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Meditation's cognitive benefits

A critical part of attention (and working memory capacity) is being able to ignore distraction. There has been growing evidence that meditation training (in particular mindfulness meditation) helps develop attentional control, and that this can start to happen very quickly.

For example:

  • after an eight-week course that included up to 30 minutes of daily meditation, novices improved their ability to quickly and accurately move and focus attention.
  • three months of rigorous training in Vipassana meditation improved attentional control.
  • after eight weeks of Mindfulness Training, Marine reservists during pre-deployment showed increased working memory capacity and decreased negative mood (this training also included concrete applications for the operational environment and information and skills about stress, trauma and resilience in the body).
  • after a mere four sessions of 20 minutes, students produced a significant improvement in critical cognitive skills — and a dramatic improvement when conditions became more stressful (provided by increasingly challenging time-constraints).

There seem to be several factors involved in these improvements: better control of brainwaves; increased gray matter density in some brain regions; improved white-matter connectivity.

Thus, after ten weeks of Transcendental Meditation (TM) practice, students showed significant changes in brainwave patterns during meditation compared to eyes-closed rest for the controls. These changes reflected greater coherence and power in brainwave activity in areas that overlap with the default mode network (the brain’s ‘resting state’). Similarly, after an eight-week mindfulness meditation program, participants had better control of alpha brainwaves. Relatedly, perhaps, experienced Zen meditators have shown that, after interruptions designed to mimic spontaneous thoughts, they could bring activity in most regions of the default mode network back to baseline faster than non-meditators.

Thus, after an 8-week mindfulness meditation program, participants showed increased grey-matter density in the left hippocampus , posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction , and cerebellum , as well as decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala . Similarly, another study found experienced meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus and the right orbitofrontal cortex, and to a lesser extent the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal gyrus.

These areas of the brain are all closely linked to emotion, and may explain meditators' improved ability in regulating their emotions.

Thus, long-term meditators showed pronounced differences in white-matter connectivity between their brains and those of age-matched controls, meaning that meditators’ brains were better able to quickly relay electrical signals. The brain regions linked by these white-matter tracts include many of those mentioned as showing increased gray matter density. Another study found that a mere 11 hours of meditation training (IBMT) produced measurable changes in the integrity and efficiency of white matter in the corona radiata (which links to the anterior cingulate cortex, an area where attention and emotion are thought to be integrated).

It’s an interesting question, the extent to which poor attentional control is a reflection of poor emotional regulation. Obviously there is more to distractability than that, but emotion and attention are clearly inextricably entwined. So, for example, a pilot study involving 10 middle school students with ADHD 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 effects of emotion regulation are of course wider than the effects on attention. Another domain they impact is that of decision-making. A study involving experienced Buddhist meditators found that they used different brain regions than controls when making decisions in a ‘fairness’ game. The differences reflected less input from emotional reactions and more emphasis on the actual benefits.

Similarly, brain scans taken while experienced and novice meditators meditated found that periodic bursts of disturbing noise had less effect on brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making for experienced meditators compared to novices — and very experienced meditators (at least 40,000 hours of experience) showed hardly any activity in these areas at all.

Attention is also entwined with perception, so it’s also interesting to observe that several studies have found improved visual perception attendant on meditation training and/or experience. Thus, participants attending a three-month meditation retreat, showed significant improvements in making fine visual distinctions, and ability to sustain attention.

But such benefits may depend on the style of meditation. A study involving experienced practitioners of two styles of meditation (Deity Yoga (DY) and Open Presence (OP)) found that DY meditators were dramatically better at mental rotation and visual memory tasks compared to OP practitioners and controls (and only if they were given the tasks immediately after meditating). Similarly, a study involving Tibetan Buddhist monks found that, during "one-point" meditation, monks were significantly better at maintaining their focus on one image, when two different images were presented to each eye. This superior attentional control was not found during compassion-oriented meditation. However, even under normal conditions the monks showed longer stable perception compared to meditation-naïve control subjects. And three months of intense training in Vipassana meditation produced an improvement in the ability of participants to detect the second of two visual signals half a second apart (the size of the improvement was linked to reduced brain activity to the first target — which was still detected with the same level of accuracy). Similarly, three months of intensive meditation training reduced variability in attentional processing of target tones.

