Interruptions impact the quality of creative work

In 2013 I reported how a 3-second interruption while doing a task doubled the rate of sequence errors, while a 4s one tripled it. A new study has attempted to measure just how much ongoing interruptions can negatively affect the quality of a complex creative task.

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Mnemonics for Seniors

  • Mnemonics can be effective strategies for older adults, but they require more training than younger adults
  • Mnemonic strategies with less memory load, like the keyword and the face-name association methods, are better strategies for older adults than strategies with a high memory load, such as the pegword and loci methods
  • The durability and effectiveness of mental images are enhanced if you spend some time attending to the quality of the image (e.g., how pleasant it is)
  • Because older adults have more trouble changing their habits, they are much less likely to continue to use a new method without explicit instructions to do so
  • Mnemonics that involve words rather than images may be more useful for most older adults
  • Mnemonics are not particularly useful for remembering information heard in the course of conversation, remembering an action performed, remembering to do something. Teaching yourself to repeat information is probably a more useful skill.

Aids to memory such as acronyms, rhymes, linking information by creating visual images or making up a story, are called mnemonics. Most popular memory courses teach mnemonic strategies. It is however only one type of memory strategy.

Mnemonics are however particularly appropriate for remembering names and dates. In a survey of over 100 elderly adults, learning and remembering people's names, and learning and remembering dates, were the two memory skills they most wanted to improve (Leirer Morrow Sheikh & Pariante 1990).

However, although mnemonics can be very effective, they do require a great deal of effort to master. In this page I report on research into the usefulness of various mnemonic strategies for older adults.

Pegword method

The pegword mnemonic is a strategy for learning lists. You memorize a list that converts numbers into visual images (one is a bun, two is a shoe, etc), and then use those images as pegs for the items you wish to remember. Thus, to remember a shopping list you imagine each item in turn with these images: an apple in a bun; a shoe full of beans; etc.

While the pegword strategy is effective, it does require a lot of training to be used successfully, and doesn't appear to be a good strategy for older adults.

Four studies have found no lasting improvement in memory when middle-aged or elderly subjects have been instructed in the pegword technique (Smith 1975a, Mason & Smith 1977, Hellebusch 1976, Wood & Pratt 1987).

Method of loci

The method of loci (places) is the classic mnemonic, first invented by the ancient Greeks, and is considerably easier to learn than the pegword technique. Using a place you know very very well - perhaps a familiar route, your house, or a particular room in it - you mentally visualize the items you want to remember in particular places.

This technique has had somewhat more success in improving memory in older adults, although not to the extent seen in younger adults taught the strategy. This may be due to older adults' slower rate of processing information. Older adults who are already experienced in using imagery are likely to find the technique more useful.

Robertson-Tchabo, Hausman, & Arenberg (1976) found elderly subjects successfully used the method, but only when explicitly instructed to do so.

Anschutz, Camp, Markley & Kramer (1985; 1987) found elderly subjects could be trained to use the method to remember shopping list items, but tended not to use it when asked to learn new lists several weeks later, and many reported not using the strategy when interviewed several years later.

Rose & Yesavage (1983); Kliegl, Smith & Baltes (1989) found the improved memory performance seen in elderly subjects was less than that found for similarly trained young adults.

The reduced benefit of the method to older adults may be due to their slower rate of processing information. Lindenberger, Kliegl & Baltes (1992) found that elderly adults who were experienced in using imagery (graphic designers) performed better than other elderly adults, although still not to the level of young adults.

Keyword method

One of the most effective mnemonic strategies is the keyword method. This is particularly effective for learning new words. Gruneberg & Pascoe (1996) had success in teaching a group of older women Spanish words using the keyword method of foreign language learning.

Face-name associations

Perhaps the most widely used mnemonic is the face-name association method. This strategy involves choosing something distinctive about the face, finding a word or phrase (the "keyword") that is similar to the name, and creating a visual image that links the distinctive feature with the keyword.

Yesavage & Rose (1984a) found older adults significantly improved their memory of names using this method, although the improvement was limited (they still only remembered 24% of names - but this was double what they remembered prior to training).

General remarks about mnemonic training

Long-lasting memory improvement is hampered by the difficulty older adults have in changing their habits - that is, they rarely use a new method without explicit instructions to do so.

The effectiveness of the method of loci and keyword method can apparently be increased by having the participants make affectiveness judgments (such as judging the degree of pleasantness) of each image they generate. This appears not only to increase the degree of improvement, but also the durability of the images (how long they are remembered for) (Yesavage & Rose 1984b (method of loci); Yesavage, Rose & Bower 1983 (face-name assoc)).

While relaxation training may improve learning in elderly adults who are anxious, it appears to hinder learning if the participants have low anxiety levels! (Yesavage, Rose & Spiegel 1982)

It does appear that age affects mnemonic training, in that it becomes less effective the older you are, especially with the more complex method of loci vs the simpler keyword methods (Yesavage, Sheikh, Friedman & Tanke 1990). This is not to say older adults cannot learn these techniques, merely that that older adults need extensive and intensive training to really benefit (Neely & Backman 1993a,b; Stigsdotter & Backman 1989).

Older adults can learn effectively by teaching themselves, but such instruction needs to be supplemented by periodic group discussions (Flynn & Storandt 1990).

Verbal mnemonics may be more useful for older adults who find imagery effortful. Hill, Storandt & Simeone (1990) found that a take-home manual on the use of organization in aiding memory resulted in substantial improvement. The story method has also been found to be of benefit (Hill, Allen & McWhorter, 1991), although its effectiveness depends on the person's ability to construct a narrative (Drevenstedt & Belleza 1993).

The most problematic memory tasks for older adults however are probably those which involve information experienced only once, incidentally – something heard in the course of conversation, remembering an action performed, remembering to do something. Training in the benefits of repetition is probably of more benefit than mnemonic training, for these instances.


