visual memory

Face-blindness an example of inability to generalize

October, 2010

It seems that prosopagnosia can be, along with perfect pitch and eidetic memory, an example of what happens when your brain can’t abstract the core concept.

‘Face-blindness’ — prosopagnosia — is a condition I find fascinating, perhaps because I myself have a touch of it (it’s now recognized that this condition represents the end of a continuum rather than being an either/or proposition). The intriguing thing about this inability to recognize faces is that, in its extreme form, it can nevertheless exist side-by-side with quite normal recognition of other objects.

Prosopagnosia that is not the result of brain damage often runs in families, and a study of three family members with this condition has revealed that in some cases at least, the inability to remember faces has to do with failing to form a mental representation that abstracts the essence of the face, sans context. That is, despite being fully able to read facial expressions, attractiveness and gender from the face (indeed one of the family members is an artist who has no trouble portraying fully detailed faces), they couldn’t cope with changes in lighting conditions and viewing angles.

I’m reminded of the phenomenon of perfect pitch, which is characterized by an inability to generalize across acoustically similar tones, so an A in a different key is a completely different note. Interestingly, like prosopagnosia, perfect pitch is now thought to be more common than has been thought (recognition of it is of course limited by the fact that some musical expertise is generally needed to reveal it). This inability to abstract or generalize is also a phenomenon of eidetic memory, and I have spoken before of the perils of this.

(Note: A fascinating account of what it is like to be face-blind, from a person with the condition, can be found at: http://www.choisser.com/faceblind/)

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Natural scenes have positive impact on brain

October, 2010

Images of nature have been found to improve attention. A new study shows that natural scenes encourage different brain regions to synchronize.

A couple of years ago I reported on a finding that walking in the park, and (most surprisingly) simply looking at photos of natural scenes, could improve memory and concentration (see below). Now a new study helps explain why. The study examined brain activity while 12 male participants (average age 22) looked at images of tranquil beach scenes and non-tranquil motorway scenes. On half the presentations they concurrently listened to the same sound associated with both scenes (waves breaking on a beach and traffic moving on a motorway produce a similar sound, perceived as a constant roar).

Intriguingly, the natural, tranquil scenes produced significantly greater effective connectivity between the auditory cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, and between the auditory cortex and posterior cingulate gyrus, temporoparietal cortex and thalamus. It’s of particular interest that this is an example of visual input affecting connectivity of the auditory cortex, in the presence of identical auditory input (which was the focus of the research). But of course the take-home message for us is that the benefits of natural scenes for memory and attention have been supported.

Previous study:

Many of us who work indoors are familiar with the benefits of a walk in the fresh air, but a new study gives new insight into why, and how, it works. In two experiments, researchers found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20% after people spent an hour interacting with nature. The intriguing finding was that this effect was achieved not only by walking in the botanical gardens (versus walking along main streets of Ann Arbor), but also by looking at photos of nature (versus looking at photos of urban settings). The findings are consistent with a theory that natural environments are better at restoring attention abilities, because they provide a more coherent pattern of stimulation that requires less effort, as opposed to urban environments that are provide complex and often confusing stimulation that captures attention dramatically and requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car).

Reference: 

[1867] Hunter, M. D., Eickhoff S. B., Pheasant R. J., Douglas M. J., Watts G. R., Farrow T. F. D., et al.
(2010).  The state of tranquility: Subjective perception is shaped by contextual modulation of auditory connectivity.
NeuroImage. 53(2), 611 - 618.

[279] Berman, M. G., Jonides J., & Kaplan S.
(2008).  The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 19(12), 1207 - 1212.

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Having a male twin improves mental rotation performance in females

October, 2010

A twin study suggests prenatal testosterone may be a factor in the innate male superiority in mental rotation*.

Because male superiority in mental rotation appears to be evident at a very young age, it has been suggested that testosterone may be a factor. To assess whether females exposed to higher levels of prenatal testosterone perform better on mental rotation tasks than females with lower levels of testosterone, researchers compared mental rotation task scores between twins from same-sex and opposite-sex pairs.

It was found that females with a male co-twin scored higher than did females with a female co-twin (there was no difference in scores between males from opposite-sex and same-sex pairs). Of course, this doesn’t prove that that the differences are produced in the womb; it may be that girls with a male twin engage in more male-typical activities. However, the association remained after allowing for computer game playing experience.