References

You can read about these studies in more detail in the aggregated news reports on meditation. Three studies were mentioned here without having appeared in the news reports:

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Rawlings, N. B., Francis, A. D., Greischar, L. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2009). Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence. J. Neurosci., 29(42), 13418-13427. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1614-09.2009

Tang, Y.-Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E. A., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. I. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(35), 15649 -15652. doi:10.1073/pnas.1011043107

Travis, F., Haaga, D., Hagelin, J., Tanner, M., Arenander, A., Nidich, S., Gaylord-King, C., et al. (2010). A self-referential default brain state: patterns of coherence, power, and eLORETA sources during eyes-closed rest and Transcendental Meditation practice. Cognitive Processing, 11(1), 21-30. doi:10.1007/s10339-009-0343-2
 

 

 

Similarity

Human memory is a complex and varied phenomenon, and we could delve into its mysteries every day for a hundred years and still have plenty to talk about. But if I had to pick one factor that was absolutely crucial to the operation of memory, I would pick the deceptively simple concept of similarity. Similarity.

We all think we know what that means. An orange is similar to a mandarin; a zebra is similar to a horse; a cup is similar to a glass; my son is similar to his brother. A car is similar to an elephant.

??

Well, I might think a car was similar to an elephant. Maybe I’m imagining an elephant thundering toward me, kicking up dirt, unstoppable. Or maybe my perceptions are confused. But whether there’s a logical reason for my perception of similarity or not, whether my perception of similarity is shared with other people or not, all that is required for my brain to make the connection is ... that I perceive a connection.

Similarity — perceived similarity — is a crucial ingredient to the connections made in your head. Similarity enables us to make connections that transcend space and time, and enables us to strengthen connections made as a result of a juxtaposition of space and time.

Thus, when you meet a person and he tells you his name is Tom Brown, the first connection is made simply because the name and person are coincident in space and time. And if you leave it there, that connection will most likely be too weak to retrieve on a later occasion.

You can (and should, if you want to remember) employ another critical element to strengthen the connection: repetition (which impacts on the perceived familiarity of the information, but that’s another story). But the new information (this person is named Tom Brown) will be much more firmly lodged in your database, and much easier to find, if you make other connections, connections to information already stored in your memory. Thus, you might associate the name with the book “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, based on the similarity of names. There might be some physical characteristic of this new person that you can link to a character in the book. If so, you are much more likely to be able to remember this name when you meet the person again. However, if you are barely familiar with the book, and have to stretch your imagination to make any further connection, such as with the characters in the book, then this similarity of names won’t greatly help you.

The important thing when connecting new information to information already existing in your database, is to ensure the existing information is itself easily retrievable, and that the connections you make are not too obscure.

So, to make new memories easily retrievable:

  • look for similarities to existing memories
  • look for similarities that are obvious to you (what other people think doesn’t matter in the slightest)
  • choose existing memories that are themselves easily retrievable

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 newsletter.

Frequent multitaskers are the worst at it

A survey of college students found that those who scored highest in multitasking ability were also least likely to multitask, while those who scored lowest were most likely to engage in it.

I’ve reported often on the perils of multitasking. Here is yet another one, with an intriguing new finding: it seems that the people who multitask the most are those least capable of doing so!

The study surveyed 310 undergraduate psychology students to find their actual multitasking ability, perceived multitasking ability, cell phone use while driving, use of a wide array of electronic media, and personality traits such as impulsivity and sensation-seeking.

Those who scored in the top quarter on a test of multitasking ability tended not to multitask. Some 70% of participants thought they were above average at multitasking, and perceived multitasking ability (rather than actual) was associated with multitasking. Those with high levels of impulsivity and sensation-seeking were also more likely to multitask (with the exception of using a cellphone while driving, which wasn’t related to impulsivity, though it was related to sensation seeking).

The findings suggest that those who multitask don’t do so because they are good at multitasking, but because they are poor at focusing on one task.

Memory for Facebook posts better than that of faces and books

Gossipy content and informal language may lie behind people's better recall of Facebook posts compared to memory for human faces or sentences from books.

Online social networking, such as Facebook, is hugely popular. A series of experiments has explored the intriguing question of whether our memories are particularly ‘tuned’ to remember the sort of information shared on such sites.

The first experiment involved 32 college students (27 female), who were asked to study either 100 randomly chosen Facebook posts, or 100 sentences randomly chosen from books on Amazon. After the study period (which involved each sentence being presented for 3 seconds), the students were given a self-paced recognition test, in which the 100 study sentences were mixed with another 100 sentences from the same source, with participants responding with a number expressing their confidence that they had (or had not) seen the sentence before (e.g., ‘1’ would indicate they were completely confident that they hadn’t seen it before, ‘20’ that they were totally confident that they had).

Recognition of Facebook posts was significantly better than recognition of sentences from books (an average of 85% correct vs 76%). The ‘Facebook advantage’ remained even when only posts with more normal surface-level characteristics were analyzed (i.e., all posts containing irregularities of spelling and typography were removed).

