Posts Tagged ‘Attention’

Cognitive Control Limitations

September 15, 2017

This is the sixth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. A brief summary of cognitive control limitations follows.

Selectivity is limited by susceptibility to both internal and external influences. Only one source can be selected. It takes attention to disregard both internal and external sources that are external to what you’ve selected. This is why libraries are kept silent. Extraneous external sources require attention to be filtered out. This also involves internal sources. For example, you might be trying to concentrate on your homework, but you keep thinking about your upcoming date. Most meditation begins with focusing on your breath and perhaps a word or phrase and ignoring extraneous thoughts and extraneous stimuli.

Distribution of attention results in diminished performance compared to focused attention. This focusing requires attentional effort.

Sustainability of attention over time is limited, especially in extended boring situations. Although multitasking situations are not boring, there is the tendency to switch attention rather than to attend to what one is currently attending.

There are processing speed limitations that affect both the efficiency of allocation and withdrawal of attention.

Our working memory capacity is severely limited as to the number of items that can be held in working memory. The magic number 7 plus or minus 2, is closer to 5 plus or minus 2, and the limit can be as small as one depending on the nature of the information.

The fidelity, or quality of information maintained in working memory, decays over time and as a result of interference.

Multitasking is limited by our inability to parallel process two attention demanding taks. In reality task switching is required, which results in costs to accuracy and speed performance.

Although these are the same limitations homo sapiens have always had, they become much more pronounced due to the way we use our current technology. Moreover, this technology keeps multiplying, which exacerbates this problem further.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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Cognitive Processes

September 13, 2017

This is the fourth post based on “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World” by Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen. The authors note that “‘Attention’ is likely the most widely used term in cognitive science.” Attention is also used widely by the general public and practitioners from diverse fields of education, philosophy, mental health, marketing, design, politics, and human factors.

To understand what attention means in cognitive science, its most fundamental feature is selectivity. Selectivity is required because attention is limited. Indeed, it is one of our must fundamental constraints. So we need to be selective to use this limited supply where it is most needed. It can be thought of as the spotlight in our cognitive control toolkit. Selective attention also involves suppression of perceptions that are outside of the spotlight. This is also known as the act of ignoring. What is not so well known is that this suppression requires attention which further depletes the limited supply. The amount of suppression required depends on extraneous stimuli in the immediate environment. And it also entails the suppression of thoughts extraneous to what is in the spotlight. Expectation also play a role here as we used our expectations to direct our attention. Expectation is what allows us to transition from the internal world of our goals to our perceptions and actions. Expectation is a critical factor in optimizing our performance by enabling knowledge of past events to shape our future. To a large extent our brains live in the future, using predictive information to bias both incoming stimuli and outgoing responses.

Directionality is another important feature of selective attention, We can direct our limited cognitive resources to stimuli in the environment, but we can also aim it internally at our thoughts and emotions. As in the case for external selective attention, our ability to control internal attention allows us to attend to relevant or ignore irrelevant information in our minds based on our goals. We can direct our attention toward searching memories and/or focusing on feedback from the body, such as a hungry stomach. It is often important to selectively ignore internal information such as suppressing sadness at a time when you need to remain upbeat, or suppressing a recurrent that is interfering with your current activities.

Another critical factor when using selective attention is our ability to sustain it. This is especially true in situations that are not engaging, or boring. Moreover, over time activities that once were engaging can become boring. Vigilance is the area of research concerned with looking for a signal over a long period of time.

Working memory refers to the amount of information we can hold in our active memory at the same time. This amount of information is limited. The exact amount is dependent on the items. George Miller’s original estimate was seven items plus or minus two. Over time this magic number has decreased. It might even be as small as one, depending on the nature of the information. We must keep thinking about or rehearsing this information to maintain it in working memory. And this is another strong constraint in our cognitive abilities.
Goal management is required when we have more than one goal. So when we engage in more than one goal-directed activity at a time, we are switching back and forth between multiple goals, we are multi-tasking. It is more accurate to call multi-tasking task switching as we can only perform one task at a time. We accomplish multi-tasking by rapidly switching between or among tasks, and this switching requires attention. There is also a requirement to review where we are in the goal to which we have switched back.

All tasks require cognitive control. Even if two tasks are not competing for the same sensory resources, mental task switching is required, with perhaps the requirement to determine where we were when we left that task.

Cognitive Science Should Be Taught in Elementary School

August 30, 2016

For a long time, HM thought that the study of psychology should be put off until college.  However, he has recently come to the opinion that certain parts of human cognition should be taught as soon as possible.  This would provide some insight for the students in to how they think and learn.  The importance of focus and attention, and the fact that bias is inherent to our thinking.

Students likely think of their memory as something they need to use to past tests.  What they need to understand is that their memory is a machine for time travel.  They use it not just to remember stuff for tests, but as a means of searching what they have learned and experience in the past, to decide what to do in the future.  In other words, it goes far beyond remembering stuff for tests.

Information gets into our memories from our senses.  What we perceive  is limited by what we can sense.  Color, for example, does not exist in the external world.  Color is created by what our eyes can sense.  People who have different kinds of color blindness are limited by the absence of specific color sensing sensors (cones).

Our brains process these inputs and create internal models of what exists in the world.  Optical illusions provide good examples of what we think we see may not be accurate.  There are also cognitive illusions when what we think does not correspond to reality.  Essentially learning is a process of building better and better cognitive models.  As the result of learning we are able to refine and correct our cognitive models.  But this requires thinking and thinking requires attention.  Usually when we do not remember, it is due to our not paying attention in the first place.  So, paying attention in class is important for effective learning.  Students would learn not only how we make decisions and solve problems, but also better ways to make decisions and solve problems.

They would also learn about Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process View of Cognition.  System 1 is called is called intuition and is very fast.  This speed is the product of learning and is bought at the price of biases used in System 1 Processing.  System 2 is called reasoning and is what we commonly think of as thinking.  One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for errors

Our default bias is to believe new information.  This is called the confirmation bias.  If we did not have this as a default bias, we would probably never have survived as a species.  But it does create problems.  We tend to look for information that confirms what we believe.  Unfortunately, this carries the risk of failing to correct our biases.  Science is structured to look for information to disconfirm current theories or beliefs.
One of the biggest problems is correcting disinformation.  This is why the big lie is so successful.  If something is heard frequently enough, the tendency is to believe it, regardless of whether it is true or not.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Science Reveals that “Well-Being” Is a Skill

May 3, 2016

The title of this post is the title of an article by the eminent psychologist Richard Davidson that was published in the e-letter by Mindful Magazine (you can subscribe to the e-letter by going to www,mindful.org).  Dr. Davidson identifies four components of well-being.  They are resilience, outlook, attention, and generosity.

Resilience refers to how well someone recovers from adversity.  People differ on this dimension, with some recovering quickly and others taking a long time to recover.  Obviously, the ability to recover quickly is a definite plus, and it is good to rate high on this resilience dimension.  Remember that well-being is a skill, so resilience can be developed.  Research indicates that this cannot be done quickly, but with dedicated practice one can gradually progress on this dimension.

Outlook is the ability to savor  positive experience such as  enjoying a coffee break to seeing kindness in every person.  Research has shown that modest amounts of loving-kindness and compassion meditation can positively impact outlook.  Davidson cites a study  in which individuals who had never meditated before received 30 minutes of compassion training over two weeks.  Davidson said, “Not only did we see changes in the brain, but these changes in the brain actually predicted pro-social behavior.”

Attention refers the ability to control attention.  Davidson said, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” which is a paraphrase of the subtitle of an article published by a group of social psychologists at Harvard.  These researchers found that almost half the time, we’re not actually paying attention to the present moment.  Davidson asks us to envision a world where distractibility goes down a little.   He said that if we could turn down distractibility by just 5% it would positively impact productivity by being present, showing up for others, listening deeply, and so forth.

Davidson says that when individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being..  Moreover, these circuits get activated in a way that shows more enduring activation than other kinds of positive incentives.  Research research also suggests that compassion training can positively alter  our own response to suffering.

There have been many previous healthy memory blog posts on the research of Davidson that can be found by entering “Davidson” in the healthymemoy blog search block.  He defines six dimensions of emotional style.  He also provides exercises for improving one’s performance on each of these dimensions of emotional style.

Happy Thanksgiving 2015!

November 25, 2015

If you have read the preceding four healthy memory blog posts, you should be well aware of how wondrous the brain is and how even more wonderful are the memories we have due to our access to this wondrous organ.  Thanksgiving is an ideal time to express thankfulness for our memories.

The best way of expressing this thankfulness is by adopting a growth mindset and to maintain this mindset throughout our lives.  To maintain a healthy memory it is important  not only to use our memories, but also to grow our memories.  Remember those individuals who despite having brains wracked with the defining neurofibril tangles and amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s never exhibited any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Presumably these individuals have built a cognitive reserve as a result of growing their memories.

Mindfulness and meditation also are important for a healthy memory.  They reduce stress and increase our control of our attentional resources.  They also provide the basis for more effective interpersonal relations, which are also important for memory health.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Integrative Body-Mind Training

June 17, 2015

As was mentioned in the immediately preceding post, during his Opening Address at the Meeting of  the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Posner discussed Attention and two main approaches to training the mind.  The previous post discussed his talk on attention training.   This post discusses his talk on attention state training. Integrative body-mind training (IBMT) is an example of the attention state approach to training the mind.  IBMT was adapted from traditional Chinese medicine in the 1990s in China, where it is being practice by thousands of people. Posner  has brought this technique to the United States at the University of Oregon.