The study involved 804 twins, average age 22, of whom 351 females were from same-sex pairs and 120 from opposite-sex pairs. There was no significant difference between females from identical same-sex pairs compared to fraternal same-sex pairs.

* Please do note that ‘innate male superiority’ does NOT mean that all men are inevitably better than all women at this very specific task! My words simply reflect the evidence that the tendency of males to be better at mental rotation is found in infants as young as 3 months.

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Gender gap in spatial ability can be reduced through training

October, 2010

Male superiority in mental rotation is the most-cited gender difference in cognitive abilities. A new study shows that the difference can be eliminated in 6-year-olds after a mere 8 weeks.

Following a monkey study that found training in spatial memory could raise females to the level of males, and human studies suggesting the video games might help reduce gender differences in spatial processing (see below for these), a new study shows that training in spatial skills can eliminate the gender difference in young children. Spatial ability, along with verbal skills, is one of the two most-cited cognitive differences between the sexes, for the reason that these two appear to be the most robust.

This latest study involved 116 first graders, half of whom were put in a training program that focused on expanding working memory, perceiving spatial information as a whole rather than concentrating on details, and thinking about spatial geometric pictures from different points of view. The other children took part in a substitute training program, as a control group. Initial gender differences in spatial ability disappeared for those who had been in the spatial training group after only eight weekly sessions.

Previously:

A study of 90 adult rhesus monkeys found young-adult males had better spatial memory than females, but peaked early. By old age, male and female monkeys had about the same performance. This finding is consistent with reports suggesting that men show greater age-related cognitive decline relative to women. A second study of 22 rhesus monkeys showed that in young adulthood, simple spatial-memory training did not help males but dramatically helped females, raising their performance to the level of young-adult males and wiping out the gender gap.

Another study showing that expert video gamers have improved mental rotation skills, visual and spatial memory, and multitasking skills has led researchers to conclude that training with video games may serve to reduce gender differences in visual and spatial processing, and some of the cognitive declines that come with aging.

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New advice on how much cognitive abilities decline with age

October, 2010

A new study suggests that inconsistencies in rate of age-related cognitive decline may be partly due to practice effects, but though decline does occur it is slower than some have estimated.

Reports on cognitive decline with age have, over the years, come out with two general findings: older adults do significantly worse than younger adults; older adults are just as good as younger adults. Part of the problem is that there are two different approaches to studying this, each with their own specific bias. You can keep testing the same group of people as they get older — the problem with this is that they get more and more practiced, which mitigates the effects of age. Or you can test different groups of people, comparing older with younger — but cohort differences (e.g., educational background) may disadvantage the older generations. There is also argument about when it starts. Some studies suggest we start declining in our 20s, others in our 60s.

One of my favorite cognitive aging researchers has now tried to find the true story using data from the Virginia Cognitive Aging Project involving nearly 3800 adults aged 18 to 97 tested on reasoning, spatial visualization, episodic memory, perceptual speed and vocabulary, with 1616 tested at least twice. This gave a nice pool for both cross-sectional and longitudinal comparison (retesting ranged from 1 to 8 years and averaged 2.5 years).

From this data, Salthouse has estimated the size of practice effects and found them to be as large as or larger than the annual cross-sectional differences, although they varied depending on the task and the participant’s age. In general the practice effect was greater for younger adults, possibly because younger people learn better.

Once the practice-related "bonus points" were removed, age trends were flattened, with much less positive changes occurring at younger ages, and slightly less negative changes occurring at older ages. This suggests that change in cognitive ability over an adult lifetime (ignoring the effects of experience) is smaller than we thought.

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Brain fitness program produces working memory improvement in older adults

August, 2010

A new study shows improvement in visual working memory in older adults following ten hours training with a commercial brain training program. The performance gains correlated with changes in brain activity.

While brain training programs can certainly improve your ability to do the task you’re practicing, there has been little evidence that this transfers to other tasks. In particular, the holy grail has been very broad transfer, through improvement in working memory. While there has been some evidence of this in pilot programs for children with ADHD, a new study is the first to show such improvement in older adults using a commercial brain training program.

A study involving 30 healthy adults aged 60 to 89 has demonstrated that ten hours of training on a computer game designed to boost visual perception improved perceptual abilities significantly, and also increased the accuracy of their visual working memory to the level of younger adults. There was a direct link between improved performance and changes in brain activity in the visual association cortex.

