Posner on Mind Over Matter

Mind Over Matter was the title of the opening address given by Posner at the 27th Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.  He began his address by saying that humans are an easily distracted species.  He quoted from an ancient Hindu book called the Bhagavad Gita in which Arijuna remarks to Krishna that the mind “is as difficult to control as the wind.”  The blessed lord replies that with practice and indifference to worldly objects, the mind indeed can be restrained.

Posner noted that psychological science has figured out quite a bit about controlling the mind.  We know how the attention system develops in childhood, how it operates in adults and how to restrain it with practice.  He noted that these insights might help relieve mental illness.  “There are many, many attractive projects in psychology these days,” said Posner.  “I believe among  them will be the effort to understand attention in way which can improve the human condition.”

Posner defined attention as the product of two neural systems.  One is called the “orienting network.”  This is the part of the brain that helps us orient to external stimuli in our environment.  The other neural system is called the executive network, which helps us resolve conflicts and execute goals.  One of the key areas that assists this executing network is the anterior cingulate gyrus.  When children reach the age of 7 or 8, the executive network assumes most of the responsibility for maintaining attention.

One of the tools Posner uses is the Attention Network Test (ANT).   Individuals watch a target arrow and press a left button if the arrow is pointing left, and a right button if it is pointing right.  This target arrow can be flanked by congruent arrows (pointing in the same way) or incongruent arrows (pointing different directions).  The differences in reaction time for the congruent and incongruent condition is a strong measure of attention and of self-control.  Research has shown that higher effortful control scores as early as age 4 can predict health (less sickness), wealth (higher income), and crime (lower rates) at age 35.

Posner and his colleagues have identified two main approaches to learning how to control our minds with practice:  attention training and attention state training.  Attention training helps strengthen the mind with executive network tasks.  In one stud, young children were given a juvenile version of the ANT, then trained for 5 days on tasks such as using a joystick to control movement, improving working memory, and resolving mental conflicts.  When they took the ANT again at the end of the training period, the children showed changes in reaction time toward the direction of adult functioning.  He said that least 10 subsequent studies, using a variety of executive training methods have found similar results.

The second approach to learning to control our minds through practice is called attention state training.  Attention state training will be discussed in the next healthy memory blog post.


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