attention

Attention Training

See also

Meditation (which is in fact the main category of attention training!)

Nature (one of the best ways of 'refreshing' your attention)

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

Music training helps you hear better in noisy rooms

I’ve often talked about the benefits of musical training for cognition, but here’s a totally new benefit. A study involving 31 younger adults (19-32) with normal hearing has found that musicians (at least 10 years of music experience; music training before age 7; practicing more than 3 times weekly within previous 3 years) were significantly better at hearing and repeating sentences in increasingly noisy conditions, than the non-musicians. The number of years of music practice also correlated positively with better working memory and better tone discrimination ability. Hearing speech in noisy environments is of course difficult for everyone, but particularly for older adults, who are likely to have hearing and memory loss, and for poor readers.

[960] Parbery-Clark, A., Skoe E., Lam C., & Kraus N.
(2009).  Musician enhancement for speech-in-noise.
Ear and Hearing. 30(6), 653 - 661.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-08/nu-tum081709.php

Meditation technique can temporarily improve visuospatial abilities

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

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

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

A walk in the park a day keeps mental fatigue away

Many of us who work indoors are familiar with the benefits of a walk in the fresh air, but a new study gives new insight into why, and how, it works. In two experiments, researchers found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20% after people spent an hour interacting with nature. The intriguing finding was that this effect was achieved not only by walking in the botanical gardens (versus walking along main streets of Ann Arbor), but also by looking at photos of nature (versus looking at photos of urban settings). The findings are consistent with a theory that natural environments are better at restoring attention abilities, because they provide a more coherent pattern of stimulation that requires less effort, as opposed to urban environments that are provide complex and often confusing stimulation that captures attention dramatically and requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car).

[279] Berman, M. G., Jonides J., & Kaplan S.
(2008).  The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 19(12), 1207 - 1212.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-12/afps-awi121808.php
http://www.physorg.com/news148663388.html

Even toddlers can ‘chunk' information for better remembering

We all know it’s easier to remember a long number (say a phone number) when it’s broken into chunks. Now a study has found that we don’t need to be taught this; it appears to come naturally to us. The study showed 14 months old children could track only three hidden objects at once, in the absence of any grouping cues, demonstrating the standard limit of working memory. However, with categorical or spatial cues, the children could remember more. For example, when four toys consisted of two groups of two familiar objects, cats and cars, or when six identical orange balls were grouped in three groups of two.

[196] Feigenson, L., & Halberda J.
(2008).  From the Cover: Conceptual knowledge increases infants' memory capacity.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(29), 9926 - 9930.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-07/jhu-etg071008.php

Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/105/29/9926.abstract?sid=c01302b6-cd8e-4072-842c-7c6fcd40706f

Brain-training to improve working memory boosts fluid intelligence

General intelligence is often separated into "fluid" and "crystalline" components, of which fluid intelligence is considered more reflective of “pure” intelligence (for more on this, see my article at http://www.memory-key.com//memory/individual/wm-intelligence), and largely resistant to training and learning effects. However, in a new study in which participants were given a series of training exercises designed to improve their working memory, fluid intelligence was found to have significantly improved, with the amount of improvement increasing with time spent training. The small study contradicts decades of research showing that improving on one kind of cognitive task does not improve performance on other kinds, so has been regarded with some skepticism by other researchers. More research is definitely needed, but the memory task did differ from previous studies, engaging executive functions such as those that inhibit irrelevant items, monitor performance, manage two tasks simultaneously, and update memory.

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

http://www.physorg.com/news128699895.html
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=study-shows-brain-power-can-be-bolstered

Teaching older brains to regain youthful skills

Researchers have succeeded in training seniors to multitask at the same level as younger adults. Over the course of two weeks, both younger and older subjects learned to identify a letter flashed quickly in the middle of a computer screen and simultaneously localize the position of a spot flashed quickly in the periphery as well as they could perform either task on its own. The older adults did take longer than the younger adults to reach the same level of performance, but they did reach it.

[571] Richards, E., Bennett P. J., & Sekuler A. B.
(2006).  Age related differences in learning with the useful field of view.
Vision Research. 46(25), 4217 - 4231.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-10/mu-yct100206.php

Novelty aids learning

We’ve long suspected that the human brain is particularly attracted to new information. Research now reveals that the brain region that regulates our levels of motivation and our ability to predict rewards, by releasing dopamine in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain, responds better to novelty than to the familiar. Behavioral experiments also revealed that participants best remembered the images they had been shown when new images were mixed in with slightly familiar images during learning. It’s worth noting that this midbrain area (substantia nigra/ventral tegmentum) responded strongly only to completely new stimuli.