  1. Anschutz, L., Camp, C.J., Markley R.P. & Kramer J.J. 1985. Maintenance and generalization of mnemonics for grocery shopping by older adults. Experimental Aging Research, 11, 157-60.
  2. — 1987: A three-year follow-up on the effects of mnemonics training in elderly adults. Experimental Aging Research, 13, 141-3.
  3. Drevenstedt, J. & Belleza, F.S. 1993. Memory for self-generated narration in the elderly. Psychology and Aging, 8, 187-96.
  4. Flynn, T.M. & Storandt, M. 1990. Supplemental group discussions in memory training for older adults. Psychology and Aging, 5, 178-81.
  5. Gruneberg,M.M. & Pascoe, K. 1996. The Effectiveness of the Keyword Method for Receptive and Productive Foreign Vocabulary Learning in the Elderly. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 102-9.
  6. Hellebusch, S.J. 1976. On improving learning and memory in the aged: The effects of mnemonic strategy, transfer, and generalization. Dissertation Abstracta International, 1459-B (University Microfilms No. 76-19, 496).
  7. Hill, R.D., Allen, C. & McWhorter, P. 1991. Stories as a mnemonic aid for older learners. Psychology and Aging, 6, 484-6.
  8. Hill, R.D., Storandt, M. & Simeone, D. 1990. The effects of memory skills training and incentives on free recall in older learners. The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 45, P227-232.
  9. Kliegl, R., Smith, J. & Baltes, P.B. 1989. Testing-the-limits and the study of adult age differences in cognitive plasticity of a mnemonic skill. Developmental Psychology, 25, 247-56.
  10. Leirer, V.O., Morrow, D.G., Sheikh, J.I. & Pariante, G. 1990: Memory skills elders want to improve. Experimental Aging Research, 17, 155-8.
  11. Lindenberger, U., Kliegl, R. & Baltes, P.B. 1992. Professional expertise does not eliminate age differences in imagery-based memory performance during adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 7, 585-93.
  12. Mason, S.E. & Smith, A.D. 1977. Imagery in the aged. Experimental Aging Research, 3, 17-32.
  13. Neely, A.S. & Backman, L. 1993a. Maintenance of gains following multifactorial and unifactorial memory training in late adulthood. Educational Gerontology, 19, 105-17.
  14. — b. Long-term maintenance of gains from memory training in older adults: Two 3 ½ year follow-up studies. The Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 48, P223-37.
  15. Robertson-Tchabo, E.A., Hausman, C.P. & Arenberg, D. 1976 . A classical mnemonic for older learners: A trip that works. Educational Gerontology, 1, 215-26.
  16. Rose, T.L. & Yesavage, J.A. 1983. Differential effects of a list-learning mnemonic in three age groups. Gerontology, 29, 293-8.
  17. Smith, A.D. 1975. Partial learning and recognition memory in the aged. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 6, 359-65.
  18. Stigsdotter, A. & Backman, L. 1989. Multifactorial memory training with older adults: How to foster maintenance of improved performance. Gerontology, 35, 260-7.
  19. Wood, I.E. & Pratt, J.D. 1987. Pegword mnemonic as an aid to memory in the elderly: A comparison of four age groups. Educational Gerontology, 13, 325-339.
  20. Yesavage, J.A. & Rose, T.L. 1984a. The effects of a face-name mnemonic in young, middle-aged, and elderly adults. Experimental Aging Research, 10, 55-57.
  21. Yesavage, J.A. & Rose, T.L. 1984b. Semantic elaboration and the method of loci: A new trip for older learners. Experimental Aging Research, 10, 155-59.
  22. Yesavage, J.A., Rose, T.L. & Bower, G.H. 1983. Interactive imagery and affective judgments improve face-name learning in the elderly. Journal of Gerontology, 38, 197-203.
  23. Yesavage, J.A., Rose, T.L. & Spiegel, D. 1982. Relaxation training and memory improvement in elderly normals: Correlation of anxiety ratings and recall improvement. Experimental Aging Research, 8, 195-8.
  24. Yesavage, J.A., Sheikh, J.I., Friedman, L. & Tanke, E. 1990. Learning mnemonics: Roles of aging and subtle cognitive impairment. Psychology and Aging, 5, 133-7.

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Language cues

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

What I was doing vs. what I did: How verb aspect influences memory and behavior

A new study reveals that the way a statement is phrased (and specifically, how the verbs are used), affects our memory of an event being described and may also influence our behavior. The study involved volunteers doing a word game and being asked to stop and describe what they had been doing, using either the imperfect (e.g., I was solving word puzzles) or perfect (e.g., I solved word puzzles) tense. The volunteers then completed a memory test (for the word game) or a word game which was similar to the first one they had worked on. Those who had described their behavior in the imperfect tense were able to recall more specific details of their experience compared to volunteers who had described their behavior in the perfect tense; they also performed better on the second word game and were more willing to complete the task. It seems likely that use of the perfect encouraged people to see the task as completed, and thus less likely to spend more time on it, either mentally or physically. The effects did however decay over time.

[676] Hart W, Albarracín D. What I was doing versus what I did: verb aspect influences memory and future actions. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2009 ;20(2):238 - 244. Available from:

How alliteration helps memory

Previous studies have shown that alliteration can act as a better tool for memory than both imagery and meaning. Now a series of experiments explains why and demonstrates the effect occurs whether you read aloud or silently, and whether the text is poetry or prose. The memory-enhancing property of alliteration appears to occur because the alliterative cues reactivated readers' memories for earlier words that were similar sounding. Alliteration, then, is most powerful when the same alliterative sounds are repeated throughout the text.

[1408] Lea BR, Rapp DN, Elfenbein A, Mitchel AD, Romine RS. Sweet silent thought: alliteration and resonance in poetry comprehension. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2008 ;19(7):709 - 716. Available from:

Connection between language and movement

A study of all three groups of birds with vocal learning abilities – songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds – has revealed that the brain structures for singing and learning to sing are embedded in areas controlling movement, and areas in charge of movement share many functional similarities with the brain areas for singing. This suggests that the brain pathways used for vocal learning evolved out of the brain pathways used for motor control. Human brain structures for speech also lie adjacent to, and even within, areas that control movement. The findings may explain why humans talk with our hands and voice, and could open up new approaches to understanding speech disorders in humans. They are also consistent with the hypothesis that spoken language was preceded by gestural language, or communication based on movements. Support comes from another very recent study finding that mice engineered to have a mutation to the gene FOXP2 (known to cause problems with controlling the formation of words in humans) had trouble running on a treadmill.
Relatedly, a study of young children found that 5-year-olds do better on motor tasks when they talk to themselves out loud (either spontaneously or when told to do so by an adult) than when they are silent. The study also showed that children with behavioral problems (such as ADHD) tend to talk to themselves more often than children without signs of behavior problems. The findings suggest that teachers should be more tolerant of this kind of private speech.