In the next experiment, involving 16 students (11 female), Facebook posts (a new set) were compared with neutral faces. Again, memory for Facebook posts was substantially better than that for faces. This is quite remarkable, since humans have a particular expertise for faces and tend to score highly on recognition tests for them.

One advantage the Facebook posts might have is in eliciting social thinking. The researchers attempted to test this by comparing the learning achieved when people were asked to count the words of each sentence or post, against the learning achieved when they were asked to think of someone they knew (real or fictional) who could have composed such a sentence / post. This experiment involved 64 students (41 female).

The deeper encoding encouraged by the latter strategy did improve memory for the texts, but it did so equally. The fact that it helped Facebook posts as much as it did book sentences argues against the idea that the Facebook advantage rests on social elaboration (because if so, encouraging them to be socially elaborated would have little extra effect).

Another advantage the Facebook posts might have over book sentences is that they were generally complete in themselves, making sense in a way that randomly chosen sentences from books would not. Other possibilities have to do with the gossipy nature of Facebook posts, and the informal language used. To test these theories, 180 students (138 female) were shown text from two CNN twitter feeds: Breaking News and Entertainment News. Texts included headlines, sentences, and comments.

Texts from Entertainment News were remembered significantly better than those from Breaking News (supporting the gossip advantage). Headlines were remembered significantly better than random sentences (supporting the completeness argument), but comments were remembered best of all (supporting the informality theory) — although the benefit of comments over headlines was much greater for Breaking News than Entertainment News (perhaps reflecting the effort the Entertainment News people put into making catchy headlines?).

It seems then, that three factors contribute to the greater memorability of Facebook posts: the completeness of ideas; the gossipy content; the casually generated language.

You’ll have noticed I made a special point of noting the gender imbalance in the participant pools. Given gender differences in language and social interaction, it’s a shame that the participants were so heavily skewed, and I would like this replicated with males before generalizing. However, the evidence for the advantage of more informal language is, at least, less likely to be skewed by gender.

Reference: 

[3277] Mickes, L., Darby R. S., Hwe V., Bajic D., Warker J. A., Harris C. R., et al. (Submitted).  Major memory for microblogs. Memory & Cognition. 1 - 9.

Correcting misinformation isn’t just a matter of providing the correct information

A study emphasizes the importance of establishing source credibility when trying to correct false information.

I’ve discussed before how hard it is to correct false knowledge. This is not only a problem for the classroom — the preconceptions students bring to a topic, and the difficulty of replacing them with the correct information — but, in these days of so much misinformation in the media and on the web, an everyday problem.

An internet study involving 574 adults presented them with an article discussing the issue of electronic health records (EHRs). They were then shown another article on the subject, supposedly from a "political blog". This text included several false statements about who was allowed access to these records (for example, that hospital administrators, health insurance companies, employers, and government officials had unrestricted access).

For some participants, this article was annotated so that the false statements were clearly marked, and directions explained that an independent fact-checking organization had found these factual errors. Other participants completed an unrelated three-minute task at the end of reading the text before being presented with the same corrections, while a third group was not advised of the inaccuracies at all (until being debriefed).

After reading the text, participants were given a questionnaire, where they listed everything they had learned about EHRs from the text, rated their feelings about each item, and marked on a 7-point scale how easy it would be for specific groups to access the records. They were also asked to judge the credibility of the fact-checking message.

Those who received the immediate corrections were significantly more accurate than those who received the delayed corrections, and both were significantly more accurate than those receiving no corrections — so at least we know that correcting false information does make a difference! More depressingly, however, the difference between any of the groups, although significant, was small — i.e., correcting false statements makes a difference, but not much of one.

Part of the problem lies, it appears, in people’s preconceptions. A breakdown by participant’s feelings on the issue revealed that the immediate correction was significantly more effective for those who were ‘for’ EHRs (note that the corrections agreed with their beliefs). Indeed, for those unfavorably disposed, the immediate corrections may as well have been no corrections at all.

But, intriguingly, predisposition only made a difference when the correction was immediate, not when it was delayed.

Mapping these results against participants’ responses to the question of credibility revealed that those unfavorably disposed (and therefore prone to believing the false claims in the text) assigned little credibility to the corrections.

Why should this, perfectly understandable, difference apply only when corrections were immediate? The researchers suggest that, by putting the corrections in direct competition with the false statements, more emphasis is put on their relative credibility — assessments of which tend to be biased by existing attitudes.

