Cognitive Reserve & Mental Stimulation

Cognitive decline is less in those who engage more frequently in cognitively stimulating activities.

Activities that keep you actively searching for words (such as scrabble and crosswords) may help reduce those tip-of-the-tongue experiences where particular words cannot quite be recalled.

Cognitive training programs can reverse cognitive impairment in many seniors

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

Factors helping you maintain cognitive function in old age

An 8-year study of over 2,500 seniors in their 70s, has found that 53% showed normal age-related decline, 16% showed major cognitive decline, and an encouraging 30% had no change or improved on the tests over the years. The most important factors in determining whether a person maintained their cognitive health was education and literacy: those with a ninth grade literacy level or higher were nearly five times as likely to stay sharp than those with lower literacy levels; those with at least a high school education were nearly three times as likely to stay sharp as those who have less education. Lifestyle factors were also significant: non-smokers were nearly twice as likely to stay sharp as smokers; those who exercised moderately to vigorously at least once a week were 30% more likely to maintain their cognitive function than those who do not exercise that often; people working or volunteering and people who report living with someone were 24% more likely to maintain cognitive function.

[909] Ayonayon HN, Harris TB, For the Health ABC Study, Yaffe K, Fiocco AJ, Lindquist K, Vittinghoff E, Simonsick EM, Newman AB, Satterfield S, et al. Predictors of maintaining cognitive function in older adults: The Health ABC Study. Neurology [Internet]. 2009 ;72(23):2029 - 2035. Available from:

Mental exercise helps maintain cognitive function during aging

A review of clinical trials which have examined the effect of cognitive exercise on longitudinal cognitive performance in healthy elderly individuals found 7 studies that met the criteria, and concluded that cognitive exercise training in healthy older individuals produced strong and long-lasting protective effects on cognitive performance, although it has yet to be shown to prevent incident dementia.

Valenzuela, M. & Sachdev, P. 2009. Can Cognitive Exercise Prevent the Onset of Dementia? Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials
with Longitudinal Follow-up. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 17 (3), 179-187.

Brain exercises improve memory and processing speed

In the first study to link a commercially available software program to improvement on unaffiliated standard measures of memory and to better performance on everyday tasks, a study involving 487 healthy adults over the age of 65 has found that those who used the Brain Fitness Program for 40 hours over the course of eight weeks (an hour a day, five days a week) became twice as fast in processing, while those who spent the same amount of time watching videos on art, history and literature topics followed by quizzes showed no significant improvement. They also performed significantly better on memory and attention tests for which they did not train, and many also reported significant improvements in everyday cognitive activities such as remembering names or understanding conversations in noisy restaurants. The Brain Fitness Program consists of six auditory exercises designed to help the brain improve the speed and accuracy of processing.

Smith, G.E. et al. 2009. A Cognitive Training Program Based on Principles of Brain Plasticity: Results from the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) Study.

Some activities associated with less memory loss

A study involving 1321 randomly selected people aged 70 to 89, of whom 197 had mild cognitive impairment, has found that reading books, playing games, participating in computer activities or doing craft activities such as pottery or quilting was associated with a 30 to 50% decrease in the risk of developing memory loss compared to people who did not do those activities. Also, those who watched television for less than seven hours a day were 50% less likely to develop memory loss than people who watched for more than that. Other activities in later age were not significantly associated with a reduced chance of having MCI. Only two activities during middle age (50-65) were significantly associated with a reduced chance of later memory loss: participation in social activities and reading magazines.

Geda, Y.E. et al. 2009. Cognitive Activities Are Associated with Decreased Risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment: The Mayo Clinic Population-Based Study of Aging. Presented April 28 at the American Academy of Neurology's 61st Annual Meeting in Seattle, April 25 to May 2, 2009.

No support for 'brain exercise' software for healthy elderly

A review of research on the impact of cognitive training on the healthy elderly (not those with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease), has found no evidence that structured cognitive intervention programs affects the progression of dementia in the healthy elderly population. This is not to say that it doesn’t; the fault lies in the quality of the research. The researchers found only a very small number of studies that met their criteria. Those that did meet the criteria were mostly found to be limited in their methodologies or lacking in follow-up. They concluded that more random clinical trials in cognitive training need to be conducted with sufficient follow-up time that can actually measure changes in daily functioning.

Papp, K.V., Walsh, S.J. & Snyder, P.J. 2009. Immediate and delayed effects of cognitive interventions in healthy elderly: A review of current literature and future directions. Alzheimer's & Dementia, 5 (1), 50-60.