IBMT does not try to control thought, but instead relies on a state of restful alertness that allows for a high degree of body-mind awareness while receiving instructions from a coach.  The coach provides breath-adjustment guidance, mental imagery and other techniques as soothing music plays in the background.  Gradually thought control is achieved through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balancing breathing.  Having a good coach is important.

Two experiments were run at Chinese universities.  In both experiments participants who had not previously practiced relaxation or meditation received either IBMT or general relaxation instruction for 20 minutes a day for five days.  Although both groups experienced some benefit from the training,  those in IBMT showed dramatic differences  based on brain-imaging and physiological testing.

IBMT subjects had increased blood flow in the right anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region associated with self regulation of cognition and emotion.  Compared with the relaxation group, IBMT subjects had lower heart rates and skin conductance responses, increased belly breathing amplitude and decreased chest respiration rates all of which reflected less effort exertion by participants, more relaxation of body and a calm state of mind.  The following is complicated, so please bear with me, “IBMT subjects had more high-frequency variability than their relaxation counterparts, indicating successful inhibition of sympathetic tone and activation of parasympathetic tone in the autonomic nervous system.”  Sympathetic tone becomes more active when stressed.

Posner has essentially replicated these results at the University of Oregon.    He has conducted another study using a group of smokers (randomly assigned either to basic relaxation training or to IBMT.  Although this study used smokers it was not portrayed as a study designed to help them stop smoking.  After two weeks the IBMT group (but not the relaxation group) showed an average 60% reduction in cigarette smoking.  Brain scans confirmed  an increase in brain activity in areas related to self-control, including the anterior cingulate..

What specially amazed Posner was that many of the subjects did not realize that they were smoking less, despite the fact some of the reduction levels approached those of a quitter!

Posner on Mind Over Matter

June 13, 2015

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.

There Will Be Another Brief Hiatus in New Posts

February 1, 2015

Nevertheless with more than 550 Healthymemory Blog posts I think there is sufficient reading material.  If I had to recommend one blog post to read it would be “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  This can be found by entering this title in the search box of the healthy memory blog.  This search block can be used to identify blog posts on the following topics.

Posts based on whom I regard as the most important cognitive psychologists:  Nobel Prize Winner Kahneman, plus Stanovich and Davidson.  There are posts on the important topics of attention and cognitive reserve.  Other topics of potential interest are The Flynn Effect, mindfulness, meditation, memory champs, contemplative computing, behavioral economics, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Of course, you are encouraged to enter any of your favorite topics into the healthymemory blog search block

Enjoy.  I shall return.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Happy New Year for 2015! Now What About Those Resolutions?

December 30, 2014

If you are serious about achieving your resolutions, be realistic. If you have read previous healthymemory blog posts on this topic, you should be aware that achieving resolutions requires resources of attention and will power that are consumed in your efforts to achieve them. As has been mentioned in previous posts, picking just two resolutions is a good idea. One resolution should be fairly easy to accomplish. You want to have at least one victory in the win column. The second resolution should be a stretch, but not too much of a stretch. This is one that you can truly congratulate yourself for accomplishing.

You want to bring mindfulness into your resolutions. If you are not currently practicing mindfulness, then that resolution should be on the top of your list. Practicing mindfulness will enhance the probability of you achieving your resolutions. Entering “mindfulness” into the healthymemory blog search block will yield many, many blog posts on this topic.

Memory, Attention, Consciousness

November 30, 2014

I’ve just begun reading The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin. I’ve already realized that I should have read this book some time ago, and it is already clear that I am going to recommend it. Usually I do not recommend books until I’ve completed reading them, but I am making an exception in this case. It is already clear that much of the advice will involve transactive memory. Before proceeding with advice providing posts, I feel compelled to write a post on memory, attention, and consciousness. These three topics are central to the healthymemory blog, and although Levitin does not necessarily provide new information, I think that his treatment of these topics deserve special consideration.

Here is how Levitin begins Chapter 2 on How Memory and Attention work, “We live in a world of illusions. We think we are aware of everything going around us. We look out and see an uninterrupted picture of the visual world, composed of thousands of little detailed images. We may know that each of us has a blind spot, but we go on blissfully unaware of where it actually is because our occipital cortex does such a good job of filling in the missing information and hence hiding it from us.

“We attend to objects in the environment partly based on our will (we choose to pay attention to some things), partly based on an alert system that monitors our world for danger, and partly based on our brain’s own vagaries. Our brains come preconfigured to create categories and classifications of things automatically and without our conscious intervention. When the systems we’re trying to set up are in collision with the way our brain automatically categorizes things, we end up losing things, missing appointments, or forgetting to do things we needed to do.”

Regular readers of the healthymemory blog should know that memory is not a passive storage system for data. Rather it is dynamic, guiding our perception, helping us to deal with the present and project into the future. Fundamentally it is a machine for time travel. It is not static, but constantly changing, with the sometimes unfortunate consequent in our being highly confident of faulty recollections. Memories are the product of assemblies of neurons firing. New information, learning, is the result of new cell assemblies being formed. Neurons are living cells that can connect to each other, and they can connect to each other in trillions of different ways. The number of possible brain states that each of us can have is so large that it exceeds the number of known particles in the universe. (I once asked a physicist how they computed this number of known particles and he told me. I would pass this on to you had I not forgotten his answer.)

Attention is critical as there is way too much information to process. So we need to select the information to which we want to attend. Sometimes this selection process itself demands.substantial attention. Moreover, switching attention requires attention, which only exacerbates attentional limitations when multitasking.

Consciousness has been explained as the conversation among these neurons. Levitin has offered the explanation that there are multiple different cell assemblies active at one time. Consciousness is the result of the selection of one of these cell assemblies. In other words, there are multiple trains of thought, and we must choose one of them to ride.

A critical question is how to employ our limited consciousness effectively. One way is the practice of mindfulness meditation to try to achieve a Zen-like focus of living in the moment. This can be accomplished through a regular meditation regimen. However, we should not neglect the short time application of this mindfulness. We need to apply this Zen-like focus when putting things down (your keys, important items), so you’ll remember where you put them. Also do not neglect uses of transactive memory and put notes in planners, on calendars, or in your electronic device so you’re sure you’ll be able to access them.

A Key Component Generating Conscious Experience?

October 29, 2014

The November/December 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind included an article by Christof Koch, who is a former collaborator with Francis Crick, who with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure and the function of DNA. The title of the article is “A Brain Structure Looking for a Function.” The brain structure in question is the claustrum. The claustrum is a thin, irregular sheet of cells, tucked below the neocortex, which is the gray matter that allows us to see, hear, reason, think, and remember. It is surrounded on all sides by white matter, the tracts, or wire bundles, that interconnect cortical regions with one another and with other brain regions. There are two claustra one for each side of the brain. They lie below the general region of the insular cortex, underneath the temples, just above the ears. They have a long, thin wisp of a shape that can be easily overlooked when inspecting the topography of the brain region.

Advanced brain-imaging techniques have revealed white matter fibers coursing to and from the two claustra that it is a neural Grand Central Station. Almost every region of the cortex sends fibers to the claustra. These connections are reciprocated by other fibers that extend back from the claustra to the originating cortical regions. Although each claustrum receives inputs from both cortical hemispheres, but only project back to the overlying cortex on the same side.

Crick looked at these facts and believed that a reliable guide to understanding function, is to study structure. And he, working with Koch formulated the idea that the claustra are a key component of the networks generating conscious experience. This work turned out to be Crick’s Swan Song to science as he was suffering from end-stage colon cancer. He finished his paper with Koch before passing away,

“What is the Function of the Claustrum?, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 360, No.1458, pages 1271-1279.

Additional research supporting this contention of Crick and Koch is cited in the Koch piece in Scientific American Mind. Nevertheless it is always fascinating to speculate about conscious. It is the only product of the brain with which we have direct experience. Yet the brain is raging with activity 24 hours a day. There are many reasons to believe that we can use our conscious experience to improve our focus and ability to attend. We can also use it to control our emotions and it lets us take a third person look at our own interactions with other. Fundamentally, meditation and mindfulness is a matter of learning to control our conscious experience to advantage.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPS)

April 19, 2014

This post is based largely on entry point 25 (Time-In and Mindful Awareness Practices) of the Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology by Daniel J. Siegel. William James, who is regarded by many as the father of modern psychology, proposed more than one hundred years ago that the exercise of returning a wandering attention again and again would be the “education par excellence” for the mind. I remember reading his words when I was a student many years ago thinking “right on.” My mind wandering during my studies was a constant source of frustration. Later in my life I read James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. If memory serves me correctly, eastern religions were not among the varieties of religious experience discussed. Unfortunately there is an anti-eastern/pro-western bias in western education. Had James reviewed these eastern religions, he would have discovered practices in meditation and mindfulness that addressed this very problem.
The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) uses the term mindful awareness practices (MAPS) to the many approaches for developing the skill of being mindfully aware. These strategies focus attention on the present moment. They focus attention on intention and also create awareness of awareness. When the breath is supposed to be the object of attention, the focus of the mind usually wanders and becomes distracted, the intended goal is to redirect attention back to the breath again and again. If the intention of the practice, to focus on the breath, is forgotten, then the exercise will not be performed well. Stabilizing attention requires being aware of awareness, and paying attention to intention. These are the keys to mindful awareness that strengthens the mind itself.
Time-in is a term used to refer to the ways in which we can take time to focus inward, to pay attention to our sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts (SIFT). That is, we SIFT the mind’s inner experience. Doing this each day can promote improvements in emotion regulation, attention, and empathy. Increasing the capacity to be aware of awareness and pay attention to intention strengthens the brain’s circuits for executive functions. These executive functions include the ability to sustain attention, to avoid distractions, to selectively change attention and then focus on the designated target, and to allocate the resources necessary to complete a task successfully. Research done at MARC found as much executive function improvement as is found using stimulant medication in adolescents and adults with attention deficit challenges. Other research at the University of California has found that sustaining mindful awareness can increase telomerase, the enzyme needed to maintain the telomeres at the ends of the chromosomes that sustain the life of the cell.
There is some debate regarding whether being mindful is primarily a way of focusing attention on the present-moment experience or whether it also entails a state of positive regard for self and for others. COAL is an acronym for the notion of being aware that is imbued with kindness. COAL stands for curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. One kind regard it as either ironic or justified, but being concerned for others also benefits one’s personal health.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Attention

March 22, 2014

My views regarding attention have changed somewhat after reading Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. But my views regarding the importance of attention have been further strengthened. According to Siegel, “Attention is the process that shapes the direction of the flow of energy and information. Attention can be within consciousness, so that we are aware of the object of our attention. Attention can also be nonconscious, in that energy and information flow is being directed, but we are not aware of that flow. The formal terms for these are focal (conscious) and nonfocal (non-conscious) attention.”