The findings suggest it is naïve to expect that it is enough to simply tell people something is false, if they have a will to believe it. It also suggests the best approach to correcting false knowledge is to emphasize the credibility of the corrector.

Of course, this study used politically charged information, about which people are likely to have decided opinions. But the results are a reminder that, as the researcher says: "Humans aren't vessels into which you can just pour accurate information. Correcting misperceptions is really a persuasion task.”

This is true even when the information is something as ‘factual’ as the cause of the seasons! Even teachers should take on board this idea that, when new information doesn’t fit in with a student’s world-view, then credibility of the source/authority (the teacher!) is paramount.

Reference: 

Garrett, R., & Weeks, B. (2013). The Promise and Peril of Real-Time Corrections to Political Misperceptions. Proceedings of the Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing conference. Retrieved from http://wp.comm.ohio-state.edu/misperceptions/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/...

Intensive training helps seniors with long-term aphasia

A six-week specific language therapy program not only improved chronic aphasic’s ability to name objects, but produced durable changes in brain activity that continued to bring benefits post-training.

Here’s an encouraging study for all those who think that, because of age or physical damage, they must resign themselves to whatever cognitive impairment or decline they have suffered. In this study, older adults who had suffered from aphasia for a long time nevertheless improved their language function after six weeks of intensive training.

The study involved nine seniors with chronic aphasia and 10 age-matched controls. Those with aphasia were given six weeks of intensive and specific language therapy, after which they showed significantly better performance at naming objects. Brain scans revealed that the training had not only stimulated language circuits, but also integrated the default mode network (the circuits used when our brain is in its ‘resting state’ — i.e., not thinking about anything in particular), producing brain activity that was similar to that of the healthy controls.

Moreover, these new circuits continued to be active after training, with participants continuing to improve.

Previous research has implicated abnormal functioning of the default mode network in other cognitive disorders.

Although it didn’t reach significance, there was a trend suggesting that the level of integration of the default mode network prior to therapy predicted the outcome of the training.

The findings are especially relevant to the many seniors who no longer receive treatment for stroke damage they may have had for many years. They also add to the growing evidence for the importance of the default mode network. Changes in the integration of the default mode network with other circuits have also been implicated in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.

Interestingly, some research suggests that meditation may help improve the coherence of brainwaves that overlap the default mode network. Meditation, already shown to be helpful for improving concentration and focus, may be of greater benefit for fighting age-related cognitive decline than we realize!

Checklists dramatically reduce errors in operating room crises

A simulated study of life-threatening surgical crises has found that using a checklist reduced the omission of critical steps from 23% to 6%.

I reported recently on how easily and quickly we can get derailed from a chain of thought (or action). In similar vein, here’s another study that shows how easy it is to omit important steps in an emergency, even when you’re an expert — which is why I’m a great fan of checklists.

Checklists have been shown to dramatically decrease the chances of an error, in areas such as flying and medicine. However, while surgeons may use checklists as a matter of routine (a study a few years ago found that the use of routine checklists before surgery substantially reduced the chances of a serious complication — we can hope that everyone’s now on board with that!), there’s a widespread belief in medicine that operating room crises are too complex for a checklist to be useful. A new study contradicts that belief.

The study involved 17 operating room teams (anesthesia staff, operating room nurses, surgical technologists, a surgeon), who participated in 106 simulated surgical crisis scenarios in a simulated operating room. Each team was randomized to manage half of the scenarios with a set of crisis checklists and the remaining scenarios from memory alone.

When checklists were used, the teams were 74% less likely to miss critical steps. That is, without a checklist, nearly a quarter (23%) of the steps were omitted (an alarming figure!), while with a checklist, only 6% of the steps were omitted on average. Every team performed better when the checklists were available.

After experiencing these situations, almost all (97%) participants said they would want these checklists used if they experienced such a crisis if they were a patient.

It’s comforting to know that airline pilots do have checklists to use in emergency situations. Now we must hope that hospitals come on board with this as well (up-to-date checklists and implementation materials can be found at www.projectcheck.org/crisis).

For the rest of us, the study serves as a reminder that, however practiced we may think we are, forgetting steps in an action plan is only too common, and checklists are an excellent means of dealing with this — in emergency and out.

Reference: 

[3262] Arriaga, A. F., Bader A. M., Wong J. M., Lipsitz S. R., Berry W. R., Ziewacz J. E., et al. (2013).  Simulation-Based Trial of Surgical-Crisis Checklists. New England Journal of Medicine. 368(3), 246 - 253.

The role of motivation on academic performance

A study shows how easily you can affect motivation, producing a significant effect on college test scores, while a large German study finds that motivational and strategy factors, but not intelligence, affects growth in math achievement at high school.