Education may not affect how fast you will lose your memory

A study involving some 6,500 older Chicago residents being interviewed 3-yearly for up to 14 years (average 6.5 years), has found that while at the beginning of the study, those with more education had better memory and thinking skills than those with less education, education was not related to how rapidly these skills declined during the course of the study. The result suggests that the benefit of more education in reducing dementia risk results simply from the difference in level of cognitive function.

Wilson, R.S., Hebert, L.E., Scherr, P.A., Barnes, L.L., de Leon, C.F.M. & Evans, D.A. 2009. Educational attainment and cognitive decline in old age. Neurology, 72, 460-465.

Active social life may delay memory loss among older adults

Data gathered from 1998 to 2004 from the very large U.S. Health and Retirement Study has supported previous research suggesting that social activity is associated with slower cognitive decline. Indeed, memory decline among those with the highest social integration was less than half the rate among the least integrated. Social integration was assessed by marital status, volunteer activity, and frequency of contact with children, parents, and neighbors. The findings were independent of sociodemographic factors (such as age, gender, and race) and health status in 1998. The researchers found that the protective effect of social integration was largest among individuals with fewer than 12 years of education. There was no evidence that a poor or declining memory caused social withdrawal.

Ertel, K.A., Glymour, M.M. & Berkman, L.F. 2008. Effects of Social Integration on Preserving Memory Function in a Nationally Representative U.S. Elderly Population. American Journal of Public Health, 98 (7), 1215-1220.

Incidentally, another study that appeared in the same issue found that larger social networks were associated with a lower risk of dementia in women aged 78 and older. The study examined 2249 members of a health maintenance organization who were free of dementia at the start of the study. 268 (12%) of these were identified as having dementia four years later.

Crooks, V.C. et al. 2008. Social Network, Cognitive Function, and Dementia Incidence Among Elderly Women. American Journal of Public Health, 98, 1221-1227.

Older adults with more schooling spend fewer years with cognitive loss

A seven-year study involving over 7,000 people 70 years and older has found that a 70-year old person with at least 12 years of education can expect to live 14.1 more years without cognitive impairment, which is two-and-a-half years more than 70-year olds with fewer than 12 years of education. They can then expect to spend 1 year with impairment, which is about 7 months less than a person with fewer years of education. The impairment is also likely to be more severe for the more educated, and associated with worse health. This is consistent with the idea of cognitive reserve — that education provides a “buffer” that enables people to continue functioning well despite physical damage in the brain. However, when the damage finally can no longer be compensated for, the effects will be greater. But it shouldn’t be assumed that it is all downhill from there — even the severely impaired may recover, depending on the cause. Overall, about 11% of the mentally impaired recover, presumably because the decline is caused by a treatable condition.

Lièvre, A., Alley, D. & Crimmins, E. 2008. Educational Differentials in Life Expectancy With Cognitive Impairment Among the Elderly in the United States. Journal of Aging and Health, 20, 456-477.

10 minutes of talking has a mental payoff

A study of 3,610 people aged 24—96 examined mental functioning and social interaction, and found that, across all ages, cognitive functioning was better the The higher the level of participants' social interaction. Participants' level of social interactions was assessed by asking how often each week they talked on the phone with friends, neighbors and relatives, and how often they got together. Researchers controlled for age, education, race/ethnicity, gender, marital status and income, physical health and depression. In a second experiment involving college students, short-term social interaction lasting for just 10 minutes boosted participants' intellectual performance as much as engaging in so-called 'intellectual' activities for the same amount of time.

Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., Winkielman, P., Keller, M. C., Manis, M., Chan, E., & Rodriguez, J. (2008). Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing: Social Interaction Promotes General Cognitive Functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(2), 248 –259. doi:10.1177/0146167207310454

Age differences in cognitive benefits of exercise and mental stimulation

A mouse study has found that while physical exercise (a running wheel) and mental stimulation (toys), singly and together, improved memory in old mice, exercise alone or exercise and stimulation improved memory in middle-aged mice but not stimulation alone, and only exercise alone benefited young mice. The results suggest that as we get old and maybe less able to exercise, cognitive stimulation can help to compensate, but exercise is central to memory reinforcement at all ages.

Harburger, L.L., Nzerem, C.K. & Frick, K.M. 2007. Single Enrichment Variables Differentially Reduce Age-Related Memory Decline in Female Mice. Behavioral Neuroscience, 121 (4), 679-688.