In other words, little important happens absent attention. What is new for me is the notion of nonfocal attention. I have always thought of attention as being consciousness or focal attention. However, upon reflection, I found examples of non-conscious attention. In this blog I have spoken of being unable to recall some information. I try and try, yet remain unable to access it. Then, much later, hours, sometimes days, the information suddenly pops into consciousness. There are also cases of scientific ideas and problem solutions popping into mind, seemingly out of nowhere.
But they did not pop out of nowhere. Apparently they were the result of nonfocal attention continuing to search for the item or solution long after the conscious mind had given up.

Being able to focus our attention so that we bring mental energy where it is needed is critical to the functioning of a healthy memory. And we have the consolation of knowing that our nonfocal attention might keep on working and learning even after our conscious efforts have ceased.

I’ll conclude this post with an excerpt from Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. “From an interpersonal neurobiology perspective, attention is the “scalpel” that helps us remold neural pathways: Attention is to a clinician or teacher what a scalpel is to a surgeon. Individuals can be empowered with focal attention to move the neural proclivities of trauma into new states of integrative firing. Children whose teachers capture their imagination and inspire them to pay attemtion will be able to learn and build a scaffold of knowledge about the world and themselves. Attention is the driving force of change and growth.”1

1Siegel, D.J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobioloty: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

How Mind Wandering Affects Performance on Aptitude Tests

January 21, 2014

Our minds wander quite frequently and we are quite aware of it, and concentration is important to our performance on mental tests. So a reasonable question is whether our mind wandering affects our performance on these aptitude tests. Several experiments1 have addressed this question. In the first experiment 115 undergraduates completed automated versions of memory span tasks, the operation span task, the reading span task, and the symmetry span task. At unpredicted intervals during each span task participants were asked to indicate to what extent their attention was on-task or on task unrelated concerns using the following scale (1=completely on task, 2=mostly on task, 3=both on the task and task unrelated concerns, 4=mostly on unrelated concerns, and 5=completely on unrelated concerns). This provided a measure of task unrelated thoughts (TUTs). Statistically significant negative correlations were found between performance on the memory tasks and the TUTs, indicating that more mind wandering was correlated with lower performance on the memory span tests.

The second experiment examined how mind wandering was related to the performance on specific memory span trials. This time ratings were obtained for each trial of the operation span task. Sixty-seven undergraduates participated in this task. Accurate memory span trials were associated with less mind wandering, fewer TUTs..

It should be well known that correlations do not prove causation. So the question is whether mind wandering causes poorer memory span performance. Prior research2 has shown that financial incentives improve complex task performance. In the third experiment half of the research participants were informed that they could earn as much as $5 for their performance on the operation span task. The other half served as the no financial incentive control group. The financial incentives group performed better on the operation span task and indicated more TUTs, providing evidence that the task performance was mediated by the mind wandering.

The fourth experiment embedded thought sampling ratings into tests of both working memory capacity (WMC) using the operation span task and measures of fluid intelligence, gF (using Raven’s progressive matrices). The hypotheses were that mind wandering would be (a) associated with worse task performance, (b) predict performance on the SAT taken by the participants 1-3 years earlier, and (c) be strongly associated with a latent variable capturing the shared variance between these measures of general aptitude. All three hypotheses were confirmed.

So the ability to control one’s attention is important on the performance on these tests. The next blog post will address the question of better controlling one’s attention to improve performance.

1Mrazek, M.D., Smallwood, J., Franklin, M.S., Chin. J.M., Baird, B., & Schooler, J.W. (2012). The Role of Mind Wandering in Measurements of General Aptitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 788-798.

2Heitz, R.P., Schrock, J.C., Payne, T.W., & Engle, R.W. (2008).

Seek Flow

October 13, 2013

Seeking flow is the sixth principle of contemplative computing.1 Flow is a state identified by Mikhaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high’-ee).2 It has the following components. “Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.”3 He says that you can reach flow doing almost anything. He gives an example of how lox cutters achieve flow.

Situations in which there are challenges, clear rules, and immediate feedback are likely to achieve flow. Usually video games are good for achieving flow, and they have been found beneficial in helping older people keep mentally sharp. Unfortunately, once you become especially good at something it can become boring. That is why many games have different difficulty levels. Once you have become bored with one level and are no longer achieving, you can advance to the next level and improve to the point where you again achieve flow.

Flow can be experienced in many activities, and some require considerable time before you start to achieve flow. I remember studying German in college. The first course was slow going. In fact, I received my first and only “D” in introductory German . I then learned that I needed to spend time drilling in the language laboratory until things started flowing. As I studied further, I could read German without consulting the dictionary so frequently. And got to the point where I could understand lectures when they were given in German.

Seeking flow can be regarded as an extension of the preceding principle, extend your abilities. Play video games and achieve flow. But don’t stop there. Consider athletic, and especially mental, activities were flow can be achieved. Mnemonic techniques can be developed to the point where flow is achieved in memorization.

The first five principles of contemplative computing have been discussed in the immediately preceding posts. The final two principles will be discussed in the subsequent posts.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction

2 (2008) Csikszentmihalyi, E. The Psychology of Optimal Experience

3 (2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Make Conscious Choices

October 6, 2013

The fourth principle of contemplative computing1 is to Make Conscious Choices. Always remember that it is you who decides when to use which devices and which software. It is you who decides if and when you will answer your phone and your voice mail. Don’t let technology dictate what you do. Make conscious choices and be mindful of your choices.

Dr. Pang also makes a useful distinction between multi-tasking and switch tasking. True multi-tasking involves doing multiple tasks that go together. Cooking several dishes at the same time in the preparation of a meal is one of the examples provided by Dr. Pang. Conducting a teleconference on your computer is another example. My wife likes to walk and talk on her cellphone. As long as this is done in a quiet environment, this is another example of multitasking. However, were she walking in an urban environment, this would, of necessity, be an example of switch tasking because she would need to switch her attention to assure that she would not be hit in traffic. Similarly, driving and talking on the phone is an example of switch tasking. The tasks do not go together and attention much be switched from one task to the other. The very act of switching tasks demands attention. And remember when you are driving, you are controlling a vehicle that can kill. Previous healthymemory blog posts have not make a distinction between multitasking and switch tasking. The multitasking dangers discussed in previous healthymemory blog posts have been switch tasking dangers using Dr. Pang’s distinction.

Properly designed Zenware reminds you that you make your own choices about where to direct your attention by helping you focus your attention.

The first three principles of contemplative computing were discussed in previous healthymemory blog posts. The four remaining principles of contemplative computing will be discussed in subsequent healthymemory blog posts.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction.

Be Calm

September 29, 2013

The second of eight steps to contemplative computing1 is to be calm. Contemplation involves a special kind of calm. It’s active rather than passive. It’s disciplined and self-aware. It’s like the placidity of the samurai. Or the coolness under pressure exhibited by an experienced pilot. It’s the product of masterful engagement that fills one’s attention and leaves no room for distraction.

Training and discipline are required for this type of calm. It involves a deep understanding of both devices and the self. This calm does not require getting away from the world. Rather it allows for fluid quick action in the world. The goal is not to escape, but rather to engage. We need to set the stage on which we can bring our entanglement with devices and media under our control so that we can more effectively engage with the world and extend ourselves.

Remember that technology affords the opportunity to be calm, if only we make use of it. There is voice mail, so phone messages can be answered, or not answered, when we decide to answer them. Similarly, email awaits our attention. Always remember that it is our attention. We can decide if and when to devote our attention to it.

Also remember, that meditation is a practice that can help us be calm. You will find many posts on meditation in the healthymemory blog.

Zenware, which assists us in being calm, is discussed in The Distraction Addiction. Writeroom and Ommwriter are two examples of Zenware. Try going to http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/.

The remaining six principles of contemplative computing will be discussed in subsequent healthymemory blog posts. The first principle, Be Human, was discussed in the preceding blog post.

1(2013) Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction

Multi-tasking in the Automobile

June 26, 2013

This presentation was done by David L. Strayer of the University of Utah at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). His important work on multi-tasking in the automobile has been discussed in previous healthymemory blog posts. To bring you up to date, matters have gotten worse. Elaboration on this point will follow later in this blog. Strayer had video of an individual who was not only texting, but also reading on his kindle why he was driving. He had another video of a motorcyclist who was texting while riding his motorcycle in traffic!

