotting objects with the unaffected half of their brains. This behavior confirms the idea that activity in one half of the brain usually eclipses that in the opposite half. The finding supports the idea that mental activity is a tussle between the brain's many different areas.

[720] Hilgetag, C. C., Theoret H., & Pascual-Leone A.
(2001).  Enhanced visual spatial attention ipsilateral to rTMS-induced 'virtual lesions' of human parietal cortex.
Nat Neurosci. 4(9), 953 - 957.

http://www.nature.com/nsu/010830/010830-5.html

Multitasking and driving

Why cell phones and driving don't mix

A host of studies have come out in recent years demonstrating that multitasking impairs performance and talking on a cell phone while driving a car is a bad idea. A new study helps explain why. In two different experiments, subjects were found to be four times more distracted while preparing to speak or speaking than when they were listening. The researcher expects the effect to be even stronger in real-life conversation. It was also found that subjects could complete the visual task in front of them more easily when the projected voice also was in front. This suggests that it may be easier to have all things that require attention in the same space.

[1132] Almor, A.
(2008).  Why Does Language Interfere with Vision-Based Tasks?.
Experimental Psychology (formerly "Zeitschrift für Experimentelle Psychologie"). 55(4), 260 - 268.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080531084958.htm

Talking on a cellphone while driving as bad as drinking

Yet another study has come out rubbing it in that multitasking comes with a cost, and most particularly, that you shouldn’t do anything else while driving. This study demonstrates — shockingly — that drivers are actually worse off when using a cell phone than when legally drunk. The study had 40 volunteers use a driving simulator under 4 different conditions: once while legally intoxicated, once while talking on a hands-free cell phone, once while talking on a hand-held cell phone, and once with no distractions. There were differences in behavior —drunk drivers were more aggressive, tailgated more, and hit the brake pedal harder; cell phone drivers (whether hands-free and hand-held ) took longer to hit the brakes, and got in more accidents. But in both cases drivers were significantly impaired.

[1250] Strayer, D. L., Drews F. A., & Crouch D. J.
(2006).  A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver.
Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. 48(2), 381 - 391.

http://www.sciencentral.com/articles/view.htm3?article_id=218392815
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-06/uou-doc062306.php
http://www.guardian.co.uk/mobile/article/0,,1809549,00.html

Performing even easy tasks impairs driving

In yet another demonstration that driving is impaired when doing anything else, a simulator study has found that students following a lead car and instructed to brake as soon as they saw the illumination of the lead car's brake lights, responded slower when required to respond to a concurrent easy task, where a stimulus - either a light flash in the lead car's rear window or an auditory tone - was randomly presented once or twice and participants had to indicate the stimulus' frequency. The finding suggests that even using a hands-free device doesn’t make it okay to talk on a cell phone while driving.

[837] Levy, J., Pashler H., & Boer E.
(2006).  Central interference in driving: is there any stopping the psychological refractory period?.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 17(3), 228 - 235.

http://www.psychologicalscience.org/media/releases/2006/pr060303.cfm

Talking and listening impairs your ability to drive safely

A study involving almost 100 students driving virtual cars has provided evidence that people have greater difficultly maintaining a fixed speed when performing tasks that simulated conversing on a mobile phone. Both speaking and listening were equally distracting.

[203] Kubose, T. T., Bock K., Dell G. S., Garnsey S. M., Kramer A. F., & Mayhugh J.
(2006).  The effects of speech production and speech comprehension on simulated driving performance.
Applied Cognitive Psychology. 20(1), 43 - 63.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-08/jws-cpu082205.php

Cell phone users drive like seniors

Another study on the evils of multitasking, in particular, of talking on a cellphone while driving. This one has a nice spin — the study found that when young motorists talk on cell phones, they drive like elderly people, moving and reacting more slowly and increasing their risk of accidents. Specifically, when 18- to 25-year-olds were placed in a driving simulator and talked on a cellular phone, they reacted to brake lights from a car in front of them as slowly as 65- to 74-year-olds who were not using a cell phone. Although elderly drivers became even slower to react to brake lights when they spoke on a cell phone, they were not as badly affected as had been expected. An earlier study by the same researchers found that motorists who talk on cell phones are more impaired than drunken drivers with blood alcohol levels exceeding 0.08.

