working memory

Gesture & embodied cognition

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

Connection between language and movement

A study of all three groups of birds with vocal learning abilities – songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds – has revealed that the brain structures for singing and learning to sing are embedded in areas controlling movement, and areas in charge of movement share many functional similarities with the brain areas for singing. This suggests that the brain pathways used for vocal learning evolved out of the brain pathways used for motor control. Human brain structures for speech also lie adjacent to, and even within, areas that control movement. The findings may explain why humans talk with our hands and voice, and could open up new approaches to understanding speech disorders in humans. They are also consistent with the hypothesis that spoken language was preceded by gestural language, or communication based on movements. Support comes from another very recent study finding that mice engineered to have a mutation to the gene FOXP2 (known to cause problems with controlling the formation of words in humans) had trouble running on a treadmill.
Relatedly, a study of young children found that 5-year-olds do better on motor tasks when they talk to themselves out loud (either spontaneously or when told to do so by an adult) than when they are silent. The study also showed that children with behavioral problems (such as ADHD) tend to talk to themselves more often than children without signs of behavior problems. The findings suggest that teachers should be more tolerant of this kind of private speech.

[436] Feenders, G., Liedvogel M., Rivas M., Zapka M., Horita H., Hara E., et al.
(2008).  Molecular Mapping of Movement-Associated Areas in the Avian Brain: A Motor Theory for Vocal Learning Origin.
PLoS ONE. 3(3), e1768 - e1768.

[1235] Winsler, A., Manfra L., & Diaz R. M.
(2007).  "Should I let them talk?": Private speech and task performance among preschool children with and without behavior problems.
Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 22(2), 215 - 231.

http://www.physorg.com/news124526627.html
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=song-learning-birds-shed
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-03/gmu-pkd032808.php

Kids learn more when mother is listening

Research has already shown that children learn well when they explain things to their mother or a peer, but that could be because they’re getting feedback and help. Now a new study has asked 4- and 5-year-olds to explain their solution to a problem to their moms (with the mothers listening silently), to themselves or to simply repeat the answer out loud. Explaining to themselves or to their moms improved the children's ability to solve similar problems, and explaining the answer to their moms helped them solve more difficult problems — presumably because explaining to mom made a difference in the quality of the child's explanations.

[416] Rittle-Johnson, B., Saylor M., & Swygert K. E.
(2008).  Learning from explaining: Does it matter if mom is listening?.
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 100(3), 215 - 224.

http://www.physorg.com/news120320713.html

Gesturing helps grade-schoolers solve math problems

Two studies of children in late third and early fourth grade, who made mistakes in solving math problems, have found that children told to move their hands when explaining how they’d solve a problem were four times as likely as kids given no instructions to manually express correct new ways to solve problems. Even though they didn’t give the right answer, their gestures revealed an implicit knowledge of mathematical ideas, and the second study showed that gesturing set them up to benefit from subsequent instruction. The findings extend previous research that body movement not only helps people to express things they may not be able to verbally articulate, but actually to think better.

[1170] Broaders, S. C., Cook S W., Mitchell Z., & Goldin-Meadow S.
(2007).  Making Children Gesture Brings Out Implicit Knowledge and Leads to Learning.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 136(4), 539 - 550.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-11/apa-ghg102907.php

Doodling can help memory recall

A study in which 40 academics were asked to listen to a two and a half minute tape giving several names of people and places, and were told to write down only the names of people going to a party, has found that those who were asked to shade in shapes on a piece of paper at the same time, recalled on average 7.5 names of people and places compared to only 5.8 by those who were not asked to doodle. This supports the idea that a simple secondary task like doodling can be useful to stop your mind wandering when it’s doing something boring.

Andrade, J. 2009. What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, Published online 27 February

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-02/w-dd022509.php

Actors’ memory tricks help students and older adults

The ability of actors to remember large amounts of dialog verbatim is a marvel to most of us, and most of us assume they do by painful rote memorization. But two researchers have been studying the way actors learn for many years and have concluded that the secret of actors' memories is in the acting; an actor learning lines by focusing on the character’s motives and feelings — they get inside the character. To do this, they break a script down into a series of logically connected "beats" or intentions. The researchers call this process active experiencing, which uses "all physical, mental, and emotional channels to communicate the meaning of material to another person." This principle can be applied in other contexts. For example, students who imagined themselves explaining something to somebody else remembered more than those who tried to memorize the material by rote. Physical movement also helps — lines learned while doing something, such as walking across the stage, were remembered better than lines not accompanied with action. The principles have been found useful in improving memory in older adults: older adults who received a four-week course in acting showed significantly improved word-recall and problem-solving abilities compared to both a group that received a visual-arts course and a control group, and this improvement persisted four months afterward.