One of the problems with multi-tasking is that people who think they are good at it are usually especially bad at it and put others at risk. Research indicates that at any time on the road about 10% of the drivers are on their phones. Research has also indicated that driving and using your cell phone degrades driving performance to the level of those who are qualified to be legally driving under the influence (BAC > 0.08 %). Statistics indicate that a driver is 2.2 times as likely to commit a traffic violation when they are on a cell phone. Hands free laws are irrelevant. This is a matter of diverting a limited supply of attention. A common statement is, “how is this any worse than speaking with the passenger who is in the car with you?” Here the critical difference is that your passenger is likely aware of the situation and can actually assist you. Strayer had videos of people in a driving simulator with a passenger and a cell phone. Their task was to exit at a specific exit. Those who had a passenger did especially well with the passenger helping them to identify the exit. However, those on a cell phone were much more prone to drive past the exit. He also had video of a driver on a cell phone driving write through a red light and crashing into another car. The reason for this is attentional blindness. Speaking on a phone takes away attention needed for driving. There is a demonstration where viewers are asked to watch a video and count the number of passes of a ball completed by people in the video. During this video a man in a gorilla suit walks across the stage. Most people watching this video miss the man in the gorilla suit because their attention is directed at the ball tossing task!

Texting while driving is even worse. If you are going to text while driving, why not just drive off the road and save the lives of those you might kill texting while driving?   Matters are getting worse. Car manufactures are placing systems in cars that allow you to review email, search the web, and compose text messages while driving. Moreover, drivers can select from options and make dinner reservations. All this crap, and I do mean crap, is being placed in new automobiles without any regard for the risks they are creating!

Voice-Activated Texting is Still Dangerous

April 24, 2013

The effects of voice-activated texting were tested at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.1 Quite a few years ago, I, along with my colleagues, spent a very interesting day at this institute. It is an impressive institute that conducts quality research. The institute assessed a mobile device that translates words into text messages. They found that it is every bit as dangerous as conventional texting. Reaction times were twice as slow, and eyes were on the road much less often than when they were not texting. This result is not surprising; it is analogous to using hands free phones while driving. Research has shown that using a hands free phone while driving is analogous to driving under the influence of alcohol. The problem is one of attentional limitations, our limited ability to process information. Texting or speaking on the phone degrades driving performance. Although it is true that texting is more dangerous than speaking on the phone, what bothers me is that all the warnings involve texting. Using the phone while driving is still dangerous. And hands free laws are irrelevant to the problem.

According to the article, about 3,300 people a year die in crashes attributed to distracted driving , with 387,000 more injured in 2011. Frankly, I regard these numbers, particularly the numbers involving deaths, to be unrealistically low. What was especially alarming was the survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 35 percent of drivers admitted that they had recently read text messages or e-mail while driving, and that 26 percent said they had sent a text message. If you are wondering why I find these numbers so worrisome, please read the healthymemory blog post, “The “Now” is Really the “Then.” To learn more about the dangers of using the phone while driving, see the healthymemory blog posts, “Phone and Driving is as Dangerous as Drinking and Driving,” “Doing Two Things at Once is NOT Better,” and “Multitasking is a Trade-Off.” Texting and phoning while driving might be conveniences, but remember that for many years we did just fine without these conveniences. If you want to put yourself and your passengers at risk is one matter, but consider the risk you are placing on others on the road.

1Halsey III, A. (2013) Drivers not safer with voice-activated texting study finds. Washington Post, 23 April, B1.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

April 7, 2013

This blog post has been derived primarily from the Scientific American Mind article1 “Being in the Now.” A preceding healthymemory blog post, “Being in the Now is Really Being in the Then,” made a technical correction, but the term as used in the Scientific American Mind article is generally accepted. Moreover, the healthymemory blog heartily endorses the claims made in this article. The immediately preceding healthymemory blog post describes a technique to help in achieving the benefits of mindfulness.

According to the Scientific American Mind article, mindfulness is a mental mode of being engaged in the present moment without evaluating or emotionally reacting to it. Currently, there are more than 250 medical centers worldwide that offer mindfulness-based therapies for mood and other disorders. Mindfulness training works by strengthening the brain’s ability to pay attention. The healthymemory blog strongly believes that this is the key benefit from mindfulness training. Memory is the center for human information processing including its maladies and disorders. Attention is the key process that determines what gets into memory and what is retrieved from memory. Accordingly, the ability to control one’s attention is a most important skill.

Another item from the Scientific American Mind article, “After receiving mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, patients report noticing that negative thoughts lose their power over time.” Also from the article, “Mindfulness training can relieve symptoms of ailments that stress can exacerbate such as psoriasis and fibromyalgia.” And, “By improving the ability to direct and monitor attention, mindfulness meditation could enhance people’s performance in pursuits as diverse as sports and surgery.” Mindfulness also provides an antidote to rumination, worry, and fear, and their adverse effects on mental health.

To find more healthymemory blog posts on mindfulness, enter “mindfulness” into the blog’s search block. Entering “meditation” will reveal even more relevant articles. Entering “Davidson,” will retrieve articles on Dr. Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style, as well as meditation techniques to enhance and refine these respective dimensions.

1Jha., A.P. (2013) March/April, 26-33.

Achieving Mindfulness

April 3, 2013

Mindfulness has become a hot topic. There is a new monthly magazine, Mindful, www.mindful.org, the the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind features articles on mindfulness. Most approaches to mindfulness involve meditation. The healthymemory blog has many posts on meditation. The psychologist Richard Davidson has identified six dimensions of emotional style (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style): resilience, outlook, self awareness, social intuition, sensitivity to context, and attention. He has techniques, which can be found in the healthymemory blog (use the blogs search box), for cultivating each of these dimensions.

Meditation techniques range from exercises designed to train concentrative focus, a narrowing of attention, to exercises designed to train open monitoring, a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Both skills are necessary. There are times when we need to focus on a particular problem or idea and there are types where we need to allow new thoughts into our consciousness without rejecting them out of hand as a result of selection biases. In the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind there is a piece on Capturing Attention on page 33. This is an exercise by Scott Rogers, the Director of Programs and Training, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative at the University of Miami, that incorporates both types of training into a single meditation session. Here is the technique:

“Sit in an upright, stable position, hands resting on your thighs or cradled together.

Lower or close your eyes, whichever is more comfortable.

Attend to your breath, following its movement throughout your body.

Notice the sensations around your belly as air flows into and out of your nose and mouth. You have been breathing all day—all of your life—and in this moment, you are simply noticing your breath.

Select one area of your body affected by your breathing and focus your attention there. Control your focus, not the breathing itself.

When you notice your mind wandering – and it will – bring your attention back to your breath.

After five to ten minutes, switch from focusing to monitoring. Think of your mind as a vast open sky and your thoughts, feelings and sensations as passing clouds.

Feel you whole body move with your breath. Be receptive to your sensations, noticing what arises in the moment. Be attentive to the changing quality of experience – sounds, aromas, the caress of a breeze…thoughts.

After about five more minutes, lift your gaze and open your eyes.

The “Now” is Really the “Then”

March 31, 2013

The “Now” is a key concept in mindfulness with the objective of staying present in the “now.” As will be mentioned later in this post, the objective is good, but it is misnamed. Our information processing limitations are such that we can never be present in the “now.” It takes about 0.1 seconds to read data out of our sensory stores. Further processing is then required before the data becomes information that we can understand. So all we know is history, although an extremely small portion of it is very recent history. We use our memories to predict and cope with the future. One of the most remarkable athletic feats is hitting a ball with a bat. The ball is arriving quickly, sometimes extremely fast. The projection of where that ball will be and how we are going to meet it with a bat requires literally a split second decision based on past information that has just recently arrived. Very few people seem to be aware of these delays that preclude us from being precisely in the “now.” This is of particular concern to me as there does not seem to be an awareness among many of the drivers how long it will take them to react should they need to take action. Even if one is devoting full attention to responding to a signal, that decision cannot be immediate. When one is scanning the highway and thinking the car will have traveled considerable distance before one can react. This time is further increased when one is on a cell phone.

We use this historical information stored in our memories to cope with the external world. We build models of the world to project ourselves into the future and try to predict it. I once knew a physicist who was disturbed that light could be both a wave (having frequencies) and a particle (photons). As a psychologist this never bothered me. There are models in our minds. Different models can be better suited for understanding different phenomena. This is the case with light. I don’t believe that we, as corporal beings, can ever experience the external world directly, but only via the models we develop in our minds,

In mindfulness what is really meant by being in the “now” is being in control of our attention. Our brains remain active 24 hours a day, and I doubt absent any pathology that there is any time that our minds our not filled with something. The exercises one performs to be “mindful” involve controlling one’s attention. There are a wide variety of meditation techniques to do this. At one extreme is the focusing and maintaining attention on a single action, breath, word, or phrase. It is very important to be able to focus attention processing at certain times. At the other extreme, meditation involves letting thoughts flow through our minds unedited. The goal here is to bypass filters or information processing biases that cause us to reject certain thoughts or ideas. Insight and creativity are critically dependent on both these types of attention (See the healthymemory blog post, “Creativity: Turn Your Prefrontal Cortex Down, Then Up”).