[436] Feenders G, Liedvogel M, Rivas M, Zapka M, Horita H, Hara E, Wada K, Mouritsen H, Jarvis ED. Molecular Mapping of Movement-Associated Areas in the Avian Brain: A Motor Theory for Vocal Learning Origin. PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2008 ;3(3):e1768 - e1768. Available from:

[1235] Winsler A, Manfra L, Diaz RM. "Should I let them talk?": Private speech and task performance among preschool children with and without behavior problems. Early Childhood Research Quarterly [Internet]. 2007 ;22(2):215 - 231. Available from:

Kids learn more when mother is listening

Research has already shown that children learn well when they explain things to their mother or a peer, but that could be because they’re getting feedback and help. Now a new study has asked 4- and 5-year-olds to explain their solution to a problem to their moms (with the mothers listening silently), to themselves or to simply repeat the answer out loud. Explaining to themselves or to their moms improved the children's ability to solve similar problems, and explaining the answer to their moms helped them solve more difficult problems — presumably because explaining to mom made a difference in the quality of the child's explanations.

Rittle-Johnson, B., Saylor, M. & Swygert, K.E. 2008. Learning from explaining: Does it matter if mom is listening? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, In press.

Poetry as a memory and concentration aid

A research group at Dundee and St Andrews universities claim poems exercise the mind more than a novel. They found poetry generated far more eye movement, and also that people read poems more slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose. Imaging also showed greater levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud. Interestingly, they also found this was true even when the poem and prose text had identical content; it appears people read poems in a different way than prose. The researchers suggest the findings have implications for the way English literature is taught in schools, and may be helpful for children with certain learning difficulties, or even age-related memory problems.

Carminati, M. N., Stabler, J., Roberts, A. M., & Fischer, M. H. (2006). Readers' responses to sub-genre and rhyme scheme in poetry. Poetics, 34(3),  204-218.

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 LM, Oates JM, Thornton ER, Quinlan JJ, Kaufer A, Sauer J. Drug-Induced Amnesia Hurts Recognition, but Only for Memories That Can Be Unitized. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 2006 ;17(7):562 - 567.

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.

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

Music lessons grow brain

A number of studies have shown that adult musicians have different brains to adult non-musicians, but they haven’t answered the question of whether the brain differences are innate or developed through practice. A new study does just that. The study scanned the brains of 31 musically untrained six-year-olds, of whom 15 then received weekly keyboard lessons for 15 months. Brain scans taken at the end of that period revealed that auditory and motor areas of the brain linked respectively with hearing and dexterity grew larger only in the trainee musicians. The musicians also outperformed the others at specific tasks related to manual dexterity and discrimination of sounds.

Hyde, K.L. et al. 2009. Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development. Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (10), 3019–3025.

Time invested in practicing pays off for young musicians

A study involving 41 eight- to eleven-year-olds who had studied either piano or a string instrument for a minimum of three years and 18 children who had no instrumental training, although they had the same amount of time in general music classes at school, has found that the musicians were not only better at tasks of auditory discrimination and finger dexterity, but also had superior verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning skills. Moreover, the longer and more intensely the child had studied the instrument, the better they scored on these tests.

Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Norton, A. & Schlaug, G. 2008. Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning. PLoS ONE 3(10): e3566. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003566

Full text available at

Strong links between arts education and cognitive development

The Dana Consortium study, a 3 year study by cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities, has been investigating the effects of music, dance, and drama education on other types of learning. The researchers have identified eight key points:

  • An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.
  • Genetic studies have begun to yield candidate genes that may help explain individual differences in interest in the arts.
  • Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.
  • In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.
  • Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.
  • Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.
  • Adult self-reported interest in aesthetics is related to a temperamental factor of openness, which in turn is influenced by dopamine-related genes.
  • Learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice, both in the level of achievement and also the neural substrates that support the organization of complex actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills.

You can download the complete report at

Why music training helps language

Several studies have come out in recent years suggesting that giving children music training can improve their language skills. A new study supports these findings by showing how. The latest study shows that music triggers changes in the brain stem, a very early stage in the processing pathway for both music and language. It has previously been thought that the automatic processing occurring at this level was not particularly malleable, and the strength of neuron connections there was fixed.

And in another study, researchers have found evidence for more commonality in the brain networks involved in music and language. One network, based in the temporal lobes, helps us memorize information in both language and music— for example, words and meanings in language and familiar melodies in music. The other network, based in the frontal lobes, helps us unconsciously learn and use the rules that underlie both language and music, such as the rules of syntax in sentences, and the rules of harmony in music.

Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. 2007. Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104, 15894-15898.

Miranda, R.A. & Ullman, M.T. 2007. Double dissociation between rules and memory in music: An event-related potential study. NeuroImage, 38 (2), 331-345. (1st) (2nd)

Early music training 'tunes' auditory system

Mandarin is a tonal language, that is, the pitch pattern is as important as the sound of the syllables in determining the meaning of a word. In a small study, a Mandarin word was presented to 20 adults as they watched a movie. All were native English speakers with no knowledge of Mandarin, but half had at least six years of musical instrument training starting before the age of 12, while half had minimal or no musical training. As the subjects watched the movie, the researchers measured the accuracy of their brainstem ability to track three differently pitched "mi" sounds. Those who were musically trained were far better at tracking the three different tones than the non-musicians. The study is the first to provide concrete evidence that playing a musical instrument significantly enhances the brainstem's sensitivity to speech sounds, and supports the view that experience with music at a young age can "fine-tune" the brain's auditory system. The findings are in line with previous studies suggesting that musical experience can improve one's ability to learn tone languages in adulthood, and are also consistent with studies revealing anomalies in brainstem sound encoding in some children with learning disabilities which can be improved by auditory training. The findings are also noteworthy for implicating the brainstem in processing that has been thought of as exclusively involving the cortex.

Wong, P.C.M., Skoe, E., Russo, N.M., Dees, T. & Kraus, N. 2007. Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 420-422.

