Posts Tagged ‘Kirsten Weir’

When is the best time to take a test or think creatively?

June 9, 2018

The answers can be found in an article titled “Good Timing” by Kirsten Weir in June 2018 issue of “Monitor on Psychology.” Research is finding that one’s cognitive performance fluctuates in predictable patterns throughout the course of a day. And the performance of different tasks can differ as a function of the task and the time of day.

Madhusudan Sanaka, MD, at the Cleveland Clinic and his colleagues studied colonoscopy data from more than 3,600 people and found that physicians identified significantly more abnormalities during morning colonoscopies than during those performed in the afternoon (“The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 104, 7, 2009).

Moods also rise and fall predictably throughout the day. Ph.Ds Scott Golder and Michael Macy at Cornell University studied language from millions of public Twitter posts from around the globe. They found the average Twitter users had a happiness spike around breakfast, hit a grimy slump in late afternoon, and perked up again after dinner (“Science” 333, 6051, 2011). Macy said,“We found an incredibly robust pattern across diverse cultures all over the world.”

The time-sensitive nature of moods can have surprising ripple effects. Jing Chen, Ph.D., at the University of Buffalo School of Management, and colleagues analyzed earnings conference calls and found that financial executives and analysts were upbeat in the morning and became more negative as the day wore on. Those mood changes led the analysts to make more errors related to stock pricing in the afternoon (‘Management Science,” online first publication, 2018).

Given these results, should we schedule important tasks for the morning and give afternoons over to an extended siesta? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. People’s cognitive abilities fluctuate throughout the day in accordance with their personal circadian patterns, or chronotypes.

We tend to fall into different chronotypes, defined by the window of time we feel most alert and energetic. There are strong morning types, moderate morning types, strong evening types, moderate evening types, and those who are neutral, who peak at midday.

Dorothee Fischer, Ph.D., a research fellow at Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital says “Chronotype isn’t a personality trait, but a biological characteristic.” Our sleep-wake cycles are governed by a master clock known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a cluster of neurons located within the hypothalamus. The SCN does its job with input from environmental factors, largely light exposure. But sunshine is only part of the story. Our underlying rhythms are rooted in our genes.

As we age our circadian rhythmicity shifts. On the whole, young children are more often morning types, but by their teens and early 20s a majority have shifted to favoring evenings, or being neutral, leaning toward evening. In older age, we slide back toward favoring the morning hours. Still, there’s considerable variation among individuals, and that variation translates to differences in our peak times for maximum brainpower.

Lynn Hasher, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Toronto says, “You are way better off doing difficult mental chores at a time consistent with your chronotype. Research has shown that these synchrony effects hold for people of all ages, from adolescent to older adults. One study had adolescents who identified as morning or evening types perform a suite of executive function tasks. The participants took the tests in the morning or afternoon. Lark or owl, students tested during their peak times scored higher on working memory, decision-making and overall executive functioning that a tested at off-peak times (“Developmental Science”, 15, 3, 2102).

In another study older and younger adults were tested at their peak and non peak times. The tests evaluated implicit memory (recall of well-known information) as well as explicit memory (the conscious deliberate effort to process and retrieve information). In both groups, participants had better explicit memory during their peak times during the day. However, for implicit memory the results were flipped: Morning types had better implicit memory in the afternoon, while evening types scored higher in the morning (“Psychological Science”, 16, 2, 2005). These results make sense when you think of daily peaks in terms of distractions. Inhibition is an important part of executive function, allowing us to focus unimportant tasks by filtering out the unimportant details. During off-peak times of day, inhibition wavers and we have a harder time tuning out the irrelevant information. That’s why tasks that require focus and analytic thought are best tackled at peak times.

On the other hand, creative endeavors might best be undertaken at off-peak times. Psychologists Marieke Wieth and Rose Zacks found that people were better able to solve problems requiring a flash of insight during their off-peak times of day (“Thinking & Reasoning,” 17, 4, 2011). May says, “If you’re doing a task when you want to entertain lots of different possibilities and think creatively, then operating at your non optimal time is to your advantage.”

As for people without a strong preference for early mornings or late nights, Hasher and May gave a battery of cognitive tests to two groups of neutral-type adults, ages 17 to 21 and ages 70 to 74. The older adults performed best at midday, with notable timing effects for inhibition, executive function, long-term memory and forgetting. The younger adults showed no differences in peformance when tested in early morning, midday, or evening (“Timing & Time Perception, 5, 2, 2017).

Timing effects might become more important with age. Hasher and her colleagues compared cognitive control between morning-type elderly adults and young adults who trended toward evening type. The participants completed a series of tasks to measure attention and distraction while inside an fMRI scanner. When older adults were tested in the morning, at their peak time, they were more likely to ignore distracting information, performing more similarly to young adults tested in the afternoons. When tested at their peak time, the older participants showed activation in the same brain regions as their younger counterparts. But when tested at non optimal times, older adults were more easily distracted and recruited different neural networks to do the work (“Psychology and Aging”, 29, 3, 2014).