[2464] Noice, H., & Noice T.
(2006).  What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us About Memory and Cognitive Functioning.
Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15(1), 14 - 18.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-01/aps-bo012506.php

People remember speech better when it is accompanied by gestures

A recent study had participants watch someone narrating three cartoons. Sometimes the narrator used hand gestures and at other times they did not. The participants were then asked to recall the story. The study found that when the narrator used gestures as well as speech the participants were more likely to accurately remember what actually happened in the story rather than change it in some way.

The research was presented to the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in Bournemouth on Thursday 13 March.

Gesturing reduces cognitive load

Why is it that people cannot keep their hands still when they talk? One reason may be that gesturing actually lightens cognitive load while a person is thinking of what to say. Adults and children were asked to remember a list of letters or words while explaining how they solved a math problem. Both groups remembered significantly more items when they gestured during their math explanations than when they did not gesture.

[1300] Goldin-Meadow, S., Nusbaum H., Kelly S. D., & Wagner S.
(2001).  Explaining math: gesturing lightens the load.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 12(6), 516 - 522.

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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

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Working memory capacity not 4 but 2+2

October, 2011

A monkey study finds that our very limited working memory capacity of around 4 items reflects two capacities of two items. The finding has practical implications for information presentation.

In the study, two rhesus monkeys were given a standard human test of working memory capacity: an array of colored squares, varying from two to five squares, was shown for 800 msec on a screen. After a delay, varying from 800 to 1000 msec, a second array was presented. This array was identical to the first except for a change in color of one item. The monkey was rewarded if its eyes went directly to this changed square (an infra-red eye-tracking system was used to determine this). During all this, activity from single neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex and the lateral intraparietal area — areas critical for short-term memory and implicated in human capacity limitations — was recorded.

As with humans, the more squares in the array, the worse the performance (from 85% correct for two squares to 66.5% for 5). Their working memory capacity was calculated at 3.88 objects — i.e. the same as that of humans.

That in itself is interesting, speaking as it does to the question of how human intelligence differs from other animals. But the real point of the exercise was to watch what is happening at the single neuron level. And here a surprise occurred.

That total capacity of around 4 items was composed of two independent, smaller capacities in the right and left halves of the visual space. What matters is how many objects are in the hemifield an eye is covering. Each hemifield can only handle two objects. Thus, if the left side of the visual space contains three items, and the right side only one, information about the three items from the left side will be degraded. If the left side contains four items and the right side two, those two on the right side will be fine, but information from the four items on the left will be degraded.

Notice that the effect of more items than two in a hemifield is to decrease the total information from all the items in the hemifield — not to simply lose the additional items.

The behavioral evidence correlated with brain activity, with object information in LPFC neurons decreasing with increasing number of items in the same hemifield, but not the opposite hemifield, and the same for the intraparietal neurons (the latter are active during the delay; the former during the presentation).

The findings resolve a long-standing debate: does working memory function like slots, which we fill one by one with items until all are full, or as a pool that fills with information about each object, with some information being lost as the number of items increases? And now we know why there is evidence for both views, because both contain truth. Each hemisphere might be considered a slot, but each slot is a pool.

Another long-standing question is whether the capacity limit is a failure of perception or  memory. These findings indicate that the problem is one of perception. The neural recordings showed information about the objects being lost even as the monkeys were viewing them, not later as they were remembering what they had seen.

All of this is important theoretically, but there are also immediate practical applications. The work suggests that information should be presented in such a way that it’s spread across the visual space — for example, dashboard displays should spread the displays evenly on both sides of the visual field; medical monitors that currently have one column of information should balance it in right and left columns; security personnel should see displays scrolled vertically rather than horizontally; working memory training should present information in a way that trains each hemisphere separately. The researchers are forming collaborations to develop these ideas.

Reference: 

[2335] Buschman, T. J., Siegel M., Roy J. E., & Miller E. K.
(2011).  Neural substrates of cognitive capacity limitations.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Possible treatment for working memory decline with age

September, 2011

A study has successfully countered reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex seen in older monkeys. Clinical trials are now investigating whether the drug can improve working memory in older humans.

A study comparing activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in young, middle-aged and aged macaque monkeys as they performed a spatial working memory task has found that while neurons of the young monkeys maintained a high rate of firing during the task, neurons in older animals showed slower firing rates. The decline began in middle age.