Evidence musical training affects brain development

A study that examined 12 young children (4—6 year olds) over the course of a year found measurable cognitive differences in those taking Suzuki music lessons compared to those having no musical training outside school. The Suzuki children not only showed greater improvement over the year in melody, harmony and rhythm processing but also in general memory skills such as literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, mathematics and IQ, suggesting that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention. Brain activity showed greater development consistent with establishing a neural network associated with sound categorization and/or involuntary attention.

Fujioka, T., Ross, B., Kakigi, R., Pantev, C. & Trainor, L.J. 2006. One year of musical training affects development of auditory cortical-evoked fields in young children. Brain, 129, 2593-2608.

Babies detect unfamiliar music rhythms easier than adults

According to a recent study, six-month-old babies can detect subtle variations in the complex rhythm patterns of Balkan folkdance tunes as easily as can adult Bulgarian and Macedonian U.S. immigrants, but other Western adults find it exceedingly difficult. A follow-up study has reported that by the time the babies are a year old, their performance more closely resembles adults. However, brief exposure to foreign music still enables 12-month-olds, but not adults, to perceive rhythmic distinctions in foreign musical contexts.

Hannon, E.E. & Trehub, S.E. 2005. Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (35), 12639-12643. Published online before print August 16, 2005.

Hannon, E.E. & Trehub, S.E. 2005. Metrical Categories in Infancy and Adulthood. Psychological Science, 16(1), 48-55.


Playing music helps the understanding of language

A study involving adult musicians and non-musicians matched by age, sex, general language ability and intelligence found that musicians could make the rapid auditory distinctions necessary to distinguish similar word syllables (like "da" and "ba") more accurately and quickly than non-musicians. This is the first study to demonstrate that musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word. The researchers suggest the finding could lead to improving the reading ability of children who have dyslexia and other reading problems.

Gabrieli, J. et al. 2005. Presented at the 18th Annual U.S. Psychiatric & Mental Health Congress in Las Vegas, NV.

Early music instruction raises child’s IQ

A new study confirms earlier research supporting the benefits of early music instruction. The study involved 144 children, 6 years old at the start of the study. They were given free weekly voice or piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Another group of 6-year-olds was given free training in weekly drama classes, while a fourth group received no extra classes during the study period. Before any classes were given, all the children were tested using the full Weschler intelligence test. At the end of the school year (their first school year), the children were retested. All had an IQ increase of at least 4.3 points on average (a consequence of going to school). Children who took drama lessons scored no higher than those who had no extra lessons, but those who took music lessons scored on average 2.7 points higher than the children who did not take music lessons. Those in the drama group did however show substantial improvement in adaptive social behavior.

Schellenberg, E.G. 2004. Music Lessons Enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15 (8), 511-514.


Music instruction aids verbal memory

Research has shown that the region of the brain involved in verbal memory is larger in adult musicians than in those who are not musicians. Now a new study finds that children with music training had significantly better verbal memory than those without such training. The study involved 90 boys between six and 15. Half were in the school’s string orchestra and had one to five years training in classical music; the rest had no such training or experience. The boys with musical training scored about 20% higher on a test of their ability to learn new words and did slightly better at recalling words after a 30-minute break. No differences were found between the two groups in a test of visual memory.
A year later, the researchers retested the 45 boys who had been in the orchestra, including 9 who had dropped out, and 17 boys from the nonmusician group who had joined the orchestra. These 17, who had significantly lower verbal memory scores on the previous test, had made the greatest progress over the course of the year. Those who stayed with the orchestra also improved their scores, while those who had dropped out showed no improvement - but their performance was still better than those who had never played. The researchers suggest that music training during childhood helps reorganize/develop the left temporal lobe, facilitating the cognitive processing that occurs there, namely, verbal memory.

Ho, Y-C., Cheung, M-C. & Chan, A.S. 2003. Music Training Improves Verbal but Not Visual Memory: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Explorations in Children. Neuropsychology, 17 (3).

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Cognitive Training

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

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, 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.

Jaeggi, S.M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J. & Perrig, W.J. 2008. Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. PNAS, 105 (19), 6829-6833.

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.

Olesen, P.J., Westerberg, H. & Klingberg, T. 2004. Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nature Neuroscience, 7(1), 75-9.

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

Developing expertise

How what we like defines what we know

How we categorize items is crucial to both how we perceive them and how well we remember them. Expertise in a subject is a well-established factor in categorization — experts create more specific categories. Because experts usually enjoy their areas of expertise, and because time spent on a subject should result in finer categorization, we would expect positive feelings towards an item to result in more specific categories. However, research has found that positive feelings usually result in more global processing. A new study has found that preference does indeed result in finer categorization and, more surprisingly, that this is independent of expertise. It seems that preference itself activates focused thinking that directly targets the preferred object, enabling more detailed perception and finer categorization.

Smallman, R. & Roese, N.J. 2008. Preference Invites Categorization. Psychological Science, 19 (12).

Practice makes an expert

A comparison of expert video game players and non-players has found that gamers showed a 20% reduction in response times on a visual search test (meaning that, on average, gamers were some 100 milliseconds faster than non-gamers). Analysis showed that expert game players did not show differences in normal visual search patterns; they had simply become faster through practice.

Castel, A.D., Pratt, J. & Drummond, E. 2005. The effects of action video game experience on the time course of inhibition of return and the efficiency of visual search. Acta Psychologica, 119 (2), 217-230.

First steps in developing expertise

Learning to play a musical instrument involves two quite different sense media – sound and movement. Recent imaging studies have shown that professional musicians have highly developed links between these different perceptions, such that sounds activate areas of the brain that process movement, and movement such as silently tapping out musical phrases, evokes brain activity in areas involved in hearing. A new study now demonstrates that this sort of cross-linking occurs within twenty minutes of starting to learn an instrument (in this case, a piano). Novices were given ten 20 minute sessions, during which they heard musical phrases and learned to play them back on a digital piano. Those in the "map" group used pianos where five neighboring keys had appropriate notes assigned to them. The "no-map" group used pianos where the assignment of notes to the five keys was randomly shuffled after each training trial. Changes in brain activity were evident in all participants after one session, but after five sessions, the activity patterns were significantly different between the two groups. In the “map” group, motor areas of the brain were active when the participants listened to music, but this was not the case with those in the “no-map” group. The anterior region of the right hemisphere — an area previously implicated in the perception of melodic and harmonic pitch sequences — was also more active in the "map" group, suggesting it may be the area where the mental map representing the link between a note and a piano key is established.