[1113] Bunzeck, N., & Duzel E.
(2006).  Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA.
Neuron. 51(3), 369 - 379.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-08/ucl-nal073106.php

Support for labeling as an aid to memory

A study involving an amnesia-inducing drug has shed light on how we form new memories. Participants in the study participants viewed words, photographs of faces and landscapes, and abstract pictures one at a time on a computer screen. Twenty minutes later, they were shown the words and images again, one at a time. Half of the images they had seen earlier, and half were new. They were then asked whether they recognized each one. For one session they were given midazolam, a drug used to relieve anxiety during surgical procedures that also causes short-term anterograde amnesia, and for one session they were given a placebo.
It was found that the participants' memory while in the placebo condition was best for words, but the worst for abstract images. Midazolam impaired the recognition of words the most, impaired memory for the photos less, and impaired recognition of abstract pictures hardly at all. The finding reinforces the idea that the ability to recollect depends on the ability to link the stimulus to a context, and that unitization increases the chances of this linking occurring. While the words were very concrete and therefore easy to link to the experimental context, the photographs were of unknown people and unknown places and thus hard to distinctively label. The abstract images were also unfamiliar and not unitized into something that could be described with a single word.

[1216] Reder, L. M., Oates J. M., Thornton E. R., Quinlan J. J., Kaufer A., & Sauer J.
(2006).  Drug-Induced Amnesia Hurts Recognition, but Only for Memories That Can Be Unitized.
Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 17(7), 562 - 567.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/07/060719092800.htm

Language cues help visual learning in children

A study of 4-year-old children has found that language, in the form of specific kinds of sentences spoken aloud, helped them remember mirror image visual patterns. The children were shown cards bearing red and green vertical, horizontal and diagonal patterns that were mirror images of one another. When asked to choose the card that matched the one previously seen, the children tended to mistake the original card for its mirror image, showing how difficult it was for them to remember both color and location. However, if they were told, when viewing the original card, a mnemonic cue such as ‘The red part is on the left’, they performed “reliably better”.

The paper was presented by a graduate student at the 17th annual meeting of the American Psychological Society, held May 26-29 in Los Angeles.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-05/jhu-lc051705.php

Cognitive therapy for ADHD

A researcher that has previously demonstrated that working memory capacity can be increased through training, has now reported that the training software has produced significant improvement in children with ADHD — a disability that is associated with deficits in working memory. The study involved 53 children with ADHD, aged 7-12, who were not on medication for their disability. 44 of these met the criterion of more than 20 days of training. Half the participants were assigned to the working memory training program and the other half to a comparison program. 60% of those who underwent the wm training program no longer met the clinical criteria for ADHD after five weeks of training. The children were tested on visual-spatial memory, which has the strongest link to inattention and ADHD. Further research is needed to show that training improves ability on a wider range of tasks.

[583] Klingberg, T., Fernell E., Olesen P. J., Johnson M., Gustafsson P., Dahlström K., et al.
(2005).  Computerized Training of Working Memory in Children With ADHD-A Randomized, Controlled Trial.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 44(2), 177 - 186.

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000560D5-7252-12B9-9A2C83414B7F0000&sc=I100322

Training improves working memory capacity

Working memory capacity has traditionally been thought to be constant. Recent studies, however, suggest that working memory can be improved by training. In this recent imaging study, it was found that adults who practiced working memory tasks for 5 weeks showed increased brain activity in the middle frontal gyrus and superior and inferior parietal cortices. These changes could be evidence of training-induced plasticity in the neural systems that underlie working memory.

[606] Olesen, P. J., Westerberg H., & Klingberg T.
(2004).  Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory.
Nat Neurosci. 7(1), 75 - 79.

http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/neuro/journal/v7/n1/abs/nn1165.html

Children who concentrate and switch attention better are more likely to cross streets safely

How can we help kids cross streets more safely? Improving their abilities to concentrate and switch their attention may be part of the answer. British psychologists studied these two central attentional skills in children ages four to 10 in relation to how safely they crossed the street. The results suggest that children who can concentrate and switch their attention better may cross more safely. The study used a computer game to gauge the “attention switching” skills of 101 children. Distractability and impulsivity were also measured, in a representative sample of 35 children. These 35 children were then covertly videotaped crossing streets (with their parents). Attentional skills significantly correlated with pedestrian behavior, in different ways. Children who were better at switching attention on the Frog Game were more likely to look at traffic when about to cross a road. Children who were less able to concentrate in the lab when challenged by a distraction also tended to be more impulsive; children rated as more impulsive tended to cross the road in a less controlled way. The biggest improvements seemed to come between the group of four-five year olds and the group of five-six year olds, the difference between preschool and kindergarten age. Finally, concentration, but not switching, correlated with impulsivity, suggesting that these two skills (concentration and attention switching) represent distinct aspects of attention.