Neuron activity was recorded in a particular area of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that is most important for visuospatial working memory. Some neurons only fired when the cue was presented (28 CUE cells), but most were active during the delay period as well as the cue and response periods (273 DELAY neurons). Persistent firing during the delay period is of particular interest, as it is required to maintain information in working memory. Many DELAY neurons increased their activity when the preferred spatial location was being remembered.

While the activity of the CUE cells was unaffected by age, that of DELAY cells was significantly reduced. This was true both of spontaneous activity and task-related activity. Moreover, the reduction was greatest during the cue and delay periods for the preferred direction, meaning that the effect of age was to reduce the ability to distinguish preferred and non-preferred directions.

It appeared that the aging prefrontal cortex was accumulating excessive levels of an important signaling molecule called cAMP. When cAMP was inhibited or cAMP-sensitive ion channels were blocked, firing rates rose to more youthful levels. On the other hand, when cAMP was stimulated, aged neurons reduced their activity even more.

The findings are consistent with rat research that has found two of the agents used — guanfacine and Rp-cAMPS — can improve working memory in aged rats. Guanfacine is a medication that is already approved for treating hypertension in adults and prefrontal deficits in children. A clinical trial testing guanfacine's ability to improve working memory and executive functions in elderly subjects who do not have dementia is now taking place.

Reference: 

[2349] Wang, M., Gamo N. J., Yang Y., Jin L. E., Wang X-J., Laubach M., et al.
(2011).  Neuronal basis of age-related working memory decline.
Nature. advance online publication,

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The effect of stress on performance depends on individual and situational factors

September, 2011

A new study shows how stress only impacts math performance in those with both higher working memory capacity and math anxiety, while another shows that whether or not pressure impacts your performance depends on the nature of the pressure and the type of task.

Working memory capacity and level of math anxiety were assessed in 73 undergraduate students, and their level of salivary cortisol was measured both before and after they took a stressful math test.

For those students with low working memory capacity, neither cortisol levels nor math anxiety made much difference to their performance on the test. However, for those with higher WMC, the interaction of cortisol level and math anxiety was critical. For those unafraid of math, the more their cortisol increased during the test, the better they performed; but for those anxious about math, rising cortisol meant poorer performance.

It’s assumed that low-WMC individuals were less affected because their performance is lower to start with (this shouldn’t be taken as an inevitability! Low-WMC students are disadvantaged in a domain like math, but they can learn strategies that compensate for that problem). But the effect on high-WMC students demonstrates how our attitude and beliefs interact with the effects of stress. We may all have the same physiological responses, but we interpret them in different ways, and this interpretation is crucial when it comes to ‘higher-order’ cognitive functions.

Another study investigated two theories as why people choke under pressure: (a) they’re distracted by worries about the situation, which clog up their working memory; (b) the stress makes them pay too much attention to their performance and become self-conscious. Both theories have research backing from different domains — clearly the former theory applies more to the academic testing environment, and the latter to situations involving procedural skill, where explicit attention to the process can disrupt motor sequences that are largely automatic.

But it’s not as simple as one effect applying to the cognitive domain, and one to the domain of motor skills, and it’s a little mysterious why pressure could have too such opposite effects (drawing attention away, or toward). This new study carried out four experiments in order to define more precisely the characteristics of the environment that lead to these different effects, and suggest solutions to the problem.

In the first experiment, participants were given a category learning task, in which some categories had only one relevant dimension and could be distinguished according to one easily articulated rule, and others involved three relevant dimensions and one irrelevant one. Categorization in this case was based on a complex rule that would be difficult to verbalize, and so participants were expected to integrate the information unconsciously.

Rule-based category learning was significantly worse when participants were also engaged in a secondary task requiring them to monitor briefly appearing letters. However it was not affected when their secondary task involved them explicitly monitoring the categorization task and making a confidence judgment. On the other hand, the implicit category learning task was not disrupted by the letter-monitoring task, but was impaired by the confidence-judgment task. Further analysis revealed that participants who had to do the confidence-judgment task were less likely to use the best strategy, but instead persisted in trying to verbalize a one- or two-dimension rule.

In the second experiment, the same tasks were learned in a low-pressure baseline condition followed by either a low-pressure control condition or one of two high-pressure conditions. One of these revolved around outcome — participants would receive money for achieving a certain level of improvement in their performance. The other put pressure on the participants through monitoring — they were watched and videotaped, and told their performance would be viewed by other students and researchers.

Rule-based category learning was slower when the pressure came from outcomes, but not when the pressure came from monitoring. Implicit category learning was unaffected by outcome pressure, but worsened by monitoring pressure.

Both high-pressure groups reported the same levels of pressure.