Bangert, M. & Altenmüller, E.O. 2003. Mapping perception to action in piano practice: a longitudinal DC-EEG study. BMC Neuroscience, 4, 26.

Practicing skills in concentrated blocks not the most efficient way

While practicing several different skills in separate, concentrated blocks leads to better performance during practice, it appears that this approach is not the best method of learning for long-term retention. The temporary improvement in performance that results from blocked practice hinders learning because it allows people to overestimate how well they have learned a skill. For long-term retention, it appears that contextual-interference practice (practicing skills that are mixed with other tasks) results in better learning. This may be because such practice requires people to repeatedly retrieve the motor program corresponding to each task (repeated retrieval is a major factor in making stored memories easier to access). Such practice also requires the person to differentiate the skills in terms of their similarities and differences, which may be assumed to result in a better mental conceptualization of those skills. The fact that blocked practice leads to better short-term performance but poorer long-term learning "has great potential to fool teachers, trainers and instructors as well as students and trainees themselves."

Simon, D.A. & Bjork, R.A. 2001. Metacognition in Motor Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 27 (4).

About expertise

Tone language translates to perfect pitch

The first large-scale, direct-test study to be conducted on perfect pitch has found that native tone language speakers are almost nine times more likely to have the ability. The study involved two populations of music students: a group of 88 first-year students enrolled at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China, all of whom spoke Mandarin, and a group of 115 first-years at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, none of whom spoke a tone language. In both groups, the earlier an individual began music lessons, the more likely he or she was to have perfect pitch. For students who had begun musical training between ages 4 and 5, approximately 60% of the Chinese speakers tested as having perfect pitch, while only about 14% of the U.S. nontone language speakers did. For those who had begun training between 6 and 7, approximately 55% of the Chinese and 6% of the U.S. met the criterion. And for those beginning between 8 and 9, the figures were 42% of the Chinese and zero of the U.S. group. Perfect pitch is extremely rare in the U.S. and Europe, with an estimated prevalence in the general population of less than one in 10,000.

Results were presented November 17 at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego.
The study, with graphic figures of the results and sound files of the test, is available at

Patterns of brain activity differ with musical training, not cultural familarity

Unlike language, which elicits different activity patterns in the brain depending on whether it is a familiar or unfamiliar language, a new imaging study has found that music of another culture produces no differences in brain activity compared to music from your own culture. The study compared responses to Western and Cantonese music, and used 6 professionally trained American musicians and 6 people with little musical training. The study did however find that 30-second excerpts in the familiar style of music were more easily remembered, and also, that training affected the pattern of brain activity.

Morrison, S.J., Demorest, S.M., Aylward, E.H., Cramer, S.C. & Maravilla, K.R. 2003. FMRI investigation of cross-cultural music comprehension, NeuroImage, 20 (1), 378-384.

Another link between music and language

New research augments earlier findings concerning the amount and distribution of gray matter in the brains of professional musicians. It now appears that musicians also have an increased volume of grey matter in the Broca's area, an area of the brain involved in the production of language. A critical factor appears to be the number of years devoted to musical training - at least for musicians under the age of 50. The research supports recent suggestions that musicians process music like an additional language.

Sluming, V., Barrick, T., Howard, M., Cezayirli, E., Mayes, A. & Roberts, N. 2002. Voxel-Based Morphometry Reveals Increased Gray Matter Density in Broca's Area in Male Symphony Orchestra Musicians, NeuroImage, 17(3), 1613-1622.

More grey matter in the auditory cortex of musicians' brains

A German study has found that a region of the auditory cortex was more active in professional musicians listening to tones of varying frequencies compared to amateur musicians and considerably more active than that of non-musicians. More surprisingly, there was a very significant difference in the amount of "grey matter" in the part of the auditory cortex called the Heschl's gyrus. The structure contained 536 to 983 cubic millimetres of grey matter in professionals, 189 to 798 cubic millimetres in amateurs, and 172 to 450 cubic millimetres in non-musicians.

Schneider, P., Scherg, M., Dosch, H.G., Specht, H.J., Gutschalk, A. & Rupp, A. 2002. Morphology of Heschl's gyrus reflects enhanced activation in the auditory cortex of musicians. Nature Neuroscience,5, 688 - 694.

Another interesting facet to expert memory: how professional musicians process music

A magnetic-resonance study has found that professional musicians use their left brain more than other people when listening to music. In particular, while the planum temporale was activated in all subjects listening to music (a Bach piece), in non-musicians it was the right planum temporale that was most active, while in musicians the left side dominated. The left planum temporale is thought to control language processing. It may be that musicians process music as a language.This left-hand brain activity was most pronounced in people who had started musical training at an early age, as well as in those with absolute or 'perfect' pitch (suggesting that musical traits such as absolute pitch are the result of childhood training rather than genetic predisposition).

Ohnishi, T., Matsuda, H., Asada, T., Aruga, M., Hirakata, M., Nishikawa, M., Katoh, A. & Imabayashi, E. 2001. Functional Anatomy of Musical Perception in Musicians. Cerebral Cortex, 11, 754-760.

Chess experts and chess amateurs use different parts of their brain when they play

Professor Thomas Elbert, Ognjen Amidzic and colleagues at the University of Constance, Germany, used a new magnetic imaging technique to study chess players' brains in action. They found that mid-match activity in grandmasters' brains is mainly in regions thought to be involved in long-term memory - the frontal and parietal cortices. Amateur chess players relied more on the medial temporal lobe, which helps to encode new information, suggesting that they analyse situations afresh. The finding supports the idea that expertise depends on stored memory chunks that are called up when needed.

Amidzic, O., Riehle, H.J., Fehr, T., Wienbruch, C. & Elbert, T. 2001. Pattern of focal gamma bursts in chess players. Nature, 412, 603.

Significant brain differences between professional musicians trained at an early age and non-musicians

Research has revealed significant differences in the gray matter distribution between professional musicians trained at an early age and non-musicians. It is most likely that this is due to intensive musical training at an early age, although it is also possible that the musicians were born with these differences, which led them to pursue musical training.