Alzheimer's pathology related to episodic memory loss in those without dementia

A study of 134 participants from the Religious Orders Study or the Memory and Aging Project has found that, although they didn't have cognitive impairment at the time of their death, more than a third of the participants (50) met criteria for a pathologic diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. This group also scored significantly lower on tests for episodic memory, such as recalling stories and word lists. The results provide further support for the idea that a ‘cognitive reserve’ can allow people to tolerate a significant amount of Alzheimer's pathology without manifesting obvious dementia. It also raises the question whether we should accept any minor episodic memory loss in older adults as 'normal'.

Bennett, D.A., Schneider, J.A., Arvanitakis, Z., Kelly, J.F., Aggarwal, N.T., Shah, R.C. & Wilson, R.S. 2006. Neuropathology of older persons without cognitive impairment from two community-based studies. Neurology, 66, 1837-1844.

Simple Lifestyle Changes May Improve Cognitive Function

A study involving 17 people (35–69 years) with mild self-reported memory complaints but normal baseline memory performance scores, has found that 2 weeks on a program combining a brain healthy diet plan (5 small meals a day; diet rich in omega-3 fats, antioxidants and low-glycemic carbohydrates like whole grains), relaxation exercises, cardiovascular conditioning (daily walks), and mental exercise (such as crosswords and brain teasers) resulted in participants' brain metabolism decreasing 5% in working memory regions (left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), suggesting an increased efficiency. Compared to the control group, participants also performed better in verbal fluency.

Small, G.W. et al. 2006. Effects of a 14-Day Healthy Longevity Lifestyle Program on Cognition and Brain Function. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 14, 538-545.

Risk of mild cognitive impairment increases with less education

A study of 3,957 people from the general population of Olmsted County, Minnesota is currently in train to find how many of those who did not have dementia might have mild cognitive impairment. A report on the findings so far suggests 9% of those aged 70 to 79 and nearly 18% of those 80 to 89 have MCI. Prevalence varied not only with age but also years of education: 25% in those with up to eight years of education, 14% in those with nine to 12 years, 9% in those with 13 to 16 years, and 8.5% in those with greater than 16 years.

Findings from this study were presented April 4 at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in San Diego.

Lifestyle changes improve seniors’ memory surprisingly quickly

A small 14-day study found that those following a memory improvement plan that included memory training, a healthy diet, physical exercise, and stress reduction, showed a 5% decrease in brain metabolism in the dorsal lateral prefrontal region of the brain (involved in working memory) suggesting they were using their brain more efficiently. This change in activity was reflected in better performance on a cognitive measure controlled by this brain region, and participants reported that they felt their memory had improved. The memory training involved doing brainteasers, crossword puzzles and memory exercises. Diet involved eating 5 small meals daily (to prevent fluctuations in blood glucose levels) that were rich in omega-3 fats, low-glycemic index carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains) and antioxidants. Physical exercise involved brisk walking and stretching, and stress reduction involved stretching and relaxation exercises.

The study was presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology's Annual Meeting on December 11-15, in Hawaii.

How higher education protects older adults from cognitive decline

Research has indicated that higher education helps protect older adults from cognitive decline. Now an imaging study helps us understand how. The study compared adults from two age groups: 18-30, and over 65. Years of education ranged from 11 to 20 years for the younger group, and 8 to 21 for the older. Participants carried out several memory tasks while their brain was scanned. In young adults performing the memory tasks, more education was associated with less use of the frontal lobes and more use of the temporal lobes. For the older adults doing the same tasks, more education was associated with less use of the temporal lobes and more use of the frontal lobes. Previous research has indicated frontal activity is greater in old adults, compared to young; the new study suggests that this effect is related to the educational level in the older participants. The higher the education, the more likely the older adult is to recruit frontal regions, resulting in a better memory performance.

Springer, M.V., McIntosh, A.R., Winocur, G. & Grady, C.L. 2005. The Relation Between Brain Activity During Memory Tasks and Years of Education in Young and Older adults. Neuropsychology and Aging, 19 (2)

Diet, exercise, stimulating environment helps old dogs learn

A new study of beagles provides more evidence that diet and mental stimulation are important in reducing or preventing age-related cognitive decline. The study, involving 48 older beagles (aged 7 to 11), compared four combinations of behavioral enrichment (regular exercise and lots of mental stimulation) and supplementation of diet with antioxidants had on a beagle's ability to learn: regular diet and regular experience; regular diet and enriched experience; regular experience and an enriched diet; and enriched diet and an enriched experience. The study followed the beagles over two years. Those in the groups with either an enriched diet or enriched environment did better than those without either, but those who had both the enriched diet and an enriched environment did noticeably better than all the rest.