[385] Dunbar, G., Hill R., & Lewis V.
(2001).  Children's attentional skills and road behavior.
Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied. 7(3), 227 - 234.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-09/apa-cwc091001.php

Skill-specific exercises better for people who suffer from attention problems following stroke or brain injury

Treatment programs for people who suffer from attention problems following a stroke or other traumatic brain injuries often involve abstract cognitive exercises designed to directly restore impaired attention processes. But a review of 30 studies involving a total of 359 participants shows that an alternative and lesser-used therapy that teaches patients to relearn the tasks that affect their daily lives the most may be more effective. In this specific skills approach, people with brain damage learn to perform attention skills in a way that is different from non-brain-damaged people. In one study, for example, participants whose brain injuries affected their ability to drive a car used small electric cars in the lab to practice specific driving exercises, such as steering between pylons that were moved closer and closer together. Those that practiced specific exercises showed substantial improvement on a variety of driving related tasks compared to those who drove the car, but did not practice the exercises.

[2548] Park, N. W., & Ingles J. L.
(2001).  Effectiveness of attention rehabilitation after an acquired brain injury: A meta-analysis..
Neuropsychology. 15(2), 199 - 210.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-04/APA-Rlsm-0704101.php

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Attention warps memory space

A recent study reveals that when we focus on searching for something, regions across the brain are pulled into the search. The study sheds light on how attention works.

In the experiments, brain activity was recorded as participants searched for people or vehicles in movie clips. Computational models showed how each of the roughly 50,000 locations near the cortex responded to each of the 935 categories of objects and actions seen in the movie clips.

05/2013

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In favor of nature’s benefits for cognition

As many of you will know, I like nature-improves-mind stories. A new twist comes from a small Scottish study, in which participants were fitted up with a mobile EEG monitor that enabled their brainwaves to be recorded as they walked for 25 minutes through one of three different urban settings: an urban shopping street, a path through green space, or a street in a busy commercial district.

04/2013

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How urban living affects attention

February, 2013

A comparison of traditional African villagers and those who have moved to town indicates that urban living improves working memory capacity even as it makes us more vulnerable to distraction.

Another study looking into the urban-nature effect issue takes a different tack than those I’ve previously reported on, that look at the attention-refreshing benefits of natural environments.

In this study, a rural African people living in a traditional village were compared with those who had moved to town. Participants in the first experiment included 35 adult traditional Himba, 38 adolescent traditional Himba (mean age 12), 56 adult urbanized Himba, and 37 adolescent urbanized Himba. All traditional Himba had had little contact with the Western world and only spoke their native language; all adult urbanized Himba had grown up in traditional villages and only moved to town later in life (average length of time in town was 6 years); all adolescent urbanized Himba had grown up in town the town and usually attended school regularly.

The first experiments assessed the ability to ignore peripheral distracting arrows while focusing on the right or left direction of a central arrow.

There was a significant effect of urbanization, with attention being more focused (less distracted) among the traditional Himba. Traditional Himba were also slower than urbanized Himba — but note that there was substantial overlap in response times between the two groups. There was no significant effect of age (that is, adolescents were faster than adults in their responses, but the effect of the distracters was the same across age groups), or a significant interaction between age and urbanization.

The really noteworthy part of this, was that the urbanization effect on task performance was the same for the adults who had moved to town only a few years earlier as for the adolescents who had grown up and been educated in the town. In other words, this does not appear to be an educational effect.

The second experiment looked at whether traditional Himba would perform more like urbanized Himba if there were other demands on working memory. This was done by requiring them to remember three numbers (the number words in participants’ language are around twice as long as the same numbers in English, hence their digit span is shorter).

While traditional Himba were again more focused than the urbanized in the no-load condition, when there was this extra load on working memory, there was no significant difference between the two groups. Indeed, attention was de-focused in the traditional Himba under high load to the same degree as it was for urbanized Himba under no-load conditions. Note that increasing the cognitive load made no difference for the urbanized group.

There was also a significant (though not dramatic) difference between the traditional and urbanized Himba in terms of performance on the working memory task, with traditional Himba remembering an average of 2.46/3 digits and urbanized Himba 2.64.

Experiment 3 tested the two groups on a working memory task, a standard digit span test (although, of course, in their native language). Random sequences of 2-5 digits were read out, with the participant being required to say them aloud immediately after. Once again, the urbanized Himba performed better than the traditional Himba (4.32 vs 3.05).

In other words, the problem does not seem to be that urbanization depletes working memory, rather, that urbanization encourages disengagement (i.e., we have the capacity, we just don’t use it).

In the fourth experiment, this idea was tested more directly. Rather than the arrows used in the earlier experiments, black and white faces were used, with participants required to determine the color of the central face. Additionally, inverted faces were sometimes used (faces are stimuli we pay a lot of attention to, but inverting them reduces their ‘faceness’, thus making them less interesting).

An additional group of Londoners was also included in this experiment.

While urbanized Himba and Londoners were, again, more de-focused than traditional Himba when the faces were inverted, for the ‘normal’ faces, all three groups were equally focused.

