Posts Tagged ‘Executive Attention’

Nature: Born to Focus

August 13, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.” University of Oregon neuroscientist Michael Posner has developed a three-part model of the brain’s attentional system. He describes alerting, orienting, and executive networks, each with its own neurophysiology and function, as nothing short of “the mechanism through which we have experience and control the sequence of our ideas. Along with University of Oregon psychologist Mary Rothbart, who’s well known for her research on temperament, Posner has been studying how the attentional networks get organized in early life. He finds significant neuropsychological differences among children that share their different ways of focusing and aspects of their identities, from the capacity of learning to the control of thoughts and emotions.

Posner has a computerized Attention Network Test, which is designed to gauge the strength of an individual’s three networks. Biological differences in brains can account for different attentional and temperamental profiles, but nurture as well as nature plays an important role. Rothbart’s research is on cultural differences in executive attention and self-regulation, she finds that the capacity for effortful control is a good thing for both American and Chinese children. In the United States, children who have this ability focus keeping a lid on feelings like anger, fear, and frustration—an important skill in our gregarious society. On the other hand, in China, self-regulating children concentrate on curbing their exuberance and trying not to stand out, which is an equally desirable attribute in their Asian culture. Depending on social or genetic differences, or both, says Posner, “the same behavior of focusing on a dimension of self-control seems to be involved in creating quite different personalities.”

A single individual, biologically based behavioral disposition doesn’t operate in isolation, but in concert with the person’s other qualities and environments. Posner points out that whether the small child’s innate temperament is sunny or stormy, parents will intuitively draw the tot’s attention to smiles, laughter, and hugs, thus reinforcing the desirability of positive emotion.

It is good here to focus how important it is for a child to be loved. Absent this love a child’s emotional and behavioral development is at risk. Other healthy memory posts have elaborated on these risks. Whenever HM reads about some act of violence, his first thought was that this person was an unloved child.

To help children who are not naturally inclined to focus on their schoolwork—or life’s little pleasures—Posner and Rothbart have developed exercises that significantly improve the executive attentional skills of four— and six—year olds. Such training could help the millions of schoolchildren who struggle with attention, mood, and self-control problems.

This chapter concludes: “Nature and nurture have combined forces to find you a characteristic way of focusing that’s part of who you are, but research on the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections through life, proves that your identity isn’t written in stone. Posner is speaking of the children he works with, but his observation increasingly seems to apply to people of any age. “Kids have strong genetic make-ups, but you can also shape them through experience.”

Five Constructs for Executive-Related Cognitive Abilities

February 18, 2015

This post addresses five constructs, or factors, dealing with executive related cognitive abilities.  They are obviously important because these are cognitive abilities at the executive level.  They also have special relevance for aging memory.  These factors play an important role in the assessment of Independent Activities of Daily Living (IADL).  IADL plays an important role in determining whether individuals are capable of living independently.  These factors are working memory, inhibition, executive at the attention, problem solving, and fluency.  Each factor will be briefly explained and discussed with respect to the healthy memory blog, “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”

The most common example given of working memory is trying to remember a phone number you have just be given or read until it is dialed.  This is the magic number of 7 plus or minus two that has been revised down to five plus or minus two.  Actually, the size of the individual items affects the number that can be remembered.  Information must be rehearsed or actively used  or the information will be lost.  As the “Myth of Cognitive Decline” is addressing the phenomena of long term memory, working memory is not part of the myth.  Working memory does tend to decline as we age, although research has been done to demonstrate that it can be enhanced.

Inhibition refers to irrelevant information coming to mind when you are trying to remember or solve a problem.  This does increase as we age.  And it is the large amount of information held in long term memory that the “Myth of Cognitive Decline” addresses, that is likely increasing inhibition.  Simply put, there is more information to serve as the source of inhibition.  Given enough time, this inhibition can be overcome.

Executive attention refers to the managing and selection of information in trying to perform some task or to solve some problem.  The problem here for us as we age is that there is more information to attend to.  Again, given enough time, decreases in this ability can be overcome.

Problem solving refers to the marshaling of attention to solve  a problem.  Examples of problems addressed with IADL are planning a meal, planning a trip, managing finances, and so forth.  Although the more experienced mind has more information to solve problems, when there are time constraints, the additional information can be a problem as captured in the statement, “too much knowledge for one’s own good.”

Fluency is the ability to generate ideas or certain types of words (words beginning with “q”, vegetables, and so forth).  Here the older brain is at an advantage, but again, the pressures of time constraints can create problems.  A caveat to the “Myth f Cognitive Decline” is “given enough time.”

Recall, particularly of information from longer term memory, often involves problem solving.  When trying to remember the forgotten name of a particular actor for example, one might try to remember the movies the actor was in, the dates of the movies, and other actors.  Sometimes remembering a particular sound can help in the generation of candidate names.  What is interesting about these attempts is that the memory will suddenly pop into mind hours or days later.  Apparently memory search has been continuing in our non-conscious minds.  This is one of the reasons I think that these periodic memory searches contribute to memory health.  When we do these searches we are activating long unused memory circuits and reactivating them.  I have no carefully controlled research to back up my conjecture, but I think it is a compelling conjecture.  Perhaps some graduate student will undertake this research for a Master’s Degree or Ph.D.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.