Although I am a strong proponent of mindfulness and many of its practices, I am a bit put off by some of the terms that are used.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Doing Two Things at Once is NOT Better

March 6, 2013

I feel compelled to write this post because of blaring commercials claiming that doing two things at once is better. The healthymemory blog has many posts on the effects of multi-tasking (enter “multi-tasking” into the search block of the blog). Out attentional capacity is limited, such that when we try to do two tasks, the performance on one or both tasks usually suffers. Moreover, the switching between tasks involves attentional costs.

Now it might be true that we enjoy doing two things at once because we want to talk and watch television at the same time. And it is definitely true that there are times when we are required to do two things at once. Nevertheles, there are cognitive costs to doing two things at once. We can both perform and enjoy an activity more when we are devoting all our attention to it than when we multi-task. We might want to read or study at the same time we are watching television, but the efficiency of the reading or study will suffer.

We also need to realize that we can jeopardize ourselves and others when we multi-tasking. Texting and driving has received a lot of deserved adverse publicity. Unfortunately using a phone while driving has not received as much adverse publicity. There is also a misconception, that it is the hands that present a problem while driving and using the phone. Consequently there are hands-free laws on the books in many places. These laws accomplish little or nothing. It is the attentional demands of using a phone while driving that presents the danger. Research has indicated that driving performance while on the phone is equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08%, the most common standard for driving under the influence (DUI).

Another myth is that youngsters who have grown up with technology can multi-task without costs. Evolution is slow and insufficient time has passed for this to be the case. Moreover, research has found that this is not true. It was found that even students at the Massachusetts of Technology (MIT), who thought that they could multi-task without costs, were proven to be wrong.

The argument here is not to ever multi-task. Sometimes multi-tasking is convenient or enjoyable. There are other times when multi-tasking is required. But we must all be aware that multi-tasking does involve costs, and that we should never place ourselves or others in danger.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Net Smart

June 21, 2012

Net Smart: How to Thrive Online is a most welcome book by Howard Rheingold. A common theme for many articles and books is on the dangers the internet and its accompanying technologies. They argue that it is causing us to lose our ability to focus and concentrate on tasks; that technology is causing widespread attention deficit disorder. It is causing us to be isolated, connected with technology rather than our fellow humans. What I resent about these publications is that they make us seem like helpless victims of technology. This is not to deny that there are dangers that can result from the misuse of technology, but we can use them to our advantage so that we leverage technology to our own benefit rather than become helpless victims. Howard Rheingold informs us how to use technology to our benefit. In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is transactive memory. Transactive memory encompasses our fellow humans as well as technology. So does Rheingold’s approach to thriving online.

The first chapter is titled “Attention: How to Control Your Mind’s Most Powerful Instrument.” Many Healthymemory Blog Posts have addressed this topic (try entering “Attention” into the search box.). The first step involves harnessing our own attentional processes and becoming more mindful.

Chapter 2 is titled “Crap Detection 101: How to Find What You Need to Know, and How to Decide if It’s True.” A major criticism of the web is how to determined the veracity of stuff posted on the web. Actually this problem is not unique to the web, as this skill is needed for evaluating texts, newscasts, and statements by friends and acquaintances. A less well-recognized problem involves finding this good information. Search is a skill in itself that needs to be learned to benefit fully from the offerings on the web.

Chapter 3 is titled “Participation Power.” It provides guidance on how to be an active participant on the web and explains the benefits of this participation.

Chapter 4 is titled “Social-Digital Know How: The Arts and Sciences of Collective Intelligence.” This chapter explains how interactions with your fellow humans can produce collective intelligence that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Chapter 5 is titled “Social Has a Shape Why Networks Matter.” This chapter explains how networks function and why they are important.

Chapter 6 is titled “How (Using) the Web (Mindfully” Can Make Your Smarter.” This chapter echoes an ongoing theme of the Healthymemory Blog, that Transactive Memory can help you grow your intelligence and enhance your cognitive health.

I highly recommend Net Smart. Although some future posts will be based on this book, particularly those dealing with developing and enhancing your memory and cognition, there is no way I can come close to doing justice to Rheingold’s superb volume.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Am I An Old Fuddy Duddy?

May 27, 2012

Personally, I am very large on technology. In my view, technology, properly developed and applied, can leverage human potential. That is one of the underlying views of the Healthymemory Blog, that technology can grow and enhance human potential (see the “Transactive Memory” category). Some of my primary interests and supposed areas of expertise are in human factors and engineering psychology. These areas are concerned with the interactions of humans with technology and in how technology can be designed so it can achieve maximum use. Had anyone asked me many years ago if hand held devices would become popular, I would have opined that they would not, because the keyboards and displays would be way too small. It’s a good thing that no one ever asked me!

I am thrilled by certain types of technology. Email is one of my favorites. In my world, there is no protocol involving email other than not to spam or otherwise annoy people with messages that are not of interest to them. So they can be short or long and can be sent at anytime. You do not have to be concerned about the time, because the recipient can view them at leisure. When you send an email there can be no question of what you wrote and when sent it. Of course, there is no guarantee that the recipient either read or understood your message. A few years ago I learned from a young lady that my protocol was out of date. If a message was short, email was inappropriate, whereas a text message was. I still do not understand why there was a need to complicate matters.

I don’t understand texting. I never text and I never read texts. When I receive a text message on my phone that I have received x number of text messages and asked if I want to read them now, I invariably respond “no.” These messages will never be read. I find inputting a text to be a nuisance. If time is of the essence, then I’ll phone. Otherwise, I much prefer waiting until I can get to a computer with a decent keyboard to texting.

So I have admitted to having a mobile phone. And I do like them, but mostly when I’m traveling. They most definitely should not be used when we are driving (see the Healthymemory Blog post “Phoning and Driving is as Dangerous as Drinking and Driving”), but I must confess to using the phone briefly while driving in certain situations. Although I have a mobile phone, it is not one of the smart ones. It is a rare circumstance when I have not gathered all the information I need before leaving my residence to go or do something. I was awarded one of those navigation devices for so many years of service with my company, but I have not installed it and my wife has no interest in my installing it. I like to have my directions in advance, with an accompanying map in the event that things go wrong. I don’t like getting my directions on the fly, particularly in the dynamic (or more accurately, chaotic) traffic in which I usually drive. Perhaps I am adapting to a diminished ability to multitask as I age. But even with a younger person at the wheel, I am not comfortable as a passenger when the driver is consulting the navigation gizmo in rapidly changing traffic. I suspect that some traffic accidents occur as a result of drivers interacting with their navigation devices.

There is a popular notion that due to the prevalence of all these devices, the brains of young people have been rewired for multitasking. Although young people might be more prone to multitasking, they do pay a cognitive cost (see the Healthymemory Blog post, “The Dangers of Multitasking”). It is important to realize that we are very poor at gauging our ability to multitask. There is an inverse relationship between the perceived ability to multitask and actual multitasking performance. So the unfortunate tendency is that those who are poorest at it, tend to do more of it.

To return to the title of this post, “Am I An Old Fuddy Duddy?” Am I missing out on technology that is of potential value to me? Or am I adapting my use of technology to my waning attentional abilities? Please enter your comments, recommendations, and advice.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Improving Nonjudgmental Awareness

May 20, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with nonjudgmental awareness.

Dr. Davidson recommends open-monitoring meditation, in which your attention is not focused on any particular object. Instead you cultivate an awareness of awareness itself. Before beginning this type of meditation, Dr. Davidson recommends beginning with focused-attention meditation such as breath meditation to to give you a level of basic attentional stability. This should make open-monitoring meditation.

He provides the following basics of open-minded meditation:

“1. Sit in a quiet room with a comfortable chair, with your back straight but the rest of your body relaxed. Keep your eyes open or closed whichever is more comfortable. If your eyes are open, gaze downward and keep your eyes somewhat unfocused.

      1. Maintain a clear awareness and openness to your surroundings. Keep your mind calm and relaxed, not focused on anything specific, yet totally present, clear, vivid and transparent.

      2. Lightly attend to whatever object rises to the top of your consciousness, but do not latch on to it. You want to observe the thinking process itself, perhaps saying to yourself, Oh, I notice that the first thing I think about as I sit down to meditate is…

      3. Give your full attention to the most current salient object of consciousness, focusing on it to the exclusion of anything else, but without thinking about it. That is, you are simply aware of it, observing it as disinterestedly as possible, but do not explore it intellectually.

      4. Generate a state of total openness, in which the mind is as vast as the sky, able to welcome and absorb any stray thought, feeling, or sensation like a new star that begins shining. When thoughts arise, simply let them pass through your mind without leaving any trace of it. When you perceive noises, images, tastes, or other sensations, let them be as they are without engaging with them or rejecting them. Tell yourself that they can’t affect the serene equanimity of your mind.

      5. If you notice your mind moving toward thought or feeling, let it do so, letting the newcomer slip into consciousness. Unlike in attention-strengthening forms of meditation, you do not try to shoo away the “intruding” thought, but allow your mind to turn to it. The key difference between breath-focused attention discussed previously is that in open-monitoring meditation there is no single focus to which the attention is redirected if it wanders. Rather, you simply become aware of whatever is in the center of attention at the moment.

      6. Turn to this new object of attention as you did the first.

      7. Do this for five to ten minutes.2

Dr. Davidson lists the following meditation centers that offer courses, books, and CDs on open-monitoring meditation: Insight meditation Society in Barre, MA; Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodcare, CA; and Tergar Meditation Group in Minneapolis, MN.