Milgram, N.W., Head, E., Zicker, S.C., Ikeda-Douglas, C.J., Murphey, H., Muggenburg, B., Siwak, C., Tapp, D., & Cotman, C.W. 2005. Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study. Neurobiology of Aging, 26, 77-90.

Being fluent in two languages may help keep the brain sharper for longer

A study of 104 people aged between 30 and 88 has found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one were sharper mentally. Those fluent in two languages responded faster on tasks assumed to place demands on working memory, compared to those who were fluent in just English, at all age groups. This is consistent with the theory that constant management of 2 competing languages enhances executive functions. Bilingual volunteers were also much less likely to suffer from the mental decline associated with old age. The finding is consistent with other research suggesting that mental activity helps in protecting older adults from mental decline. The participants were all middle class, and educated to degree level. Half of the volunteers came from Canada and spoke only English. The other half came from India and were fluent in both English and Tamil.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., Klein, R. & Viswanathan, M. 2004. Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence From the Simon Task. Psychology and Aging, 19 (2), 290–303.

Low self-esteem 'shrinks brain'

A British study questioned some 5,350 civil servants aged between 35 and 55 about their participation in 13 leisure activities, ranging from DIY and housework to cultural visits and evening classes. They were then given tests in verbal memory, mathematical reasoning, vocabulary and verbal fluency. Independent of socio-economic position, the highest level of cognitive ability was associated with regular cultural visits to theatres, art galleries and stately homes. This was closely followed by reading and listening to music, then by involvement in clubs and voluntary organisations, and participation in courses and evening classes. The association was stronger among men. While the researchers suggested that seeking mental stimulation may have a beneficial effect on cognition in middle age, and the research was popularly reported as indicating that “going to the pub is good for the brain” (going to the pub was indeed associated with a slightly higher cognitive ability, but less so that the afore-mentioned), it must be remembered that correlation does not imply causation.

Singh-Manoux, A., Richards, M. & Marmot, M. 2003. Leisure activities and cognitive function in middle age: evidence from the Whitehall II study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57, 907-913.

More support for importance of stimulation to protect against cognitive decline

A 15-year study of 92 seniors found that those with a low sense of self worth were more likely to suffer from memory loss as they got older. Moreover, the brains of those with low self-worth were up to a fifth smaller than those who felt good about themselves. It is speculated that those who are anxious and think negatively may set themselves up for memory loss by not bothering to engage themselves in activities that would stimulate and enrich their brains.

The study was presented at a conference at the Royal Society in London.

Regular participation in cognitive activities reduces Alzheimer's risk

6,158 persons aged 65 years and older from a biracial community in Chicago self-rated current frequency of participation in seven cognitive activities (e.g., reading a newspaper) and nine physical activities (e.g., walking for exercise). Four years later, 842 of those judged dementia-free were given a detailed clinical evaluation. 139 of these met criteria for Alzheimer's on clinical evaluation. When adjusted for age, education, sex, race, and possession of the gene allele associated with Alzheimer's, a one-point increase in cognitive activity score was associated with a 64% reduction in risk of Alzheimer's. Weekly hours of physical activity had no effect. Education and occupation were both associated with Alzheimer's risk, but these effects were substantially reduced when cognitive activity was taken into account.

Wilson, R.S., Bennett, D.A., Bienias, J.L., Aggarwal, N.T., de Leon, M.C.F., Morris, M.C., Schneider, J.A. & Evans, D.A. 2002. Cognitive activity and incident AD in a population-based sample of older persons. Neurology, 59, 1910-1914.

Compensating strategies for aging memories

PET scans of the prefrontal cortex reveal that older adults who perform better on a simple memory task display more activity on both sides of the brain, compared to both older adults who do less well, and younger adults. Although this seems counter-intuitive – the older adults who perform less well show activity patterns more similar to that of younger adults, this supports recent theory that the brain may change tactics as it ages, and that older people whose brain is more flexible can compensate for some aspects of memory decline. Whether this flexibility is neurological, or something that can be taught, is still unknown.

Cabeza, R., Anderson, N.D., Locantore, J.K. & McIntosh, A.R. 2002. Aging Gracefully: Compensatory Brain Activity in High-Performing Older Adults. NeuroImage, 17(3), 1394-1402

Talking may help seniors guard against memory decline

Earlier research has indicated cognitively stimulating activities (such as doing crosswords, playing scrabble, bridge, etc.) may help protect against cognitive decline (and perhaps even Alzheimers). Now a new report (not yet published) from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan supports and extends this research by suggesting that simply talking helps keep your mind sharp at all ages. The lead researcher also speculates that, by encouraging children to develop their social skills, parents and teachers could also be helping them to improve their intellectual skills. And in the workplace, instead of encouraging employees to keep their noses to computer monitors and complete their tasks, effective supervisors might encourage them to take plenty of time out to socialize.