Experiment 3 focused on the detrimental combinations — rule-based learning under outcome pressure; implicit learning under monitoring pressure — and added the secondary tasks from the first experiment.

As predicted, rule-based categories were learned more slowly during conditions of both outcome pressure and the distracting letter-monitoring task, but when the secondary task was confidence-judgment, the negative effect of outcome pressure was counteracted and no impairment occurred. Similarly, implicit category learning was slowed when both monitoring pressure and the confidence-judgment distraction were applied, but was unaffected when monitoring pressure was counterbalanced by the letter task.

The final experiment extended the finding of the second experiment to another domain — procedural learning. As expected, the motor task was significantly affected by monitoring pressure, but not by outcome pressure.

These findings suggest two different strategies for dealing with choking, depending on the situation and the task. In the case of test-taking, good test preparation and a writing exercise can boost performance by reducing anxiety and freeing up working memory. If you're worried about doing well in a game or giving a memorized speech in front of others, you instead want to distract yourself so you don't become focused on the details of what you're doing.

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Adolescent binge drinking can damage spatial working memory

August, 2011
  • This study finds that adolescent females are particularly vulnerable to the effects of binge drinking, and points to specific changes in brain activation patterns seen in binge drinkers.

Binge drinking occurs most frequently among young people, and there has been concern that consequences will be especially severe if the brain is still developing, as it is in adolescence. Because of the fact that it is only some parts of the brain — most crucially the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus — that are still developing, it makes sense that only some functions will be affected.

I recently reported on a finding that binge drinking university students, performed more poorly on tests of verbal memory, but not on a test of visual memory. A new study looks at another function: spatial working memory. This task involves the hippocampus, and animal research has indicated that this region may be especially vulnerable to binge drinking. Spatial working memory is involved in such activities as driving, figural reasoning, sports, and navigation.

The study involved 95 adolescents (aged 16-19) from San Diego-area public schools: 40 binge drinking (27 males, 13 females) and 55 control (31 males, 24 females). Brain scans while performing a spatial working memory task revealed that there were significant gender differences in brain activation patterns for those who engaged in binge drinking. Specifically, in eight regions spanning the frontal cortex, anterior cingulate, temporal cortex, and cerebellum, female binge drinkers showed less activation than female controls, while male bingers exhibited greater activation than male controls. For female binge drinkers, less activation was associated with poorer sustained attention and working memory performances, while for male binge drinkers, greater activation was linked to better spatial performance.

The differences between male binge drinkers and controls were smaller than that seen in the female groups, suggesting that female teens may be particularly vulnerable. This is not the first study to find a gender difference in the brains’ response to excess alcohol. In this case it may have to do, at least partly, with differences in maturity — female brains mature earlier than males’.

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Meditation's cognitive benefits

A critical part of attention (and working memory capacity) is being able to ignore distraction. There has been growing evidence that meditation training (in particular mindfulness meditation) helps develop attentional control, and that this can start to happen very quickly.

For example:

  • after an eight-week course that included up to 30 minutes of daily meditation, novices improved their ability to quickly and accurately move and focus attention.
  • three months of rigorous training in Vipassana meditation improved attentional control.
  • after eight weeks of Mindfulness Training, Marine reservists during pre-deployment showed increased working memory capacity and decreased negative mood (this training also included concrete applications for the operational environment and information and skills about stress, trauma and resilience in the body).
  • after a mere four sessions of 20 minutes, students produced a significant improvement in critical cognitive skills — and a dramatic improvement when conditions became more stressful (provided by increasingly challenging time-constraints).

There seem to be several factors involved in these improvements: better control of brainwaves; increased gray matter density in some brain regions; improved white-matter connectivity.

Thus, after ten weeks of Transcendental Meditation (TM) practice, students showed significant changes in brainwave patterns during meditation compared to eyes-closed rest for the controls. These changes reflected greater coherence and power in brainwave activity in areas that overlap with the default mode network (the brain’s ‘resting state’). Similarly, after an eight-week mindfulness meditation program, participants had better control of alpha brainwaves. Relatedly, perhaps, experienced Zen meditators have shown that, after interruptions designed to mimic spontaneous thoughts, they could bring activity in most regions of the default mode network back to baseline faster than non-meditators.

Thus, after an 8-week mindfulness meditation program, participants showed increased grey-matter density in the left hippocampus , posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction , and cerebellum , as well as decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala . Similarly, another study found experienced meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus and the right orbitofrontal cortex, and to a lesser extent the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal gyrus.

These areas of the brain are all closely linked to emotion, and may explain meditators' improved ability in regulating their emotions.