Dr. Davidson did a study in 2009 in which it was found that practitioner of open-monitoring meditation showed phase locking in their EEGs. That is, their brain waves were modulated to make them more receptive to outside stimuli. It is somewhat ironic to note that this phase locking is also an indication of selective attention as we noted in the “Attentional Style” Healthymemory Blog Post. But as it was noted in that blog post, these two types of attention complement each other.

You can also alter your environment to expand your attentional awareness. Put books and magazines around to tempt yourself to read something new. Keep your room or office open to the outside world. Place photos of loved ones on your desk so you can glance at them as you work. Set the alarm on your cell phone or computer to chirp every twenty to thirty minutes to cue you to think of something else.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. pp. 240-241.

Attentional Style

April 25, 2012

Attentional Style is the last of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 to be discussed. But it is certainly not the least important dimension. It is the most important dimension as regular readers of this blog should have anticipated. With respect to a healthy memory, it is the most important dimensions as memory failures are typically due to a failure to pay attention. It is also a key building block for other dimensions as it is difficult to be self-aware or to be tuned in to social cues or sensitive to social context if one is not paying attention.

Davidson notes that there are two types of attention. One is the ability to selectively attend to stimuli that are of interest and to tune out extraneous stimulus. The other type of attention is nonjudgmental awareness. These two types of attention complement each other. Without the ability to selectively attend, the amount of stimulation and information is overwhelming. However, excessive selective attention can cause you to miss important cues or information.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in selective attention. Davidson describes an experiment in which the participants were to push a button when a sound of a certain pitch (high or low) was presented to a particular ear (left or right). EEGs were taken while the participants performed this task. Analyses of the recorded brain waves indicated that participants who performed this task better (where better able to selectively attend) had electrical signals from the prefrontal cortext that exhibited “Phase locking.” That is, the signals from the prefrontal lobes became synchronized precisely with the arrival of the tones.

Specific patterns of brain activation were also found during a study of open, nonjudgmental awareness that Davidson conducted. In this study strings of digits and letter were presented and the task was to to respond whenever a digit occurred. There is a phenomenon termed the attentional blink (or psychological refractory period) in which the response to the second occurrence of a digit is either missed or delayed. EEG recordings were taken of the participants while they performed this task. The EEG data recorded an event related potential known as the P300. It refers to a positive electrical response that occurs about 300 milliseconds after the presentation of a stimulus. Too strong a P300 response indicated that too much attention was expended on the first occurrence of the target stimulus, so that second presentation was missed. Too weak a P300 response typically indicated that both target stimuli were missed. So balanced, nonjudgmental awareness is characterized by a “Goldilocks” P300, not too much and not too little, but just right.

Here is where the emotional brain and the rational, thinking overlap. Clearly the emotional brain affects rational thinking, and is important to a healthy memory.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Attend to Your Senses

March 18, 2012

Failures of memory are primarily due to failures in attention. Either you were distracted and did not pay attention or you were just failing to attend and registering what was going on around you.1 It is true that typically more is going on around you for you to attend to all of it, but, if you are like me, you often fail to attend to any of it. According to Dr. Restak, “…the first step to an enhanced memory involves exercises in sharpening our senses.”2

Actors are encouraged to perform sense-memory exercises. Here is an example. After filling a cup of coffee conduct a detailed sensory analysis of every aspect of a cup of coffee for fifteen minutes (this exercise is recommended to be repeated on a daily basis). Every visual aspect of the cup was to be examined in detail, to include the height of the cup, its diameter, its color, its material composition and the dimension’s of the cup’s handle. Look for the ridges of the cup’s lips, and note the shape and color of the artwork or ceramic design on the cup. Also check for the shape and color of any reflections from the lights of the room that might be visible on the cup. After every possible question regarding the visible aspects of light have been considered, repeat the exercise with the other senses smell and touch.

For a sound memory exercise, focus on the ambient sounds around you. You want to do this in a quiet area that allows you to distinguish individual sounds clearly. How many sounds can you hear? Can you identify them. Concentrate on one sound at a time and try to write down as many features as you can that enables you to distinguish it from other sounds. You can try the same exercise with bird songs. CDs are available of bird songs, which you can play and learn. There are also CDs of other animals such as frogs. Also listen to human speech and try to distinguish and identify different nuances. Record a conversation and try to mentally recall everything that was said in its correct sequence.

Do not forget the sense of touch. Arrange articles of clothing made with different materials on a bed and try to identify them by touch alone. Try to identify objects in your closet by touch alone. Randomly set out similar-sized objects, and sort them with your eyes closed, trying to identify each one by touch alone.

Nor should you forget taste and smell. Exercises can be found in the nearest garden, spice rack, or wine tasting group. Take a number of spices at random and set them on a table. Try to identify each spice by smell alone. Sometimes you might need to add the sense of taste to make the identification.

Sensory motor exercises can also be quite beneficial. No part of the body is more functionally linked to the brain than the hands. Any activity requiring finger dexterity enhances the brain. So, playing a musical instrument (particularly keyboard and string instruments), and hobbies such as knitting, model ship or train building, bike repair, painting, carpentry, painting and drawing are quite beneficial.

So attend to and sharpen your sense memory!

1Most of this post is adapted from Restak, R. (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

2Ibid., p.78.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Focusing on Your Breathing

November 20, 2011

A short article1 in Scientific American Mind reported a couple of studies that demonstrated the benefits of focusing on your breathing. One study reported in the May issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology and conducted at the Toho University School of Medicine in Japan taught research participants to breathe deeply into their abdomen and to focus on their breathing. They did this for 20 minutes. They reported fewer negative feelings. More of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin was found in their blood. The prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and high-level cognitive processing, exhibited more oxygenated hemoglobin.

Another study reported in the April issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research conducted at Ruhr University in Germany examined the effect focusing on breathing had on depression symptoms. The research participants were asked to stay in mindful contact with their breathing and to try to maintain continual awareness without letting their minds wander. During 18 minute trials the researchers asked the participants whether they were successful in doing so. Those who were successful reported less negative thinking, less rumination and fewer other symptoms of depression.

You can do this. You can sit up comfortably and breathe naturally (or deeply, if you prefer). Focus your attention on your breath and feel it in detail, in your nasal cavity, in your chest, and in your abdomen. Don’t be critical if your mind wanders, just try to refocus. With practice, you should improve your ability to stay focused. Try to build up to 20 minutes. Once you become skillful, even a few minutes of this mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Benefits of Meditation,” for more information. It does not appear that you need to be a Buddhist monk to benefit from meditation. It is thought that even very short periods of meditation can be beneficial.

1Rodriguex, T. (2011). Therapy in the Air. Scientific American Mind, November/December, p. 16.

Learning on the Web (and Elsewhere as Well)

February 20, 2011

Most surfing done on the web is superficial. Consequently, little learning takes place.1 Readers of the Healthymemory Blog will already know that effective learning requires the spending of attention. Most of the time people scan text on websites instead of reading it closely. This is the appropriate technique if someone is just trying to find something of interest or relevance. However, if someone just scans the web, little learning will take place. Moreover, bad habits can be developed if someone is constantly enticed by “hot” topics or keeps moving from one url to another without slowing down to think about and process something of interest.

Nielsen (see the first footnote) reports the results of a paper by Karpicke and Blunt that was published in Science. They measured the amount of information people could remember a week after reading a scientific text. So these people were not reading online, rather they were reading a conventional text book. The experiment involved two groups of students. One group simply read the text. The other group completed an elaborate test after reading the text. The students who had completed the elaborate test after reading remembered 145% more content after a week than students who simply read the text and did not do anything else. It is interesting to note that the people who took the test actually thought that they had learned 15% less than people who had read the text but did not take the test. The reason the test-takers thought they had learned less was that the test-taking exposed the gaps in their knowledge, though undermining their confidence, whereas the group that had not taken the test remained ignorant of their ignorance.

The test-taking condition employed here was a retrieval practice test. This involves

  1.  Reading the Text
  2. Recalling as much of the information as they could on a free-recall test.
  3. Reading the text again.
  4. Completing another free-recall test.

There was another group that simply read the text four times. Although these people remembered more than the people who read the text only once, the recall of the group doing the retrieval practice test was 64% better than the group that just read the text four times. So replacing 2 rereads with 2 tests substantially boosted people’s week-later performance. It is reasonable to think that the retrieval practice group in step 3 was aware of any information they had missed during their recall efforts in step 2. The reread only group remained ignorant of these gaps in their knowledge.

Of course, much more effort is involved in the retrieval practice test. One is constantly confronted with the problem of how much attention should be paid to an item of information. Does it need to be stored in memory so that in can be easily recalled, that is, accessible in personal memory. Or does one only need to take note of it and make a note, bookmark, or tag it. This is what the Healthymemory Blog terms accessible transactive memory. This is information that you cannot recall, but can easily find. Oftentimes, we know that the information is someplace, but cannot remember where. In this case, we say it is in available transactive memory, in that we know it is there, but cannot readily access it, In these cases we need to look for it or search for it.

It should be noted that it can be advantageous to take a test on a topic before you read or study the material. Previous Healthymemory Blog Posts on the work by Roediger demonstrate provide evidence for the benefits of this practice (“To Get It Right, Get It Wrong First”, and “The Benefits of Testing”).

1Nielsen, J. (2011). Test-Taking Enhances Learning. Http://www,useit.com/alertbox/learning-recall.html 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Buddha’s Brain

February 13, 2011

Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom1 is not a book proselytizing Buddhism. Its authors are Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Richard Mendius, MD, who are a neuropsychologist and a neurologist, respectively. They address the intersection of three disciplines: Psychology, Neuroscience, and Contemplative Practice. In doing so, they avail us of wisdom from the East, wisdom that is not addressed by the West, in general, and by the Western educational system, in particular. Buddha’s Brain provides readers with a great deal of potential for cognitive growth and personal fulfillment.