Note that the traditional Himba were not affected by the changes in the faces, being equally focused regardless of the stimulus. It was the urbanized groups that became more alert when the stimuli became more interesting.

Because it may have been a race-discrimination mechanism coming into play, the final experiment returned to the direction judgment, with faces either facing left or right. This time the usual results occurred – the urbanized groups were more de-focused than the traditional group.

In other words, just having faces was not enough; it was indeed the racial discrimination that engaged the urbanized participants (note that both these urban groups come from societies where racial judgments are very salient – multicultural London, and post-apartheid Namibia).

All of this indicates that the attention difficulties that appear so common nowadays are less because our complex environments are ‘sapping’ our attentional capacities, and more because we are in a different attentional ‘mode’. It makes sense that in environments that contain so many more competing stimuli, we should employ a different pattern of engagement, keeping a wider, more spread, awareness on the environment, and only truly focusing when something triggers our interest.

Reference: 

[3273] Linnell, K. J., Caparos S., de Fockert J. W., & Davidoff J.
(2013).  Urbanization Decreases Attentional Engagement.
Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance.

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Even tiny interruptions can double or treble work errors

January, 2013

A new study quantifies the degree to which tasks that involve actions in a precise sequence are vulnerable to interruptions.

In my book on remembering intentions, I spoke of how quickly and easily your thoughts can be derailed, leading to ‘action slips’ and, in the wrong circumstances, catastrophic mistakes. A new study shows how a 3-second interruption while doing a task doubled the rate of sequence errors, while a 4s one tripled it.

The study involved 300 people, who were asked to perform a series of ordered steps on the computer. The steps had to be performed in a specific sequence, mnemonically encapsulated by UNRAVEL, with each letter identifying the step. The task rules for each step differed, requiring the participant to mentally shift gears each time. Moreover, task elements could have multiple elements — for example, the letter U could signal the step, one of two possible responses for that step, or be a stimulus requiring a specific response when the step was N. Each step required the participant to choose between two possible responses based on one stimulus feature — features included whether it was a letter or a digit, whether it was underlined or italic, whether it was red or yellow, whether the character outside the outline box was above or below. There were also more cognitive features, such as whether the letter was near the beginning of the alphabet or not. The identifying mnemonic for the step was linked to the possible responses (e.g., N step – near or far; U step — underline or italic).

At various points, participants were very briefly interrupted. In the first experiment, they were asked to type four characters (letters or digits); in the second experiment, they were asked to type only two (a very brief interruption indeed!).

All of this was designed to set up a situation emulating “train of thought” operations, where correct performance depends on remembering where you are in the sequence, and on producing a situation where performance would have reasonably high proportion of errors — one of the problems with this type of research has been the use of routine tasks that are generally performed with a high degree of accuracy, thus generating only small amounts of error data for analysis.

In both experiments, interruptions significantly increased the rate of sequence errors on the first trial after the interruption (but not on subsequent ones). Nonsequence errors were not affected. In the first experiment (four-character interruption), the sequence error rate on the first trial after the interruption was 5.8%, compared to 1.8% on subsequent trials. In the second experiment (two-character interruption), it was 4.3%.

The four-character interruptions lasted an average of 4.36s, and the two-character interruptions lasted an average of 2.76s.

Whether the characters being typed were letters or digits made no difference, suggesting that the disruptive effects of interruptions are not overly sensitive to what’s being processed during the interruption (although of course these are not wildly different processes!).

The absence of effect on nonsequence errors shows that interruptions aren’t disrupting global attentional resources, but more specifically the placekeeping task.

As I discussed in my book, the step also made a significant difference — for sequence errors, middle steps showed higher error rates than end steps.

All of this confirms and quantifies how little it takes to derail us, and reminds us that, when engaged in tasks involving the precise sequence of sub-tasks (which so many tasks do), we need to be alert to the dangers of interruptions. This is, of course, particularly true for those working in life-critical areas, such as medicine.

Reference: 

[3207] Altmann, E. M., Gregory J., & Hambrick D. Z.
(2013).  Momentary Interruptions Can Derail the Train of Thought.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. No - Pagination Specified.

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How emotion keeps some memories vivid

September, 2012

Emotionally arousing images that are remembered more vividly were seen more vividly. This may be because the amygdala focuses visual attention rather than more cognitive attention on the image.

We know that emotion affects memory. We know that attention affects perception (see, e.g., Visual perception heightened by meditation training; How mindset can improve vision). Now a new study ties it all together. The study shows that emotionally arousing experiences affect how well we see them, and this in turn affects how vividly we later recall them.

The study used images of positively and negatively arousing scenes and neutral scenes, which were overlaid with varying amounts of “visual noise” (like the ‘snow’ we used to see on old televisions). College students were asked to rate the amount of noise on each picture, relative to a specific image they used as a standard. There were 25 pictures in each category, and three levels of noise (less than standard, equal to standard, and more than standard).