Thus, long-term meditators showed pronounced differences in white-matter connectivity between their brains and those of age-matched controls, meaning that meditators’ brains were better able to quickly relay electrical signals. The brain regions linked by these white-matter tracts include many of those mentioned as showing increased gray matter density. Another study found that a mere 11 hours of meditation training (IBMT) produced measurable changes in the integrity and efficiency of white matter in the corona radiata (which links to the anterior cingulate cortex, an area where attention and emotion are thought to be integrated).

It’s an interesting question, the extent to which poor attentional control is a reflection of poor emotional regulation. Obviously there is more to distractability than that, but emotion and attention are clearly inextricably entwined. So, for example, a pilot study involving 10 middle school students with ADHD found that those who participated in twice-daily 10 minute sessions of Transcendental Meditation for three months showed a dramatic reduction in stress and anxiety and improvements in ADHD symptoms and executive function.

The effects of emotion regulation are of course wider than the effects on attention. Another domain they impact is that of decision-making. A study involving experienced Buddhist meditators found that they used different brain regions than controls when making decisions in a ‘fairness’ game. The differences reflected less input from emotional reactions and more emphasis on the actual benefits.

Similarly, brain scans taken while experienced and novice meditators meditated found that periodic bursts of disturbing noise had less effect on brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making for experienced meditators compared to novices — and very experienced meditators (at least 40,000 hours of experience) showed hardly any activity in these areas at all.

Attention is also entwined with perception, so it’s also interesting to observe that several studies have found improved visual perception attendant on meditation training and/or experience. Thus, participants attending a three-month meditation retreat, showed significant improvements in making fine visual distinctions, and ability to sustain attention.

But such benefits may depend on the style of meditation. A study involving experienced practitioners of two styles of meditation (Deity Yoga (DY) and Open Presence (OP)) found that DY meditators were dramatically better at mental rotation and visual memory tasks compared to OP practitioners and controls (and only if they were given the tasks immediately after meditating). Similarly, a study involving Tibetan Buddhist monks found that, during "one-point" meditation, monks were significantly better at maintaining their focus on one image, when two different images were presented to each eye. This superior attentional control was not found during compassion-oriented meditation. However, even under normal conditions the monks showed longer stable perception compared to meditation-naïve control subjects. And three months of intense training in Vipassana meditation produced an improvement in the ability of participants to detect the second of two visual signals half a second apart (the size of the improvement was linked to reduced brain activity to the first target — which was still detected with the same level of accuracy). Similarly, three months of intensive meditation training reduced variability in attentional processing of target tones.

References

You can read about these studies below in more detail. Three studies were mentioned here without having appeared in the news reports:

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Rawlings, N. B., Francis, A. D., Greischar, L. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2009). Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence. J. Neurosci., 29(42), 13418-13427. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1614-09.2009

Tang, Y.-Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E. A., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. I. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(35), 15649 -15652. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011043107

Travis, F., Haaga, D., Hagelin, J., Tanner, M., Arenander, A., Nidich, S., Gaylord-King, C., et al. (2010). A self-referential default brain state: patterns of coherence, power, and eLORETA sources during eyes-closed rest and Transcendental Meditation practice. Cognitive Processing, 11(1), 21-30. doi:10.1007/s10339-009-0343-2

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

More on how meditation can improve attention

Another study adds to research showing meditation training helps people improve their ability to focus and ignore distraction. The new study shows that three months of rigorous training in Vipassana meditation improved people's ability to stabilize attention on target tones, when presented with tones in both ears and instructed to respond only to specific tones in one ear. Marked variability in response time is characteristic of those with ADHD.

[1500] Lutz, A., Slagter H. A., Rawlings N. B., Francis A. D., Greischar L. L., & Davidson R. J.
(2009).  Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence.
J. Neurosci.. 29(42), 13418 - 13427.

http://www.physorg.com/news177347438.html

Meditation may increase gray matter

Adding to the increasing evidence for the cognitive benefits of meditation, a new imaging study of 22 experienced meditators and 22 controls has revealed that meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus and the right orbitofrontal cortex, and to a lesser extent the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal gyrus. There were no regions where controls had significantly more gray matter than meditators. These areas of the brain are all closely linked to emotion, and may explain meditators' improved ability in regulating their emotions.