I’ve spoken before about the effects of motivation on test performance. This is displayed in a fascinating study by researchers at the Educational Testing Service, who gave one of their widely-used tests (the ETS Proficiency Profile, short form, plus essay) to 757 students from three institutions: a research university, a master's institution and a community college. Here’s the good bit: students were randomly assigned to groups, each given a different consent form. In the control condition, students were told: “Your answers on the tests and the survey will be used only for research purposes and will not be disclosed to anyone except the research team.” In the “Institutional” condition, the rider was added: “However, your test scores will be averaged with all other students taking the test at your college.” While in the “Personal” condition, they were told instead: “However, your test scores may be released to faculty in your college or to potential employers to evaluate your academic ability.”

No prizes for guessing which of these was more motivating!

Students in the “personal” group performed significantly and consistently better than those in the control group at all three institutions. On the multi-choice part of the test, the personal group performed on average .41 of the standard deviation higher than the control group, and the institutional group performed on average .26 SD higher than the controls. The largest difference was .68 SD. On the essay, the largest effect size was .59 SD. (The reason for the results being reported this way is because the focus of the study was on the use of such tests to assess and compare learning gains by colleges.)

The effect is perhaps less dramatic at the individual level, with the average sophomore score on the multichoice test being 460, compared to 458 and 455, for personal, institutional, and control groups, respectively. Interestingly, this effect was greater at the senior level: 469 vs 466 vs 460. For the essay question, however, the effect was larger: 4.55 vs 4.35 vs 4.21 (sophomore); 4.75 vs 4.37 vs 4.37 (senior). (Note that these scores have been adjusted by college admission scores).

Students also reported on motivation level, and this was found to be a significant predictor of test performance, after controlling for SAT or placement scores.

Student participants had received at least one year of college, or (for community colleges) taken at least three courses.

The findings confirm recently expressed concern that students don’t put their best efforts into low-stakes tests, and that, when such tests are used to make judgments about institutional performance (how much value they add), they may well be significantly misleading, if different institutions are providing different levels of motivation.

On a personal level, of course, the findings may be taken as further confirmation of the importance of non-academic factors in academic achievement. Something looked at more directly in the next study.

Motivation, study habits—not IQ—determine growth in math achievement

Data from a large German longitudinal study assessing math ability in adolescents found that, although intelligence was strongly linked to students' math achievement, this was only in the initial development of competence. The significant predictors of growth in math achievement, however, were motivation and study skills.

Specifically (and excitingly for me, since it supports some of my recurring themes!), at the end of Grade 5, perceived control was a significant positive predictor for growth, and surface learning strategies were a significant negative predictor. ‘Perceived control’ reflects the student’s belief that their grades are under their control, that their efforts matter. ‘Surface learning strategies’ reflect the use of rote memorization/rehearsal strategies rather than ones that encourage understanding. (This is not to say, of course, that these strategies don’t have their place — but they need to be used appropriately).

At the end of Grade 7, however, a slightly different pattern emerged, with intrinsic motivation and deep learning strategies the significant positive predictors of growth, while perceived control and surface learning strategies were no longer significant.

In other words, while intelligence didn’t predict growth at either point, the particular motivational and strategy variables that affected growth were different at different points in time, reflecting, presumably, developmental changes and/or changes in academic demands.

Note that this is not to say that intelligence doesn’t affect math achievement! It is, indeed, a strong predictor — but through its effect on getting the student off to a good start (lifting the starting point) rather than having an ongoing benefit.

There was, sadly but unfortunately consistent with other research, an overall decline in motivation from grade 5 to 7. There was also a smaller decline in strategy use (any strategy! — presumably reflecting the declining motivation).

It’s also worth noting that (also sadly but unsurprisingly) the difference between school types increased over time, with those in the higher track schools making more progress than those in the lowest track.

The last point I want to emphasize is that extrinsic motivation only affected initial levels, not growth. The idea that extrinsic motivation (e.g., wanting good grades) is of only short-term benefit, while intrinsic motivation (e.g., being interested in the subject) is far more durable, is one I have made before, and one that all parents and teachers should pay attention to.

The study involved 3,520 students, following them from grades 5 to 10. The math achievement test was given at the end of each grade, while intelligence and self-reported motivation and strategy use were assessed at the end of grades 5 and 7. Intelligence was assessed using the nonverbal reasoning subtest of Thorndike’s Cognitive Abilities Test (German version). The 42 schools in the study were spread among the three school types: lower-track (Hauptschule), intermediate-track (Realschule), and higher-track (Gymnasium). These school types differ in entrance standards and academic demands.

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