Different groups explored different parameters: color; gray-scale; less noise (10%, 15%, 20% as compared to 35%, 45%, 55%); single exposure (each picture was only presented once, at one of the noise levels).

Regardless of the actual amount of noise, emotionally arousing pictures were consistently rated as significantly less noisy than neutral pictures, indicating that people were seeing them more clearly. This was true in all conditions.

Eye-tracking analysis ruled out the idea that people directed their attention differently for emotionally arousing images, but did show that more eye fixations were associated both with less noisy images and emotionally arousing ones. In other words, people were viewing emotionally important images as if they were less noisy.

One group of 22 students were given a 45-minute spatial working memory task after seeing the images, and then asked to write down all the details they could remember about the pictures they remembered seeing. The amount of detail they recalled was taken to be an indirect measure of vividness.

A second group of 27 students were called back after a week for a recognition test. They were shown 36 new images mixed in with the original 75 images, and asked to rate them as new, familiar, or recollected. They were also asked to rate the vividness of their recollection.

Although, overall, emotionally arousing pictures were not more likely to be remembered than neutral pictures, both experiments found that pictures originally seen as more vivid (less noise) were remembered more vividly and in more detail.

Brain scans from 31 students revealed that the amygdala was more active when looking at images rated as vivid, and this in turn increased activity in the visual cortex and in the posterior insula (which integrates sensations from the body). This suggests that the increased perceptual vividness is not simply a visual phenomenon, but part of a wider sensory activation.

There was another neural response to perceptual vividness: activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex was negatively correlated with vividness. This suggests that emotion is not simply increasing our attentional focus, it is instead changing it by reducing effortful attentional and executive processes in favor of more perceptual ones. This, perhaps, gives emotional memories their different ‘flavor’ compared to more neutral memories.

These findings clearly need more exploration before we know exactly what they mean, but the main finding from the study is that the vividness with which we recall some emotional experiences is rooted in the vividness with which we originally perceived it.

The study highlights how emotion can sharpen our attention, building on previous findings that emotional events are more easily detected when visibility is difficult, or attentional demands are high. It is also not inconsistent with a study I reported on last year, which found some information needs no repetition to be remembered because the amygdala decrees it of importance.

I should add, however, that the perceptual effect is not the whole story — the current study found that, although perceptual vividness is part of the reason for memories that are vividly remembered, emotional importance makes its own, independent, contribution. This contribution may occur after the event.

It’s suggested that individual differences in these reactions to emotionally enhanced vividness may underlie an individual’s vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Support for link between physical activity & academic success

March, 2012

A review supports the benefits of physical activity for children’s and adolescent’s scholastic performance, but points to the need for better studies. A recent study looks at the effects on attention of different types of physical activity.

A review of 10 observational and four intervention studies as said to provide strong evidence for a positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance in young people (6-18). While only three of the four intervention studies and three of the 10 observational studies found a positive correlation, that included the two studies (one intervention and one observational) that researchers described as “high-quality”.

An important feature of the high-quality studies was that they used objective measures of physical activity, rather than students' or teachers' reports. More high-quality studies are clearly needed. Note that the quality score of the 14 studies ranged from 22%! to 75%.

Interestingly, a recent media report (NOT, I hasten to add, a peer-reviewed study appearing in an academic journal) spoke of data from public schools in Lincoln, Nebraska, which apparently has a district-wide physical-fitness test, which found that those were passed the fitness test were significantly more likely to also pass state reading and math tests.

Specifically, data from the last two years apparently shows that 80% of the students who passed the fitness test either met or exceeded state standards in math, compared to 66% of those who didn't pass the fitness test, and 84% of those who passed the fitness test met or exceeded state standards in reading, compared to 71% of those who failed the fitness test.

Another recent study looks at a different aspect of this association between physical exercise and academic performance.

The Italian study involved138 normally-developing children aged 8-11, whose attention was tested before and after three different types of class: a normal academic class; a PE class focused on cardiovascular endurance and involving continuous aerobic circuit training followed by a shuttle run exercise; a PE class combining both physical and mental activity by involving novel use of basketballs in varying mini-games that were designed to develop coordination and movement-based problem-solving. These two types of physical activity offered the same exercise intensity, but very different skill demands.

The attention test was a short (5-minute) paper-and-pencil task in which the children had to mark each occurrence of “d” with double quotation marks either above or below in 14 lines of randomly mixed p and d letters with one to four single and/or double quotation marks either over and/or under each letter.

Processing speed increased 9% after mental exercise (normal academic class) and 10% after physical exercise. These were both significantly better than the increase of 4% found after the combined physical and mental exertion.

Similarly, scores on the test improved 13% after the academic class, 10% after the standard physical exercise, and only 2% after the class combining physical and mental exertion.