[1055] Luders, E., Toga A. W., Lepore N., & Gaser C.
(2009).  The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter.
NeuroImage. 45(3), 672 - 678.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-05/uoc--htb051209.php

Meditation technique can temporarily improve visuospatial abilities

And continuing on the subject of visual short-term memory, a study involving experienced practitioners of two styles of meditation: Deity Yoga (DY) and Open Presence (OP) has found that, although meditators performed similarly to nonmeditators on two types of visuospatial tasks (mental rotation and visual memory), when they did the tasks immediately after meditating for 20 minutes (while the nonmeditators rested or did something else), practitioners of the DY style of meditation showed a dramatic improvement compared to OP practitioners and controls. In other words, although the claim that regular meditation practice can increase your short-term memory capacity was not confirmed, it does appear that some forms of meditation can temporarily (and dramatically) improve it. Since the form of meditation that had this effect was one that emphasizes visual imagery, it does support the idea that you can improve your imagery and visual memory skills (even if you do need to ‘warm up’ before the improvement is evident).

[860] Kozhevnikov, M., Louchakova O., Josipovic Z., & Motes M. A.
(2009).  The enhancement of visuospatial processing efficiency through Buddhist Deity meditation.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 20(5), 645 - 653.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090427131315.htm
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-04/afps-ssb042709.php

Transcendental Meditation reduces ADHD symptoms among students

A pilot study involving 10 middle school students with ADHD has found that those who participated in twice-daily 10 minute sessions of Trancendental Meditation for three months showed a dramatic reduction in stress and anxiety and improvements in ADHD symptoms and executive function. The effect was much greater than expected. ADHD children have a reduced ability to cope with stress.
A second, recently completed study has also found that three months practice of the technique resulted in significant positive changes in brain functioning during visual-motor skills, especially in the circuitry of the brain associated with attention and distractibility. After six months practice, measurements of distractibility moved into the normal range.

Grosswald, S. J., Stixrud, W. R., Travis, F., & Bateh, M. A. (2008, December). Use of the Transcendental Meditation technique to reduce symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by reducing stress and anxiety: An exploratory study. Current Issues in Education [On-line], 10(2). Available: http://cie.ed.asu.edu/volume10/number2/

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-12/muom-tmr122408.php

Meditation speeds the mind's return after distraction

Another study comparing brain activity in experienced meditators and novices has looked at what happens when people meditating were interrupted by stimuli designed to mimic the appearance of spontaneous thoughts. The study compared 12 people with more than three years of daily practice in Zen meditation with 12 others who had never practiced meditation. It was found that, after interruption, experienced meditators were able to bring activity in most regions of the default mode network (especially the angular gyrus, a region important for processing language) back to baseline faster than non-meditators. The default mode network is associated with the occurrence of spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering during wakeful rest. The findings indicate not only the attentional benefits of meditation, but also suggest a value for disorders characterized by excessive rumination or an abnormal production of task-unrelated thoughts, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and major depression.

[910] Pagnoni, G., Cekic M., & Guo Y.
(2008).  “Thinking about Not-Thinking”: Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing during Zen Meditation.
PLoS ONE. 3(9), e3083 - e3083.

Full text available at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0003083
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-09/eu-zts082908.php

Improved attention with mindfulness training

More evidence of the benefits of meditation for attention comes from a study looking at the performance of novices taking part in an eight-week course that included up to 30 minutes of daily meditation, and experienced meditators who attended an intensive full-time, one-month retreat. Initially, the experienced participants demonstrated better executive functioning skills, the cognitive ability to voluntarily focus, manage tasks and prioritize goals. After the eight-week training, the novices had improved their ability to quickly and accurately move and focus attention, while the experienced participants, after their one-month intensive retreat, also improved their ability to keep attention "at the ready."

[329] Jha, A. P., Krompinger J., & Baime M. J.
(2007).  Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention.
Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience. 7(2), 109 - 119.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-06/uop-mtc062507.php

Brain scans show how meditation affects the brain

An imaging study comparing novice and experienced meditators found that experienced meditators showed greater activity in brain circuits involved in paying attention. But the most experienced meditators with at least 40,000 hours of experience showed a brief increase in activity as they started meditating, and then a drop to baseline, as if they were able to concentrate in an effortless way. Moreover, while the subjects meditated inside the MRI, the researchers periodically blasted them with disturbing noises. Among the experienced meditators, the noise had less effect on the brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making than among novice meditators. Among meditators with more than 40,000 hours of lifetime practice, these areas were hardly affected at all. The attention circuits affected by meditation are also involved in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

[1364] Brefczynski-Lewis, J. A., Lutz A., Schaefer H. S., Levinson D. B., & Davidson R. J.
(2007).  Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104(27), 11483 - 11488.