Mentally stimulating activities reduces cognitive decline

A study of 700 seniors over several years found that more frequent participation in cognitively stimulating activities, such as reading books, newspapers or magazines, engaging in crosswords or card games, was significantly associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). General cognitive decline was also less among people who did more cognitively stimulating activities, in particular, in working memory, perceptual speed, and episodic memory. It is not yet known whether engaging in such activities helps prevent cognitive decline, or whether those who develop cognitive impairment are less likely to engage in cognitively stimulating activities.

Wilson RS, Mendes de Leon CF, Barnes LL, & et al. (2002). Participation in cognitively stimulating activities and risk of incident alzheimer disease. JAMA, 287(6), 742–748. doi:10.1001/jama.287.6.742

Leisure activity decreases risk of Alzheimer's disease

1,772 people age 65 or older participated in a 7-year study that investigated the effect of leisure activities on risk of dementia. It was found that, even when controlling for factors like ethnic group, education and occupation, those with high leisure activity had 38% less risk of developing dementia. There also appeared to be a cumulative effect, with an additional 8% risk reduction associated with each leisure activity engaged. Activities of all kinds were shown to be beneficial, but intellectual activities were associated with the highest risk reduction.

Scarmeas, N., Levy, G., Tang, M-X., Manly, J. & Stern, Y. 2001. Influence of leisure activity on the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease. Neurology, 57, 2236-2242.

Dealing with memory failures in which you feel the information you want is "on the tip of my tongue"

Memory failures in which you feel the information you want is "on the tip of my tongue" appear to occur because the memory trails to those items have become faint, either because the items haven't been used regularly or because of age. Similar sounding items can help recall. To keep your memory trails strong, you need to use them - by reading, doing crosswords, anything that uses language and keeps you meeting new words.

James, L. E., & Burke, D. M. (2000). Phonological Priming Effects on Word Retrieval and Tip-of-the-Tongue Experiences in Young and Older Adults,. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(6), 1378–1391.

tags strategies: 

Attention Training

See also

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

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

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

Music training helps you hear better in noisy rooms

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

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

Meditation technique can temporarily improve visuospatial abilities

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

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

A walk in the park a day keeps mental fatigue away

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

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

Even toddlers can ‘chunk' information for better remembering

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

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

Full text available at

Brain-training to improve working memory boosts fluid intelligence

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

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

Teaching older brains to regain youthful skills

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

[571] Richards E, Bennett PJ, Sekuler AB. Age related differences in learning with the useful field of view. Vision Research [Internet]. 2006 ;46(25):4217 - 4231. Available from:

Novelty aids learning

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

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

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.

Cognitive therapy for ADHD

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

[583] Klingberg T, Fernell E, Olesen PJ, Johnson M, Gustafsson P, Dahlström K, Gillberg CG, Forssberg H, Westerberg H. Computerized Training of Working Memory in Children With ADHD-A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry [Internet]. 2005 ;44(2):177 - 186. Available from:

Training improves working memory capacity

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

[606] Olesen PJ, Westerberg H, Klingberg T. Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nat Neurosci [Internet]. 2004 ;7(1):75 - 79. Available from:

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

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

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

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

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

[2548] Park NW, Ingles JL. Effectiveness of attention rehabilitation after an acquired brain injury: A meta-analysis. Neuropsychology [Internet]. 2001 ;15(2):199 - 210. Available from:

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Face Recognition

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

Children recognize other children’s faces better than adults do

It is well known that people find it easier to distinguish between the faces of people from their own race, compared to those from a different race. It is also known that adults recognize the faces of other adults better than the faces of children. This may relate to holistic processing of the face (seeing the face as a whole rather than analyzing it feature by feature) — it may be that we more easily recognize faces for which we have strong holistic ‘templates’. A new study has tested to see whether the same is true for children aged 8 to 13. The study found that children had stronger holistic processing for other children than adults did. This may reflect an own-age bias, but I’d love to see what happens with teachers, or any other adults who spend much of their time with many children.