Schlaug, G. & Christian, G. Paper presented May 7 at the American Academy of Neurology's 53rd Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA.

tags study: 


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

(these were covered in my blog of the time, so don't have references, I'm afraid)

Emotional effect of video games can help creativity

As part of the search for ways to use video games educationally, a study of around 100 students has found that those who scored highly on a creativity test after playing the game Dance Dance Revolution fell into two groups: those who had a high degree of emotional arousal (measured by skin conductance) after playing and a positive mood, and (this is the weird part), those in the completely opposite camp — low arousal and negative mood.
The explanation for these somewhat paradoxical findings rests on there being two aspects to creativity — diffused attention (presumably where the happy people score), and a certain analytical ability (which is where the sad people are presumed to score).
It still seems weird, but the take-home point I guess is that being angry (high arousal, negative mood) is not conducive to creativity, and neither is medium arousal. On the other hand, I’m wondering about individual differences. I think some people probably are creative when angry, and I’d like to know about personality characteristics that might have distinguished the students who were creative when happy from those who were creative when sad. Still, interesting study.

Brain Activity Differs For Creative And Noncreative Thinkers

There’s a long-standing debate regarding whether "creative thought" and "noncreative thought" are different. Now an imaging study has revealed fascinating differences in brain activity, even at rest, in people who tend to solve problems with a sudden creative insight -- an "Aha! Moment" – compared to people who tend to solve problems more methodically.

For a start, creative solvers showed more activity in several regions of the right hemisphere — this area is thought to play a special role in solving problems creatively, likely due to right-hemisphere involvement in the processing of loose or "remote" associations between the elements of a problem. The finding that this pattern is evident even when the people aren’t thinking about a problem suggests that even the spontaneous thought of creative individuals contains more remote associations.

Creative and methodical solvers also showed different activity in areas of the brain that process visual information. It looks like creative types have more diffuse attention, perhaps allowing them to broadly sample the environment for experiences that can trigger remote associations.

On the other hand, the more focused attention of methodical solvers reduces their distractibility, allowing them to effectively solve problems for which the solution strategy is already known.

Dissecting the artist's brain

An art historian and a neuroscientist have joined together to create a new academic discipline -- neuroarthistory – which uses brain scanning techniques to answer questions about what is, and has been, going on in artists’ brains. For example, they suggest that Florentine painters made more use of line and Venetian painters more of color, because passive exposure to different natural and manmade environments caused the formation of different visual preferences.

The "Aha!" experience

An intriguing new study into the "Aha!" experience reveals that the distinct patterns of brain activity leading to such moments of insight begin much earlier than the moment itself. Prior to such moments, the pattern of brain activity suggests that the person is focusing attention inwardly, is ready to switch to new trains of thought, and perhaps is actively silencing irrelevant thoughts. This study may eventually lead to an understanding of how to put people in the optimal "frame of mind" to deal with particular types of problems.

Creativity and the "schizotypal" personality

A study of people who're "a bit weird" claims that these "schizotypal" personalities are more creative than either normal or fully schizophrenic people, and that this is due to greater use of the right side of the brain. The researchers suggest such people can make associations faster because they're better at accessing both sides of the brain, and notes that a disproportionate number of schizophrenics and schizotypes are ambidextrous.

Principles for fostering creativity in the workplace

For the last 8 years, Teresa Amabile, head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School, has been collecting daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects in seven companies in the consumer products, high-tech, and chemical industries, and from this database of "creativity in the wild" she has come up with 6 operating principles for fostering creativity in the workplace.

Sleep may stimulate creative thinking

You can catch an interview on BBC radio with a researcher of a recent study showing sleep may stimulate creative thinking (the sleep bit is the first 8 minutes or so of the program).

Great scientific discoveries tend to be made by young scientists – but only in particular areas

A discussion list to which I belong has recently been discussing the phenomenon? myth?? that great scientific discoveries (in particular areas) tend to be made by young scientists. The famous physicist Murray Gell-Mann, commenting on this, apparently remarked that, in his own field of theoretical particle physics, this was true because the field was so new; in the life sciences, so much was known, that " It took years of study and rote memorization for an aspiring scientist to master what was already known. By the time a researcher was ready to make an original contribution, he was probably well advanced in his career."

This illustrates an important principle in memory and aging that tends to be overlooked. Yes, younger brains are faster, probably more flexible, with perhaps more working memory capacity - but older brains can make up for that, with the fruits of experience. WM capacity is one example of that. Say, at 25, you have a capacity of 8 "units"; say at 75 that has dropped to 6 (this is a simplistic way of representing a complex situation, but I'm trying to make a point here). A "unit" can be a single datum, such as "4" or a complex chunk, such as "The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain of heaven upon the place beneath". The flexibility of the "unit" says everything about the value of strategies - memory strategies can turn complex and lengthy conglomerations of information into single "chunks" / "units". An experienced 75 year old, with expertise in a particular field, can have developed very complex chunks and thus, despite the drop in capacity, easily out-think a 25 year old.

(By the way, if you want to read the classic paper on WM capacity, by George Miller on the "Magical Number Seven", you can read it here.)

tags strategies: 


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

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).

Berman, M.G., Jonides, J. & Kaplan, S. 2008. The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1207-1212.

tags lifestyle: 

Skill Memory

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

How long does it take to form a habit?

A study involving 96 people who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15 minute run each day has found that in the early days, daily repetition sharply increased automaticity (the ease with which you do it) and then reached a plateau. On average, habits took 66 days to become as automatic as they’d ever be. However, there was a very wide variation (18 to 254 days) depending on the nature of the habit (more difficult habits, such as doing 50 sit-ups a day, showed a slower rate of steadier increase). There was also variability among individuals, with some showing ‘habit-resistance’. The good news is that missing a single day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit. The findings also point to the value of getting off to a good start.

Lally, P., Jaarsveld, C. H. M. V., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, Published online ahead of print. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674.

Imagining is as good as doing

A series of experiments in which some participants practiced identifying which line a central line was closest to, while others simply imagined the bisecting line's proximity based on an audio tone, found that both methods produced similar levels of perceptual learning. It has (understandably) been assumed that perceptual learning requires stimulus processing -- synapses firing in response to an actual physical cue. But this demonstrates that mental imagery is sufficient. The finding adds to a growing number of studies suggesting that thinking about something over and over again can be almost as good as doing it.

Tartaglia, E.M., Bamert, L., Mast, F.W. & Herzog, M.H. 2009. Human Perceptual Learning by Mental Imagery. Current Biology, Published online ahead of print 3 December 2009.