Full text is available at http://tinyurl.com/3d6wx4
http://www.physorg.com/news102179695.html

Meditation may improve attentional control

Paying attention to one thing can keep you from noticing something else. When people are shown two visual signals half a second apart, they often miss the second one — this effect is called the attentional blink. In a study involving 40 participants being trained in Vipassana meditation (designed to reduce mental distraction and improve sensory awareness), one group of 17 attended a 3 month retreat during which they meditated for 10–12 hours a day (practitioner group), and 23 simply received a 1-hour meditation class and were asked to meditate for 20 minutes daily for 1 week prior to each testing session (control group). The three months of intense training resulted in a smaller attentional blink and reduced brain activity to the first target (which was still detected with the same level of accuracy. Individuals with the most reduction in activity generally showed the most reduction in attentional blink size. The study demonstrates that mental training can result in increased attentional control.

[1153] Slagter, H. A., Lutz A., Greischar L. L., Francis A. D., Nieuwenhuis S., Davis J. M., et al.
(2007).  Mental Training Affects Distribution of Limited Brain Resources.
PLoS Biol. 5(6), e138 - e138.

Full text available at http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050138 
http://www.physorg.com/news97825611.html
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-05/uow-mmf050407.php

Meditation skills of Buddhist monks yield clues to brain's regulation of attention

Recent research has suggested that skilled meditation can alter certain aspects of the brain's neural activity. A new study has now found evidence that certain types of trained meditative practice can influence the conscious experience of visual perceptual rivalry, a phenomenon thought to involve brain mechanisms that regulate attention and conscious awareness. Perceptual rivalry arises normally when two different images are presented to each eye, and it is manifested as a fluctuation in the "dominant" image that is consciously perceived. The study involved 76 Tibetan Buddhist monks with training ranging from 5 to 54 years. Tested during the practice of two types of meditation: a "compassion"-oriented meditation (contemplation of suffering within the world), and "one-point" meditation (involving the maintained focus of attention on a single object or thought). Major increases in the durations of perceptual dominance were experienced by monks practicing one-point meditation, but not during compassion-oriented meditation. Additionally, under normal conditions the monks showed longer stable perception (average 4.1 seconds compared to 2.6 seconds for meditation-naïve control subjects). The findings suggest that processes particularly associated with one-point meditation can considerably alter the normal fluctuations in conscious state that are induced by perceptual rivalry.

[350] Carter, O., Presti D., Callistemon C., Ungerer Y., Liu G., & Pettigrew J.
(2005).  Meditation alters perceptual rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Current Biology. 15(11), R412-R413 - R412-R413.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-06/cp-mso060205.php

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Long-term meditation fights age-related cognitive decline

August, 2011

Another study adds to the weight of evidence that meditating has cognitive benefits. The latest finding points to brain-wide improvements in connectivity.

Following on from research showing that long-term meditation is associated with gray matter increases across the brain, an imaging study involving 27 long-term meditators (average age 52) and 27 controls (matched by age and sex) has revealed pronounced differences in white-matter connectivity between their brains.

The differences reflect white-matter tracts in the meditators’ brains being more numerous, more dense, more myelinated, or more coherent in orientation (unfortunately the technology does not yet allow us to disentangle these) — thus, better able to quickly relay electrical signals.

While the differences were evident among major pathways throughout the brain, the greatest differences were seen within the temporal part of the superior longitudinal fasciculus (bundles of neurons connecting the front and the back of the cerebrum) in the left hemisphere; the corticospinal tract (a collection of axons that travel between the cerebral cortex of the brain and the spinal cord), and the uncinate fasciculus (connecting parts of the limbic system, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, with the frontal cortex) in both hemispheres.

These findings are consistent with the regions in which gray matter increases have been found. For example, the tSLF connects with the caudal area of the temporal lobe, the inferior temporal gyrus, and the superior temporal gyrus; the UNC connects the orbitofrontal cortex with the amygdala and hippocampal gyrus

It’s possible, of course, that those who are drawn to meditation, or who are likely to engage in it long term, have fundamentally different brains from other people. However, it is more likely (and more consistent with research showing the short-term effects of meditation) that the practice of meditation changes the brain.

The precise mechanism whereby meditation might have these effects can only be speculated. However, more broadly, we can say that meditation might induce physical changes in the brain, or it might be protecting against age-related reduction. Most likely of all, perhaps, both processes might be going on, perhaps in different regions or networks.

Regardless of the mechanism, the evidence that meditation has cognitive benefits is steadily accumulating.

The number of years the meditators had practiced ranged from 5 to 46. They reported a number of different meditation styles, including Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen.

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Bilingualism helps early development of executive control

August, 2011

A study of Korean preschoolers demonstrates that at least some of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are due to learning two languages, not because of a more diligent culture or a more enriched environment.