[1358] Susilo T, Crookes K, McKone E, Turner H. The Composite Task Reveals Stronger Holistic Processing in Children than Adults for Child Faces. PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2009 ;4(7):e6460 - e6460. Available from:

Full text at

Alcoholics show abnormal brain activity when processing facial expressions

Excessive chronic drinking is known to be associated with deficits in comprehending emotional information, such as recognizing different facial expressions. Now an imaging study of abstinent long-term alcoholics has found that they show decreased and abnormal activity in the amygdala and hippocampus when looking at facial expressions. They also show increased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the failure of the limbic areas. The finding is consistent with other studies showing alcoholics invoking additional and sometimes higher-order brain systems to accomplish a relatively simple task at normal levels. The study compared 15 abstinent long-term alcoholics and 15 healthy, nonalcoholic controls, matched on socioeconomic backgrounds, age, education, and IQ.

[1044] Marinkovic K, Oscar-Berman M, Urban T, O'Reilly CE, Howard JA, Sawyer K, Harris GJ. Alcoholism and dampened temporal limbic activation to emotional faces. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research [Internet]. 2009 ;33(11):1880 - 1892. Available from:

More insight into encoding of identity information

Different pictures of, say, Marilyn Monroe can evoke the same mental image — even hearing or reading her name can evoke the same concept. So how exactly does that work? A study in which pictures, spoken and written names were used has revealed that single neurons in the hippocampus and surrounding areas respond selectively to representations of the same individual regardless of the sensory cue. Moreover, this occurs very quickly, not only to very familiar people — the same process was observed with the researcher’s image and name, although he was unknown to the subject a day or two earlier. It also appears that the degree of abstraction reflects the hierarchical structure within the mediotemporal lobe.

[1141] Quiroga QR, Kraskov A, Koch C, Fried I. Explicit Encoding of Multimodal Percepts by Single Neurons in the Human Brain. Current Biology [Internet]. 2009 ;19(15):1308 - 1313. Available from:

Monkeys and humans use the same mechanism to recognize faces

The remarkable ability of humans to distinguish faces depends on sensitivity to unique configurations of facial features. One of the best demonstrations for this sensitivity comes from our difficulty in detecting changes in the orientation of the eyes and mouth in an inverted face — what is known as the Thatcher effect . A new study has revealed that this effect is also demonstrated among rhesus macaque monkeys, indicating that our skills in facial recognition date back 30 million years or more.

[1221] Adachi I, Chou DP, Hampton RR. Thatcher Effect in Monkeys Demonstrates Conservation of Face Perception across Primates. Current Biology [Internet]. 2009 ;19(15):1270 - 1273. Available from:

Face recognition may vary more than thought

We know that "face-blindness" (prosopagnosia) may afflict as many as 2%, but until now it’s been thought that either a person has ‘normal’ face recognition skills, or they have a recognition disorder. Now for the first time a new group has been identified: those who are "super-recognizers", who have a truly remarkable ability to recognize faces, even those only seen in passing many years earlier. The finding suggests that these two abnormal groups are merely the ends of a spectrum — that face recognition ability varies widely.

[1140] Russell R, Duchaine B, Nakayama K. Super-recognizers: people with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review [Internet]. 2009 ;16(2):252 - 257. Available from:

Oxytocin improves human ability to recognize faces but not places

The breastfeeding hormone oxytocin has been found to increase social behaviors like trust. A new study has found that a single dose of an oxytocin nasal spray resulted in improved recognition memory for faces, but not for inanimate objects, suggesting that different mechanisms exist for social and nonsocial memory. Further analysis showed that oxytocin selectively improved the discrimination of new and familiar faces — participants with oxytocin were less likely to mistakenly characterize unfamiliar faces as familiar.

[897] Rimmele U, Hediger K, Heinrichs M, Klaver P. Oxytocin Makes a Face in Memory Familiar. J. Neurosci. [Internet]. 2009 ;29(1):38 - 42. Available from:

Insight into 'face blindness'

An imaging study has finally managed to see a physical difference in the brains of those with congenital prosopagnosia (face blindness): reduced connectivity in the region that processes faces. Specifically, a reduction in the integrity of the white matter tracts in the ventral occipito-temporal cortex, the extent of which was related to the severity of the impairment.

[1266] Thomas C, Avidan G, Humphreys K, Jung K-jin, Gao F, Behrmann M. Reduced structural connectivity in ventral visual cortex in congenital prosopagnosia. Nat Neurosci [Internet]. 2009 ;12(1):29 - 31. Available from:

Visual expertise marked by left-side bias

It’s been established that facial recognition involves both holistic processing (seeing the face as a whole rather than the sum of parts) and a left-side bias. The new study explores whether these effects are specific to face processing, by seeing how Chinese characters, which share many of the same features as faces, are processed by native Chinese and non-Chinese readers. It was found that non-readers tended to look at the Chinese characters more holistically, and that native Chinese readers prefer characters that are made of two left sides. These findings suggest that whether or not we use holistic processing depends on the task performed with the object and its features, and that holistic processing is not used in general visual expertise – but left-side bias is.