Now it’s important to note is that this is of course an investigation of the immediate arousal benefits of exercise, rather than an investigation of the long-term benefits of being fit, which is a completely different question.

But the findings do bear on the use of PE classes in the school setting, and the different effects that different types of exercise might have.

First of all, there’s the somewhat surprising finding that attention was at least as great, if not better, after an academic class than the PE class. It would not have been surprising if attention had flagged. It seems likely that what we are seeing here is a reflection of being in the right head-space — that is, the advantage of continuing with the same sort of activity.

But the main finding is the, also somewhat unexpected, relative drop in attention after the PE class that combined mental and physical exertion.

It seems plausible that the reason for this lies in the cognitive demands of the novel activity, which is, I think, the main message we should take away from this study, rather than any comparison between physical and mental activity. However, it would not be surprising if novel activities that combine physical and mental skills tend to be more demanding than skills that are “purely” (few things are truly pure I know) one or the other.

Of course, it shouldn’t be overlooked that attention wasn’t hampered by any of these activities!

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Deep male voice helps women remember

November, 2011

It seems that what is said by deeper male voices is remembered better by heterosexual women, while memory is impaired for higher male voices. Pitch didn’t affect the memorability of female voices.

I had to report on this quirky little study, because a few years ago I discovered Leonard Cohen’s gravelly voice and then just a few weeks ago had it trumped by Tom Waits — I adore these deep gravelly voices, but couldn’t say why. Now a study shows that woman are not only sensitive to male voice pitch, but this affects their memory.

In the first experiment, 45 heterosexual women were shown images of objects while listening to the name of the object spoken either by a man or woman. The pitch of the voice was manipulated to be high or low. After spending five minutes on a Sudoku puzzle, participants were asked to choose which of two similar but not identical versions of the object was the one they had seen earlier. After the memory test, participants were tested on their voice preferences.

Women strongly preferred the low pitch male voice and remembered objects more accurately when they have been introduced by the deeper male voice than the higher male voice (mean score for object recognition was 84.7% vs 77.8%). There was no significant difference in memory relating to pitch for the female voices (83.9% vs 81.7% — note that these are not significantly different from the score for the deeper male voice).

So is it that memory is enhanced for deeper male voices, or that it is impaired for higher male voices (performance on the female voices suggests the latter)? Or are both factors at play? To sort this out, the second experiment, involving a new set of 46 women, included unmanipulated male and female voices.

Once again, women were unaffected by the different variations of female voices. However, male voices produced a clear linear effect, with the unmanipulated male voices squarely in the middle of the deeper and higher versions. It appears, then, that both factors are at play: deepening a male voice enhances its memorability, while raising it impairs its memorability.

It’s thought that deeper voices are associated with more desirable traits for long-term male partners. Having a better memory for specific encounters with desirable men would allow women to compare and evaluate men according to how they might behave in different relationship contexts.

The voices used were supplied by four young adult men and four young adult women. Pitch was altered through software manipulation. Participants were told that the purpose of the experiment was to study sociosexual orientation and object preference. Contraceptive pill usage did not affect the women’s responses.

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ADHD

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

Inconsistent processing speed among children with ADHD

A new analytical technique has revealed that the problem with children with ADHD is not so much that they are slower at responding to tasks, but rather that their response is inconsistent. The study of 25 children with ADHD and 24 typically developing peers found that on a task in which a number on one screen needed to be mentally added to another number shown on a second screen, those with ADHD were much less consistent in their response times, although the responses they did give were just as accurate. Higher levels of hyperactivity and restlessness or impulsivity (as measured by parent survey) correlated with more slower reaction times. The finding supports the idea that what underlies impaired working memory is a problem in how consistently a child with ADHD can respond during a working memory task.

[911] Buzy, W. M., Medoff D. R., & Schweitzer J. B.
(2009).  Intra-Individual Variability Among Children with ADHD - on a Working Memory Task: An Ex-Gaussian Approach.
Child Neuropsychology. 15(5), 441 - 441.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-03/uoc--ips032409.php

Hyperactivity enables children with ADHD to stay alert

A study of 12 8- to 12-year-old boys with ADHD, and 11 of those without, has found that activity levels of those with ADHD increased significantly whenever they had to perform a task that placed demands on their working memory. In a highly stimulating environment where little working memory is required (such as watching a Star Wars video), those with ADHD kept just as still as their normal peers. It’s suggested that movement helps them stay alert enough to complete challenging tasks, and therefore trying to limit their activity (when non-destructive) is counterproductive. Providing written instructions, simplifying multi-step directions, and using poster checklists are all strategies that can be used to help children with ADHD learn without overwhelming their working memories.