The computer game was one of those developed by Posit Science. Memory improvement was measured about one week after the end of training. The improvement did not, however, withstand multi-tasking, which is a particular problem for older adults. The participants, half of whom underwent the training, were college educated. The training challenged players to discriminate between two different shapes of sine waves (S-shaped patterns) moving across the screen. The memory test (which was performed before and after training) involved watching dots move across the screen, followed by a short delay and then re-testing for the memory of the exact direction the dots had moved.

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Connection between navigation, object location, & autobiographical memory

January, 2010
  • The existence of specialized neurons involved in spatial memory has now been found in humans, and appear to also help with object location and autobiographical memory.

Rodent studies have demonstrated the existence of specialized neurons involved in spatial memory. These ‘grid cells’ represent where an animal is located within its environment, firing in patterns that show up as geometrically regular, triangular grids when plotted on a map of a navigated surface. Now for the first time, evidence for these cells has been found in humans. Moreover, those with the clearest signs of grid cells performed best in a virtual reality spatial memory task, suggesting that the grid cells help us to remember the locations of objects. These cells, located particularly in the entorhinal cortex, are also critical for autobiographical memory, and are amongst the first to be affected by Alzheimer's disease, perhaps explaining why getting lost is one of the most common early symptoms.

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[378] Doeller, C. F., Barry C., & Burgess N.
(2010).  Evidence for grid cells in a human memory network.
Nature. 463(7281), 657 - 661.

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Language helps people solve spatial problems

July, 2010

Signers reveal that more complex language helps you find a hidden object, providing more support for the theory that language shapes how we think and perceive.

Because Nicaraguan Sign Language is only about 35 years old, and still evolving rapidly, the language used by the younger generation is more complex than that used by the older generation. This enables researchers to compare the effects of language ability on other abilities. A recent study found that younger signers (in their 20s) performed better than older signers (in their 30s) on two spatial cognition tasks that involved finding a hidden object. The findings provide more support for the theory that language shapes how we think and perceive.

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[1629] Pyers, J. E., Shusterman A., Senghas A., Spelke E. S., & Emmorey K.
(2010).  Evidence from an emerging sign language reveals that language supports spatial cognition.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107(27), 12116 - 12120.

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Memory better if timing is right

March, 2010

A new study suggests that our memory for visual scenes may not depend on how much attention we’ve paid to it or what a scene contains, but the context in which the scene is presented.

A new study suggests that our memory for visual scenes may not depend on how much attention we’ve paid to it or what a scene contains, but when the scene is presented. In the study, participants performed an attention-demanding letter-identification task while also viewing a rapid sequence of full-field photographs of urban and natural scenes. They were then tested on their memory of the scenes. It was found that, notwithstanding their attention had been focused on the target letter, only those scenes which were presented at the same time as a target letter (rather than a distractor letter) were reliably remembered. The results point to a brain mechanism that automatically encodes certain visual features into memory at behaviorally relevant points in time, regardless of the spatial focus of attention.

Reference: 

[321] Lin, J. Y., Pype A. D., Murray S. O., & Boynton G. M.
(2010).  Enhanced Memory for Scenes Presented at Behaviorally Relevant Points in Time.
PLoS Biol. 8(3), e1000337 - e1000337.

Full text available at doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000337

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Human working memory is based on dynamic interaction networks in the brain

April, 2010

Visual working memory, which can only hold three of four objects at a time, is thought to be based on synchronized brain activity across a network of brain regions. Now a new study has allowed us to get a better picture of how exactly that works.

Visual working memory, which can only hold three of four objects at a time, is thought to be based on synchronized brain activity across a network of brain regions. Now a new study has allowed us to get a better picture of how exactly that works. Both the maintenance and the contents of working memory were connected to brief synchronizations of neural activity in alpha, beta and gamma brainwaves across frontoparietal regions that underlie executive and attentional functions and visual areas in the occipital lobe. Most interestingly, individual VWM capacity could be predicted by synchrony in a network centered on the intraparietal sulcus.

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[458] Palva, M. J., Monto S., Kulashekhar S., & Palva S.
(2010).  Neuronal synchrony reveals working memory networks and predicts individual memory capacity.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107(16), 7580 - 7585.

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