[1103] Hsiao JH, Cottrell GW. Not all visual expertise is holistic, but it may be leftist: the case of Chinese character recognition. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2009 ;20(4):455 - 463. Available from:

Object recognition fast and early in processing

We see through our eye and with our brain. Visual information flows from the retina through a hierarchy of visual areas in the brain until it reaches the temporal lobe, which is ultimately responsible for our visual perceptions, and also sends information back along the line, solidifying perception. This much we know, but how much processing goes on at each stage, and how important feedback is compared to ‘feedforward’, is still under exploration. A new study involving children about to undergo surgery for epilepsy (using invasive electrode techniques) reveals that feedback from the ‘smart’ temporal lobe is less important than we thought, that the brain can recognize objects under a variety of conditions very rapidly, at a very early processing stage. It appears that certain areas of the visual cortex selectively respond to specific categories of objects.

[1416] Liu H, Agam Y, Madsen JR, Kreiman G. Timing, Timing, Timing: Fast Decoding of Object Information from Intracranial Field Potentials in Human Visual Cortex. Neuron [Internet]. 2009 ;62(2):281 - 290. Available from:

New brain region associated with face recognition

Using a new technique, researchers have found evidence for neurons that are selectively tuned for gender, ethnicity and identity cues in the cingulate gyrus, a brain area not previously associated with face processing.

[463] Ng M, Ciaramitaro VM, Anstis S, Boynton GM, Fine I. Selectivity for the configural cues that identify the gender, ethnicity, and identity of faces in human cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2006 ;103(51):19552 - 19557. Available from:

No specialized face area

Another study has come out casting doubt on the idea that there is an area of the brain specialized for faces. The fusiform gyrus has been dubbed the "fusiform face area", but a detailed imaging study has revealed that different patches of neurons respond to different images. However, twice as many of the patches are predisposed to faces versus inanimate objects (cars and abstract sculptures), and patches that respond to faces outnumber those that respond to four-legged animals by 50%. But patches that respond to the same images are not physically connected, implying a "face area" may not even exist.

[444] Grill-Spector K, Sayres R, Ress D. High-resolution imaging reveals highly selective nonface clusters in the fusiform face area. Nat Neurosci [Internet]. 2007 ;10(1):133 - 133. Available from:

Face blindness is a common hereditary disorder

A German study has found 17 cases of the supposedly rare disorder prosopagnosia (face blindness) among 689 subjects recruited from local secondary schools and a medical school. Of the 14 subjects who consented to further interfamilial testing, all of them had at least one first degree relative who also had it. Because of the compensation strategies that sufferers learn to utilize at an early age, many of them do not realize that it is an actual disorder or even realize that other members of their family have it — which may explain why it has been thought to be so rare. The disorder is one of the few cognitive dysfunctions that has only one symptom and is inherited. It is apparently controlled by a defect in a single gene.

[1393] Kennerknecht I, Grueter T, Welling B, Wentzek S, Horst J, Edwards S, Grueter M. First report of prevalence of non-syndromic hereditary prosopagnosia (HPA). American Journal of Medical Genetics. Part A [Internet]. 2006 ;140(15):1617 - 1622. Available from:

Nothing special about face recognition

A new study adds to a growing body of evidence that there is nothing special about face recognition. The researchers have found experimental support for their model of how a brain circuit for face recognition could work. The model shows how face recognition can occur simply from selective processing of shapes of facial features. Moreover, the model equally well accounted for the recognition of cars.

[373] Jiang X, Rosen E, Zeffiro T, VanMeter J, Blanz V, Riesenhuber M. Evaluation of a Shape-Based Model of Human Face Discrimination Using fMRI and Behavioral Techniques. Neuron [Internet]. 2006 ;50(1):159 - 172. Available from:

Rare learning disability particularly impacts face recognition

A study of 14 children with Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD) has found that the children were poor at recognizing faces. NLD has been associated with difficulties in visual spatial processing, but this specific deficit with faces hasn’t been identified before. NLD affects less than 1% of the population and appears to be congenital.