[734] Rapport, M., Bolden J., Kofler M., Sarver D., Raiker J., & Alderson R.
(2009).  Hyperactivity in Boys with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A Ubiquitous Core Symptom or Manifestation of Working Memory Deficits?.
Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 37(4), 521 - 534.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-03/uocf-ush030909.php

Transcendental Meditation reduces ADHD symptoms among students

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

Grosswald, S.J., Stixrud, W.R., Travis, F. & Bateh, M.A. 2008. Use of the Transcendental Meditation technique to reduce symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by reducing stress and anxiety: An exploratory study. Current Issues in Education, 10 (2)

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

How Ritalin works to focus attention

Ritalin has been widely used for decades to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but until now the mechanism of how it works hasn’t been well understood. Now a rat study has found that Ritalin, in low doses, fine-tunes the functioning of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, and has little effect elsewhere in the brain. It appears that Ritalin dramatically increases the sensitivity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex to signals coming from the hippocampus. However, in higher doses, prefrontal neurons stopped responding to incoming information, impairing cognition. Low doses also reinforced coordinated activity of neurons, and weakened activity that wasn't well coordinated. All of this suggests that Ritalin strengthens dominant and important signals within the prefrontal cortex, while lessening weaker signals that may act as distractors.

[663] Devilbiss, D. M., & Berridge C. W.
(2008).  Cognition-Enhancing Doses of Methylphenidate Preferentially Increase Prefrontal Cortex Neuronal Responsiveness.
Biological Psychiatry. 64(7), 626 - 635.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-06/uow-suh062408.php

Study raises questions about diagnosis, treatment of ADHD

The first large, longitudinal study of adolescents and ADHD has revealed that only about half of children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder exhibit the cognitive defects commonly associated with the condition. Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that ADHD is simply the extreme end of a normal continuum of behavior that varies in the population, and its diagnosis is defined by where health professionals "draw the line" on this continuum. This finding suggests that behavior-rating scales alone are not sensitive enough to differentiate between the two groups. Researchers also found surprising results regarding the effectiveness of medicine in treating ADHD. In contrast to children in United States, youth in northern Finland are rarely treated with medicine for ADHD, yet the prevalence, symptoms, psychiatric comorbidity and cognition of the disorder is relatively the same as in the U.S., where stimulant medication is widely used. Although the medication is very effective in the short-term, the study raises questions concerning its long-term efficacy. The study also confirmed that hyperactivity and impulsivity decrease with age, while inattention increasingly predominates; that ADHD is associated with increased rates of other psychiatric problems, especially depression, anxiety, oppositional behaviors, conduct disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The study of Finnish adolescents found a prevalence of 8.5% with a male/female ratio of 5.7:1.

[615] McCracken, J. T., Varilo T., Yang M. H., Nelson S. F., Peltonen L., JÄRVELIN M-R., et al.
(2007).  Prevalence and Psychiatric Comorbidity of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in an Adolescent Finnish Population.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 46(12), 1575 - 1583.

[1367] JÄRVELIN, M-R., Smalley S. L., Lubke G. H., MUTHÉN B., Moilanen I. K., McGough J. J., et al.
(2007).  Subtypes Versus Severity Differences in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in the Northern Finnish Birth Cohort.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 46(12), 1584 - 1593.

[1030] Ebeling, H., JÄRVELIN M-R., Smalley S. L., Loo S. K., Humphrey L. A., Tapio T., et al.
(2007).  Executive Functioning Among Finnish Adolescents With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 46(12), 1594 - 1604.

[1104] Hurtig, T., Ebeling H., Taanila A., Miettunen J., Smalley S. L., McGough J. J., et al.
(2007).  ADHD Symptoms and Subtypes: Relationship Between Childhood and Adolescent Symptoms.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 46(12), 1605 - 1613.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-01/uoc--srq012208.php

Gene predicts better outcome as cortex normalizes in teens with ADHD

Recent research found that thickening of brain areas that control attention in the right cortex (right orbitofrontal/inferior prefrontal and posterior parietal cortex ) was associated with better clinical outcomes in ADHD. A new study has found that these brain areas are thinnest in those who carry a particular variant of a gene. The version of the dopamine D4 receptor gene, called the 7-repeat variant, was found in nearly a quarter of youth with ADHD and about one-sixth of the healthy controls. Although this particular gene version increased risk for ADHD, it also made it more likely that the areas would thicken during adolescence, with consequent improvement in behaviour and performance.

Citekey 1067/ibib]</p><p><a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-08/niom-gpb080107.php">http:... TV viewing during adolescence linked with risk of attention and learning difficulties</h3><p>A long-running study of 678 families in upstate New York, surveyed children at 14, 16 and 22 years old (averages), and again when the children in the study had reached an average age of 33. At age 14, 225 (33.2%) of the teens reported that they watched three or more hours of television per day. Those who watched 1 or more hours of television per day at mean age 14 years were at higher risk of poor homework completion, negative attitudes toward school, poor grades, and long-term academic failure. Those who watched 3 or more hours of television per day were most likely to experience these outcomes, and moreover were at higher risk of subsequent attention problems and were the least likely to receive postsecondary education. Analysis of the data also indicated that television watching contributes to learning difficulties and not vice versa.</p><p>[ibib]540 not found

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-05/jaaj-ftv050307.php

Drug for teen drivers with ADHD

A comparison of the effects of OROS methylphenidate (Concerta), a controlled-release stimulant, and extended release amphetamine salts (Adderall XR) on driving performance in teens with ADHD has found that treatments with Concerta led to fewer inattentive driving errors and less hyperactive or impulsive driving errors, such as speeding and inappropriate braking, compared with Adderall XR and placebo.