[339] Strayer, D. L., & Drew F. A.
(2004).  Profiles in Driver Distraction: Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on Younger and Older Drivers.
Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. 46(4), 640 - 649.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-02/uou-cpu020105.php

Complex mental tasks interfere with drivers' ability to detect visual targets

The researchers studied 12 adults who drove for about four hours on the highway north from Madrid. During the journey, drivers listened to recorded audio messages with either abstract or concrete information (acquisition task), and later were required to freely generate a reproduction of what they had just listened to (production task). Although the more receptive tasks – listening and learning -- had little or no effect on performance, there were significant differences in almost all of the measures of attention when drivers had to reproduce the content of the audio message they had just heard. Drivers also performed other tasks, either live or by phone. One was mental calculus (mentally changing between Euros and Spanish pesetas) either with an experimenter in the car, talking to the driver, or with the driver speaking by hands-free phone. One was a memory task (giving detailed information about where they were and what they were doing at a given day and time). Both tasks significantly impacted on the driver's ability to detect visual targets. In the experimental variation that examined the impact of hands-free phone conversation, message complexity made the difference. The relative safety of low-demand phone conversation -- if hands-free and voice-operated --appeared to be about the same as that of live conversation. The findings also confirm that the risk of internal distraction (one’s own thoughts) is at least as relevant as external distraction.

Goldarecena, M.A.R. & González, L.M.N. 2003. Mental Workload While Driving: Effects on Visual Search, Discrimination and Decision Making. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 9(2)

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-06/apa-mcm062403.php

tags problems: 

Helping students & children get enough sleep

October, 2011

Simple interventions can help college students improve their sleep. Regular sleep habits are important for young children. Sleep deprivation especially affects performance on open-ended problems.

One survey of nearly 200 undergraduate college students who were not living with a parent or legal guardian found that 55% reported getting less than seven hours sleep. This is consistent with other surveys. The latest study confirms such a result, but also finds that students tend to think their sleep quality is better than it is (70% of students surveyed described their sleep as "fairly good" or better). It’s suggested that this disconnect arises from students making comparisons in an environment where poor sleep is common — even though they realized, on being questioned, that poor sleep undermined their memory, concentration, class attendance, mood, and enthusiasm.

None of this is surprising, of course. But this study did something else — it tried to help.

The researchers launched a campuswide media campaign consisting of posters, student newspaper advertisements and a "Go to Bed SnoozeLetter", all delivering information about the health effects of sleep and tips to sleep better, such as keeping regular bedtime and waking hours, exercising regularly, avoiding caffeine and nicotine in the evening, and so on. The campaign cost less than $2,500, and nearly 10% (90/971) said it helped them sleep better.

Based on interviews conducted as part of the research, the researchers compiled lists of the top five items that helped and hindered student sleep:

Helpers

  • Taking time to de-stress and unwind
  • Creating a room atmosphere conducive to sleep
  • Being prepared for the next day
  • Eating something
  • Exercising

Hindrances

  • Dorm noise
  • Roommate (both for positive/social reasons and negative reasons)
  • Schoolwork
  • Having a room atmosphere not conducive to sleep
  • Personal health issues

In another study, this one involving 142 Spanish schoolchildren aged 6-7, children who slept less than 9 hours and went to bed late or at irregular times showed poorer academic performance. Regular sleep habits affected some specific skills independent of sleep duration.

69% of the children returned home after 9pm at least three evenings a week or went to bed after 11pm at least four nights a week.

And a recent study into the effects of sleep deprivation points to open-ended problem solving being particularly affected. In the study, 35 West Point cadets were given two types of categorization task. The first involved cate­gorizing drawings of fictional animals as either “A” or “not A”; the second required the students to sort two types of fic­tional animals, “A” and “B.” The two tests were separated by 24 hours, during which half the students had their usual night’s sleep, and half did not.

Although the second test required the students to learn criteria for two animals instead of one, sleep deprivation impaired performance on the first test, not the second.

These findings suggest the fault lies in attention lapses. Open-ended tasks, as in the first test, require more focused attention than those that offer two clear choices, as the second test did.

News reports on sleep deprivation are collated here.

Reference: 

[2521] Orzech, K. M., Salafsky D. B., & Hamilton L A.
(2011).  The State of Sleep Among College Students at a Large Public University.
Journal of American College Health. 59, 612 - 619.

[2515] Cladellas, R., Chamarro A., del Badia M M., Oberst U., & Carbonell X.
(2011).  Efectos de las horas y los habitos de sueno en el rendimiento academico de ninos de 6 y 7 anos: un estudio preliminarEffects of sleeping hours and sleeping habits on the academic performance of six- and seven-year-old children: A preliminary study.
Cultura y Educación. 23(1), 119 - 128.

Maddox WT; Glass BD; Zeithamova D; Savarie ZR; Bowen C; Matthews MD; Schnyer DM. The effects of sleep deprivation on dissociable prototype learning systems. SLEEP 2011;34(3):253-260.

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