Magnetic brain stimulation improves skill learning

A study in which volunteers were trained for four days to track an apparently random target on a computer screen, in which random movement was interspersed with a repeated pattern not consciously perceived by the participants, found that those who received excitatory transcranial magnetic stimulation to the left dorsal premotor cortex were significantly better at tracking the repeating pattern than those who received inhibitory stimulation or sham stimulation. The findings support the view that the dorsal premotor cortex is important for learning motor skills, specifically through consolidation of the learned behavior.

Boyd, L.A. & Linsdell, M.A. 2009. Excitatory repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to left dorsal premotor cortex enhances motor consolidation of new skills. BMC Neuroscience, 10, 72doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-72.

Motor skill learning may be enhanced by mild brain stimulation

In a study in which subjects practiced a challenging motor task over five consecutive days, those who received 20 minutes of a mild electrical current to the primary motor cortex improved significantly more that that of the control group, apparently through an effect on consolidation. Although both groups subsequently forgot the skill at about the same rate, those who had received the electrical stimulation still performed better after 3 months because they had learned the skill better. The findings hold promise for enhancing rehabilitation for people with traumatic brain injury, stroke and other conditions.

Reis, J. et al. 2009. Noninvasive cortical stimulation enhances motor skill acquisition over multiple days through an effect on consolidation. PNAS, 106, 1590-1595.

Why it’s so hard to disrupt your routine

New research has added to our understanding of why we find it so hard to break a routine or overcome bad habits. The problem lies in the competition between the striatum and the hippocampus. The striatum is involved with habits and routines, for example, it records cues or landmarks that lead to a familiar destination. It’s the striatum that enables you to drive familiar routes without much conscious awareness. If you’re travelling an unfamiliar route however, you need the hippocampus, which is much ‘smarter’.  The mouse study found that when the striatum was disrupted, the mice had trouble navigating using landmarks, but they were actually better at spatial learning. When the hippocampus was disrupted, the converse was true. This may help us understand, and treat, certain mental illnesses in which patients have destructive, habit-like patterns of behavior or thought. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, and drug addiction all involve abnormal function of the striatum. Cognitive-behavioral therapy may be thought of as trying to learn to use one of these systems to overcome and, ultimately, to re-train the other.

Lee, A.S. et al. 2008. A double dissociation revealing bidirectional competition between striatum and hippocampus during learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (44), 17163-17168.

Over-thinking and motor skills

Skilled athletes often maintain that thinking too much about executing a skill disrupts their performance. Now a study of 80 golfers has found that intermediate-skilled golfers asked to verbally describe a new putt after learning it took twice as many goes to sink their putts as similarly experienced golfers who weren’t asked to put their learning into words. On the other hand, golfers of lower skill benefited from such verbalization. The effect is thought to be similar to verbal overshadowing, an effect previously demonstrated for taste and appearance, where, for example, trying to describe a face interferes with subsequent recognition of that face.

Flegal, K.E. & Anderson, M.C. 2008. Overthinking skilled motor performance: Or why those who teach can't do. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15, 927-932.

Passive learning imprints on the brain just like active learning

New research adds to other recent studies showing that observation can act like actual practice in acquiring new motor skills. In a study where participants played a video game in which they had to move in a particular sequence to match the position of arrows on the screen (similar to the popular Dance Revolution game), it was found that brain activity in the Action Observance Network (mostly in the inferior parietal and premotor cortices) was similar for dance sequences that were actively rehearsed daily for five days, and a different set of sequences that were passively observed for an equivalent amount of time, but declined for unfamiliar sequences.

Cross, E.S. et al. 2008. Sensitivity of the Action Observation Network to Physical and Observational Learning. Cerebral Cortex, Advance Access published on May 30, 2008. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhn083

Songbirds offer clues to highly practiced motor skills in humans

A study of singing in the Bengalese finch has revealed information about motor skills that may benefit human performers and people needing motor rehabilitation. The tune of songbirds is a complex skill, achieved over a long period of practice as juveniles, and culminating in a highly stereotyped, stable song. But it turns out to be not as fixed as was thought. Adult songbirds, it seems, rely on auditory feedback to maintain their song. This study found that providing disruptive auditory feedback to a subset of the vocalizations almost immediately produced an appropriately targeted change in the bird's song. The study also found that really big changes could also be produced, but it had to be done incrementally, in small steps.

Tumer, E.C. & Brainard, M.S. 2007. Performance variability enables adaptive plasticity of 'crystallized' adult birdsong. Nature, 450, 1240-1244.

Language center executive organizer of action plans

Broca's area is the region in the brain traditionally known as the ‘language center’, however recent research has broadened that understanding. The most recent study reveals that this region, and its counterpart in the right hemisphere, becomes active when people are asked to organize plans of action — an activity that we must now distinguish from a simple action sequence, which didn’t require these regions. These regions appear to implement a specialized executive system controlling the selection and nesting of action segments in a hierarchical structure of behavioral plans. This general executive function may explain Broca’s key role in language production.

Koechlin, E. & Jubault, T. 2006. Broca's Area and the Hierarchical Organization of Human Behavior. Neuron, 50, 963–974.

Planning is goal-, not action-, oriented

Studies in which monkeys were asked to perform a complex task involving several discrete steps have revealed that the brain's "executive" center, in the lateral prefrontal cortex, plans behaviors not by specifying movements required for given actions, but rather the events that will result from those actions.

Mushiake, H. et al. 2006. Activity in the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex Reflects Multiple Steps of Future Events in Action Plans. Neuron, 50, 631–641.

People can learn motor skills by watching

Sure we learn by doing, but we also learn by watching. Recent imaging studies have shown that when we observe the actions of others, we activate the same neural circuitry responsible for planning and executing our own actions. Now a new study has demonstrated that such observation can actually facilitate motor learning. This occurred even when observers were distracted by another task (doing arithmetic) while watching, indicating that the process does not require conscious awareness. However, although there was no sign of muscle activity during the observation, the beneficial effects of observing were significantly reduced when the subjects were asked to perform unrelated arm movements during observation.

Mattar, A.A.G. & Gribble, P.L. 2005. Motor Learning by Observing. Neuron, 46 (1), 153–160.