[1076] Cox, D. J., Merkel L. R., Moore M., Thorndike F., Muller C., & Kovatchev B.
(2006).  Relative Benefits of Stimulant Therapy With OROS Methylphenidate Versus Mixed Amphetamine Salts Extended Release in Improving the Driving Performance of Adolescent Drivers With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
Pediatrics. 118(3), e704-710 - e704-710.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/09/060905225503.htm
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-09/uovh-rfn090506.php

ADHD linked to genetic and environmental interactions

A study of 172 children who were enrolled in a community-based study of low levels of lead exposure has found evidence that increasing lead exposure is linked to impairment on a number of executive functions (impaired in those with ADHD), but that certain genetic and biological factors seemed to predispose an individual to the negative effects of lead exposure. For instance, only children with certain variations of the DRD4 gene seemed vulnerable to lead's adverse effects on attentional flexibility. Boys were more vulnerable to this effect than girls.

The study was presented on May 1, 2006 at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in San Francisco.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-05/cchm-sla042606.php

Drug improves information processing in adults with ADHD

Mixed amphetamine salts extended release (MAS XR) substantially improved the speed and accuracy in information processing of young adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Excitingly, the improvement persisted after the 3 weeks of treatment had been stopped for 3 weeks.

Kay, G.G. & Kardiasmenos, K.S. 2006. Effect of Mixed Amphetamine Salts Extended Release on Neurocognitive Speed in Young Adults with ADHD. Paper presented at the annual American Psychiatric Association Meeting in Toronto, Canada. Poster #NR678

Kay, G.G. & Kardiasmenos, K.S. 2006. Effect of Mixed Amphetamine Salts Extended Release on Neurocognitive Accuracy in Young Adults with ADHD. Paper presented at the annual American Psychiatric Association Meeting in Toronto, Canada. Poster #NR679

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-05/pn-mas_1052406.php

Breakdown of myelin insulation in brain's wiring implicated in childhood developmental disorders

Previous research has suggested that the production of myelin (a fatty insulation coating the brain's internal wiring) is a key component of brain development through childhood and well into middle age, when development peaks and deterioration begins, and that midlife breakdown of myelin is implicated to onset of Alzheimer's disease later in life. Now new research suggests the disruption of myelination is a key neurobiological component behind childhood developmental disorders, such as autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and addictive behaviors. The analysis also suggests that alcohol and other drugs of abuse have toxic effects on the myelination process in some adolescents.

Bartzokis, G. 2005. Adolescent Psychiatry. Hillsdale, N.J.: The Analytic Press Inc.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-11/uoc--bom111405.php

ADDERALL XR significantly improves driving performance, attention in young adults with ADHD

ADDERALL XR® significantly improved driving performance, cognitive function and attention in young adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in a controlled driving simulator study. An earlier study found that adults with ADHD had a significant higher incidence of traffic violations, and license suspensions than patients without ADHD — ADHD patients were five times more likely than non-ADHD patients to have five or more speeding tickets and three times more likely to have had three or more vehicular crashes.

Kay, G. 2005. The Effect of Adderall XR and Atomoxetine on Simulated Driving Safety in Young Adults with ADHD. Presented at the 18th Annual U.S. Psychiatric & Mental Health Congress in Las Vegas, NV.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-11/pn-axs110805.php

Cognitive therapy for ADHD

A researcher that has previously demonstrated that working memory capacity can be increased through training, has now reported that the training software has produced significant improvement in children with ADHD — a disability that is associated with deficits in working memory. The study involved 53 children with ADHD, aged 7-12, who were not on medication for their disability. 44 of these met the criterion of more than 20 days of training. Half the participants were assigned to the working memory training program and the other half to a comparison program. 60% of those who underwent the wm training program no longer met the clinical criteria for ADHD after five weeks of training. The children were tested on visual-spatial memory, which has the strongest link to inattention and ADHD. Further research is needed to show that training improves ability on a wider range of tasks.

[583] Klingberg, T., Fernell E., Olesen P. J., Johnson M., Gustafsson P., Dahlström K., et al.
(2005).  Computerized Training of Working Memory in Children With ADHD-A Randomized, Controlled Trial.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 44(2), 177 - 186.

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000560D5-7252-12B9-9A2C83414B7F0000&sc=I100322

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