Unfortunately, these time of day effects can adversely affect results on important tests. Hasher and her colleagues gave intelligence tests to 11- to 14-year-olds testing both morning and evening types at optimal and non optimal times of day. IQ estimates were an average of 6 points lower when children tested at their non-peak rather than peak times (“Personality and Individual Differences,” 42, 3, 2007).

Fischer and colleagues conducted an experiment in which they matched shift workers” schedules to their chronotypes. Fischer says, “The earliest group of chronotypes didn’t work the night shift and the later group didn’t work the morning shift. By this simple tweak, we could improve sleep duration, circadian disruption and well being (“Current Biology,” 25, 7, 2015).

Most people can find small ways to tweak their daily schedules for maximum benefit. If you’re a morning person, resist the temptation to go through emails first thing in the morning and try diving into your deep work right away. May says, “You should save the mundane administrative stuff until the afternoon and spend the morning on more difficult tasks like writing manuscripts, analyzing data or planning experiments.”

If you’re meeting with a financial planner to discuss complicated investment options, schedule the appointment at a time when you’re at your cognitive peak. If you’re trying to interpret some puzzling research data, revisit it during your off-peak coffee break.

You can still shift your rhythm a little, says Fischer. Being exposed to bright lights at night can push circadian patterns later into the evening. That’s especially true of the blue light common in electronic devices. But lights are easy to adjust. Fischer says, “Reducing evening light exposure has an advancing effect on your circadian clock.” By dimming lights when it gets dark outside and using light-filtering software on their devices, evening types can shift their biology to a (slightly) earlier rhythm.

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(Dis)connected

July 20, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Kirsten Weir in the March 2017 issue of “Monitor on Psychology.” This article reviews research showing how smartphones are affecting our health and well-being, and points the way toward taking back control.

Some of the most established evidence concerns sleep. Dr. Klein Murdock, a psychology professor who heads the Technology and Health Lab at Washington and Lee University followed 83 college students and found that those who were more-attuned to their nighttime phone notifications had poorer subjective sleep quality and greater self-reported sleep problems. Although smartphones are often viewed as productivity-boosting devices, their ability to interfere with sleep can have the opposite effect on getting things done.

Dr. Russell E. Johnson and his colleagues at Michigan State University surveyed workers from a variety of professions. They found that when people used smartphones at night for work-related purposes, they reported that they slept more poorly and were less engaged at work the next day. These negative effects were greater for smartphone users than for people who used laptops or tablets right before bed.

Reading a text or email at bedtime can stir your emotions or set your mind buzzing with things you need to get done. So your mind becomes activated at a time when it’s important to settle down and have some peace.

College students at the University of Rhode Island were asked to keep sleep diaries for a week. They found that 40% of the students reported waking at night to answer phone calls and 47% woke to answer text messages. Students who were more likely to use technology after they’d gone to sleep reported poorer sleep quality, which predicted symptoms of anxiety and depression.

FOMO is an acronym for Fear Of Missing Out. In one study, Dr Larry Rosen a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University and his colleagues took phones away from college students for an hour and tested their anxiety levels at various intervals. Light users of smartphones didn’t show any increasing anxiety as they sat idly without their phones. Moderate users began showing signs of increased anxiety after 25 minutes without their phones, but their anxiety held steady at that moderately increased level for the rest of the hour long study. Heavy phone users showed increased anxiety after just 10 phone-free minutes, and their anxiety levels continued to climb throughout the hour.

Rosen has found that younger generations are particularly prone to feel anxious if they can’t check their text messages, social media, and other mobile technology regularly. But people of all ages appear to have a close relationship with their phones. 76% of baby boomers reported checking voicemail moderately or very often, and 73% reported checking text messages moderately or very often. Anxiety about not checking in with text messages and Facebook predicted symptoms of major depression, dysthymia, and bipolar mania.

When research participants were limited to checking email messages just three times a day, they reported less daily stress. This reduced stress was associated with positive outcomes including greater mindfulness, greater self-perceived productivity and better sleep quality.

In another study participants were asked to keep all their smartphone notifications on during one week. In the other week, they were asked to turn notifications off and to keep their phones tucked out of sight. At the end of the study participants were given questionnaires. During the week of notifications participants reported greater levels of inattention and hyperactivity compared with their alert-free week. These feelings of inattention and hyperactivity were directly associated with lower levels of productivity, social connectedness, and psychological well being. Having your attention scattered by frequent interruptions has its costs.

The article also stresses the importance of personal interactions, which are inherently richer. The key to having healthy relationships with technology is moderation. We want to get the best from technology, but at the same time to make sure that it’s not controlling us.