Brain prefers 'automatic pilot' during learning

When people are asked to perform a classification or decision on an object, they become more efficient with repetition of the task. When subject's brains are imaged during such tasks, they show reduced activity -- called "neural priming" -- as the task is learned and performance improves. New research suggests that rather than this being due to the cortex refining its knowledge about the object being learned about (eliminating attributes of the object not needed in the task), the cortex is instead just refining learning of a particular response. Thus we become more rapid with repetition of a decision task simply because we are recovering our prior responses.
In the study, participants were asked to judge whether objects such as an acorn, a stroller, a bicycle pump or a shuttlecock were "bigger than a shoebox." After practicing this task, they were then asked if the objects were "smaller than a shoebox." If the brain's representation of the size of the object is what is being rapidly recovered with repetition, just changing the direction of the question from a 'bigger than' to a 'smaller than' question should not make a difference in performance. If, however, the brain is recovering earlier responses, then changing the direction of the question will make a considerable difference to performance – which it did.

Dobbins, I.G., Schnyer, D.M., Verfaellie, M. & Schacter, D.L. 2004. Cortical activity reductions during repetition priming can result from rapid response learning. Nature, 428, 316-319 (18 Mar 2004) Letters to Nature

Reading verbs activates motor cortex areas

A new imaging study has surprised researchers by revealing that parts of the motor cortex respond when people do nothing more active than silently reading. However, the words read have to be action words. When such words are read, appropriate regions are activated – for example, reading “lick” will trigger blood flow in sites of the motor cortex associated with tongue and mouth movements. Moreover, activity also occurs in premotor brain regions that influence learning of new actions, as well as the language structures, Broca's area and Wernicke's area. The researchers suggest that these findings challenge the assumption that word meanings are processed solely in language structures – instead, our understanding of words depends on the integration of information from several interconnected brain structures that provide information about associated actions and sensations.

Hauk, O., Johnsrude, I. & Pulvermüller, F. 2004. Somatotopic Representation of Action Words in Human Motor and Premotor Cortex. Neuron, 41, 301-7.

Learning a sequence with explicit knowledge of that sequence involves same

Imaging studies have found that sequence learning accompanied with awareness of the sequence activates entirely different brain regions than learning without awareness of the sequence. It has not been clear to what extent these two forms of learning (declarative vs procedural) are independent. A new imaging study devised a situation where subjects were simultaneously learning different sequences under implicit or explicit instructions, in order to establish whether, as many have thought, declarative learning prevents learning in procedural memory systems. It was found that procedural learning activated the left prefrontal cortex, left inferior parietal cortex, and right putamen. These same regions were also active during declarative learning. It appears that, in a well-controlled situation where procedural and declarative learning are occurring simultaneously, the same neural network for procedural learning is active whether that learning is or is not accompanied by declarative knowledge. Declarative learning, however, activates many additional brain regions.

Willingham, D.B., Salidis, J. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. 2003. Direct Comparison of Neural Systems Mediating Conscious and Unconscious Skill Learning. Journal of Neurophysiology, 88, 1451-1460.

Brain anticipates events to learn routines

A new study may help explain why “cognitive” practice of physical actions can be useful (e.g., sportsmen or musicians mentally “practicing” their skills). The study using macaque monkeys found that neurons in the visual cortex were more active when the monkeys anticipated the occurrence of predictable events. "These results show that as we practice and anticipate which events are going to happen, the brain is also preparing itself."

Ghose, G.M. &Maunsell, J.H.R. 2002. Attentional modulation in visual cortex depends on task timing. Nature, 419: 6907, 616-9.

Improving motor skills through sleep

People taught a simple motor sequence (to type a sequence of keys on a computer keyboard as quickly and accurately as possible) practised it for 12 minutes and were then re-tested 12 hours later. Those who practised in the morning and tested later that same day improved their performance by about 2%. Those trained in the evening and re-tested after a good night's sleep, however, improved by about 20%. The amount of improvement was directly correlated with the amount of Stage 2 (a stage of non-rapid eye movement or NREM) sleep experienced, particularly late in the night. "This is the part of a good night's sleep that many people will cut short by getting up early in the morning."

Laureys, S., Peigneux, P., Perrin, F. & Maquet, P. 2002. Sleep and Motor Skill Learning. Neuron, 35, 5-7.

New research into motor skills distinguishes between learning and performance

The cerebellum has long been associated with motor skills and coordination. A new study has shown that, although it is active when we are engaging in movement, it is not active when we are learning new motor skills. The findings suggest the cerebellum is involved in the improvement in performance gained through practice, rather than the initial learning of the motor sequence. This research may lead to a better understanding that ultimately sees the development of better rehabilitation strategies for patients with cerebellar disease. It also points to an intriguing difference between learning a motor skill and improving it.

Seidler, R.D., Purushotham, A., Kim, S.-G., Ugurbil, K., Willingham, D. & Ashe, J. 2002. Cerebellum Activation Associated with Performance Change but Not Motor Learning. Science, 296 (5575), 2043-6.

The neural basis for motor learning

Learning happens when a brain cell gets stimulated in a way that reduces its ability to respond to a particular brain messenger called glutamate. In the cerebellum there are very large, strangely shaped brain cells called Purkinje cells that receive more connections than other types of neurons and fire 50 times per second even when you're sleeping. These cells are involved in simple motor learning processes. A recent study provides support for an earlier study that found there are fewer receptors for glutamate on the surface of neurons during long-term synaptic depression, by demonstrating that the other three possible causes for this reduced response to glutamate do not occur.

Linden, D.J. 2001.The expression of cerebellar LTD in culture is not associated with changes in AMPA-receptor kinetics, agonist affinity, or unitary conductance. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 98 (24), 14066-14071.

New motor skills consolidated during sleep

An imaging study that sheds light on the gain in performance observed during the day after learning a new task. Following training in a motor skill, certain brain areas appear to be reactivated during REM sleep, resulting in an optimization of the network that subtends the subject's visuo–motor response.

Laureys, S., Peigneux, P., Phillips, C., Fuchs,S., Degueldre, C., Aerts, J., Del Fiore,G., Petiau, C., Luxen, A., Van der Linden, M., Cleeremans, A., Smith, C. & Maquet, P. (2001). Experience-dependent changes in cerebral functional connectivity during human rapid eye movement sleep [Letter to Neuroscience]. Neuroscience, 105 (3), 521-525.


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