An increasing number of studies have been showing the benefits of bilingualism, both for children and in old age. However, there’s debate over whether the apparent benefits for children are real, or a product of cultural (“Asians work harder!” or more seriously, are taught more behavioral control from an early age) or environmental factors (such as socioeconomic status).

A new study aimed to disentangle these complicating factors, by choosing 56 4-year-olds with college-educated parents, from middle-class neighborhoods, and comparing English-speaking U.S. children, Korean-speaking children in the U.S. and in Korea, and Korean-English bilingual children in the U.S.

The children were tested on a computer-game-like activity designed to assess the alerting, orienting, and executive control components of executive attention (a child version of the Attention Network Test). They were also given a vocabulary test (the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III) in their own language, if monolingual, or in English for the bilinguals.

As expected, given their young age, English monolinguals scored well above bilinguals (learning more than one language slows the acquisition of vocabulary in the short-term). Interestingly, however, while Korean monolinguals in Korea performed at a comparable level to the English monolinguals, Korean monolinguals in the U.S. performed at the level of the bilinguals. In other words, the monolinguals living in a country where their language is a majority language have comparable language skills, and those living in a country in which their primary language is a minority language have similar, and worse, language skills.

That’s interesting, but the primary purpose of the study was to look at executive control. And here the bilingual children shone over the monolinguals. Specifically, the bilingual children were significantly more accurate on the attention test than the monolingual Koreans in the U.S. (whether they spoke Korean or English). Although their performance in terms of accuracy was not significantly different from that of the monolingual children in Korea, these children obtained their high accuracy at the expense of speed. The bilinguals were both accurate and fast, suggesting a different mechanism is at work.

The findings confirm earlier research indicating that bilingualism, independent of culture, helps develop executive attention, and points to how early this advantage begins.

The Korean-only and bilingual children from the United States had first generation native Korean parents. The bilingual children had about 11 months of formal exposure to English through a bilingual daycare program, resulting in them spending roughly 45% of their time using Korean (at home and in the community) and 55% of their time using English (at daycare). The children in Korea belonged to a daycare center that did offer a weekly 15-minute session during which they were exposed to English through educational DVDs, but their understanding of English was minimal. Similarly, the Korean-only children in the U.S. would have had some exposure to English, but it was insufficient to allow them to understand English instructions. The researchers’ informal observation of the Korean daycare center and the ones in the U.S. was that the programs were quite similar, and neither was more enriching.

Reference: 

[2351] Yang, S., Yang H., & Lust B.
(2011).  Early Childhood Bilingualism Leads to Advances in Executive Attention: Dissociating Culture and Language.
Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 14(03), 412 - 422.

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The right sort of video game can increase your intelligence

June, 2011

Games that use the n-back task, designed to challenge working memory, may improve fluid intelligence, but only if the games are at the right level of difficulty for the individual.

It has been difficult to train individuals in such a way that they improve in general skills rather than the specific ones used in training. However, recently some success has been achieved using what is called an “n-back” task, a task that involves presenting a series of visual and/or auditory cues to a subject and asking the subject to respond if that cue has occurred, to start with, one time back. If the subject scores well, the number of times back is increased each round.

In the latest study, 62 elementary and middle school children completed a month of training on a computer program, five times a week, for 15 minutes at a time. While the active control group trained on a knowledge and vocabulary-based task, the experimental group was given a demanding spatial task in which they were presented with a sequence of images at one of six locations, one at a time, at a rate of 3s. The child had to press one key whenever the current image was at the same location as the one n items back in the series, and another key if it wasn’t. Both tasks employed themed graphics to make the task more appealing and game-like.

How far back the child needed to remember depended on their performance — if they were struggling, n would be decreased; if they were meeting the challenge, n would be increased.

Although the experimental and active control groups showed little difference on abstract reasoning tasks (reflecting fluid intelligence) at the end of the training, when the experimental group was divided into two subgroups on the basis of training gain, the story was different. Those who showed substantial improvement on the training task over the month were significantly better than the others, on the abstract reasoning task. Moreover, this improvement was maintained at follow-up testing three months later.

The key to success seems to be whether or not the games hit the “sweet spot” for the individual — fun and challenging, but not so challenging as to be frustrating. Those who showed the least improvement rated the game as more difficult, while those who improved the most found it challenging but not overwhelming.

You can try this task yourself at http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/.

Reference: 

Jaeggi, Susanne M, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Priti Shah. “Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2011 (June 13, 2011): 2-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21670271.

[1183] Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl M., Jonides J., & Perrig W. J.
(2008).  From the Cover: Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(19), 6829 - 6833.

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