Here are some basic facts from Buddha’s Brain. The brain consists of about 1.1 trillion cells, 100 billion of which are neurons. The average neuron receives about 5,000 connections, synapses, from other neurons. Chemicals called neurotransmitters carry signals across these synapses. A typical neuron fires from 5 to 50 times a second. The number possible neurons firing or not firing is about 10 to the millionth power (1 followed by a million zeroes). Now the number of atoms in the universe is estimated to be about 10 to the eightieth power. Conscious mental events, which represent a small percentage of brain activity, are based on temporary coalitions of synapses that form and disperse. Although the brain is only about 2 percent of the body’s weight, it consumes from 20 to 25 percent of the bodies oxygen and glucose. The brain is constantly working and uses about the same amount of energy whether you are sleeping or thinking hard. The brain interacts with the rest of your body and is shaped by the mind as well. Your mind is made by your brain, body, and natural culture as well as by the mind itself.

Buddha’s Brain covers the structures of the brain and neurotransmitters and explanations of what does what and how the different structures interact. More importantly, Buddha’s Brain explains how you can affect these structures and processes and mold your own brain and behavior. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should know the importance of attention and selective attention to effective memory. Buddha’s Brain covers how to control and expand attention as well as how to control your emotions to lead to, as the title promises, happiness, love, and wisdom. People who are deeply into contemplative practices are able to control heart rate and blood pressure.

One prediction that I have read, and which I believe, is that within twenty years meditative practices will have become as frequent as aerobic exercising is today.

Some future blog posts will be based on excerpts from Buddha’s Brain, but they cannot do justice to the entire book. I strongly recommend its reading.

1Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Costly Gadgets or Software Not Required for a Healthy Memory

January 26, 2011

The Healthymemory “Blog has consistently maintained that costly equipment or software is not required for a healthy memory. Indeed, that is one reason why memory techniques are recommended. Even transactive memory does not require a computer. Conventional storage media like books, journals, and magazines will suffice as well as your fellow human beings. Meditation can also provides a less costly beneficial activity in terms of monetary expense, but the time demands can be substantial. Research1 by Posner and his colleagues indicates that beneficial meditation need not consume excessive amounts of time.

The training technique is called integrative body-mind training (IBMT; or integrative meditation). This technique integrates body relaxation, breathing adjustment, mental imagery and mindfulness training, There was also a coach who could help each participant increase the amount of mindfulness experienced to maximize the benefit of each practice session. Comfortable background music was also employed. Forty Chinese undergraduates took this training for five days. Each session lasted twenty minutes. An additional forty Chinese undergraduates were assigned to a control group that was given a form of relaxation training.

Both groups were given a battery of tests one week before the training and immediately after the final training session. The Attention Network Test (ANT) measures the ability to resolve conflicting demands upon attention, in other words, selective attention. Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrix provides a measure of fluid attention. Measures of mood were also taken. A mental arithmetic task was used to present a stress challenge followed by measures of cortisol and secretory IgA, which provide indications of the body physiological response to stress. The two groups did not differ on any of these tests before undergoing training.

After training, the IBMT group showed superior performance with respect to conflict resolution. The IBMT group also showed better regulation of emotion. The IBMT group also performed better on the Raven’s Test indicating improvement in fluid attention. Five days of IBMT training reduced the stress response to the mental challenge especially after an additional 20 minutes of practice.

All-in-all, these are most impressive results given the limited total amount of IBMT training.

1Tang, Y.Y., Yinghua, M., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Sui, S., Rothbart, M.K., Fan, M., & Posner, M.I.. (2007). Short-term Meditation Training Improves Attention and Self-Regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. October 23, 104(43): 17152:17156. Published online 2007 October 11. doi: 10.1073/pnas.07067678104. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Hope for an Aging Population: STAC

November 21, 2010

By 2050 in wealthy, developed countries it is estimated that there will be many more older adults (26%) than children under 15 (about 16%). Today adults aged 85 and older have a dementia rate of nearly 50%. Projecting this into the future yields a frightening prospect. It portends a large percentage of underproductive older people. Beyond that, there would be a large percentage of older people living unfulfilling lives.

Looking at both the neurological and behavioral changes that occur in the aging brain can also be discouraging. There are decreases of volume in the caudate nucleus, the lateral prefrontal cortex, both cerebral hemispheres, and the hippocampus. There are also decreases in processing speed and in the ability to focus and screen out extraneous information. Fortunately, not everything declines. The primary visual cortex and the entorhinal cortex suffer minimal or no loss in volume. Similarly our vocabularies and expertise typically do not decline. Although sometimes it might be difficult finding a word, it usually comes to mind eventually.

Fortunately there is evidence that there are compensatory mechanisms to counter or ward off this decline (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “HAROLD”). And it is clear that these mechanisms work. Many people function quite well even in to advanced old age. What is even more remarkable that some people show little or no evidence for cognitive decline in spite of a great deal of pathology discovered during autopsies.

What is needed is a theory to understand the mechanisms that ward off this decline. The Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition (STAC)1 provides such a theory. Some of the basis of this theory comes from brain imaging, fMRI especially. This imaging has revealed differences in the pattern of neural activation between young and older adults. Whereas young adults show focal left prefrontal activity when engaged in certain cognitive tasks, older adults show activity in both the left and right prefrontal areas.

It should be understood that scaffolding is a process that occurs across the lifespan. It is not just the brain’s response to normal aging; it is the brain’s response to challenge. For anyone acquiring a new skill an initial set of neural circuits must be engaged and developed to provide the structure for task performance in the early stages of skill acquisition. With practice, performance becomes less effortful and the neural circuitry becomes more specific to the task.

The basic idea underlying STAC is that this same mechanism can compensate for losses in brain structure and function as we age. So what can be done to activate this mechanism? The answer is to challenge the brain and then address this challenge. As we age it becomes easier to rely upon old habits and ways of thinking and to avoid new challenging activities. But it is these challenging activities that activate the STAC process that can ward off cognitive decline.

One can regard the Healthymemory Blog as a means of providing this cognitive challenge. First of all, it provides information and data about human cognition. This can be new learning that can provide challenge in itself if not insight into the working and malfunctions of human cognition. It also presents mnemonic techniques that not only can improve cognitive performance, but offer cognitive exercise and challenge in trying to implement them. Finally, there is transactive memory, where there is knowledge from fellow humans and from the internet (and more traditional sources of knowledge) to challenge the mind.

1Park, D.C. & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The Adaptive Brain: Aging and Neurocognitive Scaffolding. Annual Review of Psychology,60, 173-196.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention

November 11, 2010

Vigilance tasks require an observer to note when a target occurs. Much research has been done in this area due to important military and security applications. For example, an observer might need to detect enemy planes approaching on the radar scope. Or it might be security personnel monitoring baggage at an airport. Moreover, there is need to distinguish dangerous from benign targets on the scope. Although this is obviously a very important task, it would also appear to be a very simple task. The problem is that over prolonged periods of time performance drops off. In spite of all the research that has been done, techniques for sustaining attention have been found lacking. A recent article1 presented research that found that intensive meditation training can aid sustained attention. Other research2 has found that vigilance requires hard mental work and is stressful. Research using questionnaires and measurements of cerebral blood flow velocity have documented that vigilance is stressful and hard mental work. Attentional resource theory has been used to account for the vigilance decrement. The notion is that attentional resources are rapidly depleted by the demands of the vigilance task.

The meditation training used in the first article was quite intensive. It involved going to a retreat. Shamantha3 meditation training was used in at least five three day retreats. The meditation training was found to sustain vigilance for a longer time, presumably by increasing attentional resources.

You might ask, so what? My job does not involve vigilance tasks. The relevance to you is that meditation apparently does increase attentional resources. Meditation training has been found to be beneficial to temporal attention, attentional alerting, and visual discrimination. Moreover, readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be well aware of the critical role of attention in cognitive performance, and that many failures and breakdowns in cognitive processing are due to limited attentional resources.

See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “The Relaxation Response,” “Attention Its Different Roles,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “More on Restoring Attentional Resources.”

1MacLean, K. A., and many others (2010).  Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention.  Psychological Science, 21, 829-839.

2Warm, J.s., Parasururaman, R., & Matthews, G. (2008). Vigilance Requires Hard Mental Work and is Stressful. Human Factors, 50, 433-441.

3Wallace, B.A, (2006). The Attention Revolution. Boston: Wisdom 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Dangers of Multi-Tasking

July 5, 2010

 A recent article in the AARP Magazine (“May I Have Your Attention Please,” July/August 2010, pp 28-31) stressed the dangers of multitasking. You might be surprised that such an article would appear in the AARP Magazine as multi-tasking presents dangers to all humans. The reason is that information overload is even more serious for those over 50. Katy Read, the author of the article, begins by recounting a day in which she had 49 browser tabs open on her computer. Now admittedly this is a tad extreme, but it does illustrate how bad things can get.

The article states that the average American hears, sees, or reads 34 gigabytes of information a day from the internet, radio, newspapers, and other sources. This number strikes me as being rather high. Moreover, it states that this is about 100,000 words. Now the complete works of Shakespeare total about five megabytes, which is but a small fraction of a gigabyte. Moreover, a two-hour film, when compressed, is about one to two gigabytes (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Cyberspace: How Much Data is Out There”, to get a feel for the quantity of data that is available). So, I find the 100,000 words estimate more plausible. The article also states that this figure has grown more than 5 percent annually since 1980, a figure I can well believe.

Our attention is limited, and we should use it wisely. Here are some tips offered in the article.

Study you habits –Ask yourself every day whether you are focusing on the right things.

Limit Your Inputs – Stick to favorite websites and TV programs and resist aimless Web and Channel surfing. Although I would agree that in general this is a good goal, it is still a good idea to give a certain amount of time and attention to new things.

Exercise Your Concentration Muscles – Focused activities such as reading an absorbing book or meditating will sharpen attention and relieve stress. (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “The Relaxation Response” to learn more about meditating.)

Leave a Trail – When you are engaged in an activity and think of something to do or something to read that is not directly relevant to your current task, make a note to return to it later. Then continue with your task.

Get Some Air – When you take a break, unplug completely. Take a walk, meet a friend, or play with your dog. This will refresh your attention and provide better focus.

Regarding this final point, there seem to be special benefits in going to nature to restore your attentional resources (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “More on Restoring Attentional Resources”, and “Restoring Attentional Resources.”)

Attention: Its Different Roles

June 30, 2010

The importance of attention comes up repeatedly in the Healthymemory Blog. The most common reason for failing to remember is the failure to attend to the information. The failure to remember people’s names, to pick up items from the store, information on a test, and so forth is usually due to the failure to pay adequate attention in the first place. One of the primary reasons the mnemonic techniques discussed in this blog work, is that they force you to pay attention in the first place.

A recent article1 has expanded the concept of directed attention to include self-regulation. Directed attention is often termed selective attention. Selective attention refers attending to one source of information and ignoring, or selecting out, other sources of information. Selective attention is contrasted with divided attention when we attend, or try to attend, to multiple sources of information at the same time. These days a more common term for divided attention is multi-tasking. Sometimes it seems that in today’s world multi-tasking, especially among the young, has become the norm. I remember seeing a television program on PBS about students attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It appeared that they were all multi-tasking practically all their waking hours. They all seemed to be of the opinion that there were no costs to multi-tasking and that they could perform multiple tasks at once without any of the individual tasks suffering. This opinion reflected a basic ignorance, even among these extremely intelligent MIT students, that our attentional resources are limited. Well our species, including MIT students, have a limited supply of attention. Moreover, the act of switching between tasks itself requires attention. MIT students can be disabused of their conviction that multi-tasking does have costs by examining the results of their performance comparing how well they did while multi-tasking against how well they did while single tasking.

Sometimes it is convenient to multi-task. I like to read while watching sports on TV. I do, however, realize that my comprehension and reading speed suffer as a result of multi-tasking. If it is important for me to understand and learn certain material, then I try to shut out all distractions.

One of the main contributions of the above cited Kaplan and Berman article is that it establishes a link between these cognitive activities and self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to pitting one’s intentions against one’s inclinations. The best example here is dieting. You’re intention is to lose weight, but your inclination is to eat a great deal because you are hungry. Similarly you might intend to eat a healthier diet, but your inclination is to eat tastier foods. Or your intention might be to study for an exam, but your inclination is to go to the movies. According to Kaplan and Berman, these self-regulation activities draw upon the same resources as do your efforts to attend to particular information or tasks. In other words, the reason we do not do as well as we might in both our cognitive and self-regulatory efforts is that they both require expenditures from this common pool. Moreover, continued expenditures from this pool result in fatigue, decrements in performance, and relapses in our intentions.

For example, when research participants were forced to eat radishes in the presence of more attractive cookies they were less persistent in solving puzzles and less effective in solving the puzzles than research participants who were not required to eat radishes in the presence of attractive cookies.

Other research has shown that either requiring research participants to ignore extraneous stimulation (selective attention) or to stifle emotional distress responses resulted in poorer performance as measured by intellectual aptitude tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). All these studies can be found in the Kaplan and Berman article.

One should recognize these relationships and limitations when planning personal goals. Planning to lose a significant amount of weight and master a difficult subject matter should not be attempted at the same time. It would be better to accomplish them sequentially or to pursue each more modestly. This is probably the reason that most of us who lose weight manage to find it again. While we are expending the resources to discipline ourselves we manage to lose the weight. However, later, as other demands are made on our attentional/regulatory resources, the weight returns.

1Kaplan, S., & Berman, M.G. (2010). Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5:43.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Attention

March 4, 2010

Attention is key to memory, in particular, and to cognitive functioning, in general. Attention performs three different functions:  alerting, orienting, and executive function.1  Alerting, as in “heads up” or the drill command “Attention” is a call that you will need to pay attention.  Orienting refers to where, what, or to whom to pay attention.  These types of attention are preliminary to the larger category, executive attention.  Now sometimes all your attention can be devoted to performing one task.

 Unfortunately, it is often the case that you either cannot or that it is difficult to devote all your attention to one task.  This is called multitasking and multitasking seems to have dramatically increased in our high tech world.  Divided attention refers to situations when attention needs to be divided between two, or even among, several tasks.  Driving provides good examples of divided attention.  Sometimes it seems as if you are on automatic pilot.  You drive from point A to point B while thinking about a variety of topics and arrive at point B with little or no memory of the drive itself.  Clearly you were paying attention during the drive or there would have been a terrible accident.  Your System 1 processes had taken over during the drive handling the basic driving tasks automatically.  This can be dangerous, though.  If something unexpected occurs and System 2 attentional processes are not engaged, accidents can happen.2 Using a cell phone when driving divides attention to the point where driving performance is effectively equivalent to driving under the influence of alcohol.  States that have passed “hands free” laws when using a cell phone while driving, have missed the point.  It is the loss of attention to the driving task that is the primary problem here, not the ability to manipulate multiple objects.   Some have made the argument that passengers in the car converse with the driver regularly, so how is that any different from conversing on a cell phone.  The difference is that passengers are typically aware of the situation they are in and moderate the conversation accordingly.3   They can even be helpful by pointing out specific feature or actions that are transpiring to which the driver should be attending.  This is a case of divided attention in which attention must be selected to focus on the primary task.

A good example of the selective attention can be found in what is known as the Cocktail Party Problem. To make sense of the cacophony that typically surrounds us, we must selectively attend to what we are trying to understand or accomplish..  Consider a noisy cocktail party at which you are trying to attend to an interesting conversation with a friend.  Attention needs to be spent to tune into this conversation and to tune out all the other irrelevant conversations.  This can be quite difficult, and it is almost impossible to tune out the irrelevant conversations completely.  Under these conditions you might hear your name being mentioned in one of the conversations you are trying to tune out.   Apparently your cognitive system has assigned a high enough priority to your name so that it will capture your attention even under these adverse conditions.  The vast majority of processing that the brain does remains below the level of consciousness.  This subconscious processing calls your conscious attention to specific items deemed of high importance.

1Posner, M. I. (2009) in  The Sharpbrains Guide to Brain Fitness:  18 Interviews with Scientists, Prectical Advice, and Product Reviews, to Keep Your Brain Sharp.  Fernandez, A., & Goldberg, E.  (eds).  San Francisco, CA:  SharpBrains.

2See the Blog Post “The Two System View of Cognition.”

3Drews,  F.A., Pasupathi, M., & Strayer, D.L..  (2009).  Passenger and cell phone conversations in simulated driving. Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Applied, 14, 392-400.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Boost Your Cognitive Reserve

March 1, 2010

 There is an interesting article in the March/April AARP magazine. It is written by a physician, P. Murali Doraiswamy, and is titled “Boost Your Brain Health.” He relates the story of an accomplished mathematician in his early 70’s. His wife had referred him to Gary Small, M.D., who is the director of the UCLA Center on Aging. He had become cranky and was having some difficulties performing certain calculations. Dr. Small put him through a battery of tests and the man maxed all of them including a memory test and a score of 140 on his IQ test. But when he examined the patient’s brain scan it had all the markings of full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. This case, while unusual, was not unique. Yaakov Stern, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Columbia University School of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City noted that up to 20% of people autopsied who had no major memory problems are discovered to have had Alzheimer’s.

Of course, the question here is “How can this be?” Usually activities that are good for your brain are also good for your heart, your immune system, and the rest of your body. Doraiswamy report a recently published study of 2,500 people ages 70 to 79 found that 30% of the group saw no delcine in their mental performance or actually improved on cognitive tests over the course of eight years. People in this group were more likely to have some or all of the following healthy traits:

exercised at least once a week

had at least the equivalent of a high-school education

did not smoke

worked or volunteered

lived with at least one other person

Many scientists believe that the buildup of a “cognitive reserve” wards off mental decline. This Healthymemory blog strongly subscribes to this view. It supports three themes to this end. The first can be found under the category “Human Memory: Theory and Data.” You will find posts here that will build your understanding of how human memory works. You will also learn of fallacies, biases, and processing errors that are common to all of us. Learning about them will allow you to avoid them. So your performance will not only improve, but will also help you avoid decision making errors that can have adverse effects on your finances.

The second theme can be found under the category of “Mnemonic Techniques.” Here you will find specific techniques for improving your memory. These techniques have the potential not only of improving your memory performance, but of also providing exercises that improve brain health.

The third theme is transactive memory. This little known concept has two parts. One is the reliance upon your fellow humans for improving your memory and brain health. The other is the use of technology for improving your memory and brain health.

To access these themes, click on the appropriate links under Categories on the sideboard.

The next several posts will address improving attention and cognitive control. These are skills that tend to decline as we age and deserve special attention.