[577] Liddell GA, Rasmussen C. Memory Profile of Children with Nonverbal Learning Disability. Learning Disablilities Research & Practice [Internet]. 2005 ;20(3):137 - 141. Available from:

Single cell recognition research finds specific neurons for concepts

An intriguing study surprises cognitive researchers by showing that individual neurons in the medial temporal lobe are able to recognize specific people and objects. It’s long been thought that concepts such as these require a network of cells, and this doesn’t deny that many cells are involved. However, this new study points to the importance of a single brain cell. The study of 8 epileptic subjects found variable responses from subjects, but within subjects, individuals showed remarkably specific responses to concepts. For example, a single neuron in the left posterior hippocampus of one subject responded to all pictures of actress Jennifer Aniston, and also to Lisa Kudrow, her co-star on the TV hit "Friends", but not to pictures of Jennifer Aniston together with actor Brad Pitt, and not, or only very weakly, to other famous and non-famous faces, landmarks, animals or objects. In another patient, pictures of actress Halle Berry activated a neuron in the right anterior hippocampus, as did a caricature of the actress, images of her in the lead role of the film "Catwoman," and a letter sequence spelling her name. The results suggest an invariant, sparse and explicit code, which might be important in the transformation of complex visual percepts into long-term and more abstract memories.

[1372] Quiroga QR, Reddy L, Kreiman G, Koch C, Fried I. Invariant visual representation by single neurons in the human brain. Nature [Internet]. 2005 ;435(7045):1102 - 1107. Available from:

Evidence faces are processed like words

It has been suggested that faces and words are recognized differently, that faces are identified by wholes, whereas words and other objects are identified by parts. However, a recent study has devised a new test, that finds people use letters to recognize words and facial features to recognize faces.

[790] Martelli M, Majaj NJ, Pelli DG. Are faces processed like words? A diagnostic test for recognition by parts. Journal of Vision [Internet]. 2005 ;5(1). Available from:

You can read this article online at

Face blindness runs in families

A study of those with prosopagnosia (face blindness) and their relatives has revealed a genetic basis to the neurological condition. An earlier questionnaire study by the same researcher (himself prosopagnosic) suggests the impairment may be more common than has been thought. The study involved 576 biology students. Nearly 2% reported face-blindness symptoms.

[2545] Grueter M, Grueter T, Bell V, Horst J, Laskowski W, Sperling K, Halligan PW, Elli HD, Kennerknecht I. Hereditary Prosopagnosia: the First Case Series. Cortex [Internet]. 2007 ;43(6):734 - 749. Available from:

Faces must be seen to be recognized

In an interesting new perspective on face recognition, a series of perception experiments have revealed that identifying a face depends on actually seeing it, as opposed to merely having the image of the face fall on the retina. In other words, attention is necessary.

[725] Moradi F, Koch C, Shimojo S. Face Adaptation Depends on Seeing the Face. Neuron [Internet]. 2005 ;45(1):169 - 175. Available from:

New insight into the relationship between recognizing faces and recognizing expressions

The quest to create a computer that can recognize faces and interpret facial expressions has given new insight into how the human brain does it. A study using faces photographed with four different facial expressions (happy, angry, screaming, and neutral), with different lighting, and with and without different accessories (like sunglasses), tested how long people took to decide if two faces belonged to the same person. Another group were tested to see how fast they could identify the expressions. It was found that people were quicker to recognize faces and facial expressions that involved little muscle movement, and slower to recognize expressions that involved a lot of movement. This supports the idea that recognition of faces and recognition of facial expressions are linked – it appears, through the part of the brain that helps us understand motion.

[1288] Martínez AM. Matching expression variant faces. Vision Research [Internet]. 2003 ;43(9):1047 - 1060. Available from:

How the brain is wired for faces

The question of how special face recognition is — whether it is a process quite distinct from recognition of other objects, or whether we are simply highly practiced at this particular type of recognition — has been a subject of debate for some time. A new imaging study has concluded that the fusiform face area (FFA), a brain region crucially involved in face recognition, extracts configural information about faces rather than processing spatial information on the parts of faces. The study also indicated that the FFA is only involved in face recognition.

Yovel, G. & Kanwisher, N. 2004. Face Perception: Domain Specific, Not Process Specific. Neuron, 44 (5), 889–898.

How the brain recognizes a face

Face recognition involves at least three stages. An imaging study has now localized these stages to particular regions of the brain. It was found that the inferior occipital gyrus was particularly sensitive to slight physical changes in faces. The right fusiform gyrus (RFG), appeared to be involved in making a more general appraisal of the face and compares it to the brain's database of stored memories to see if it is someone familiar. The third activated region, the anterior temporal cortex (ATC), is believed to store facts about people and is thought to be an essential part of the identifying process.

Rotshtein, P., Henson, R.N.A., Treves, A., Driver, J. & Dolan, R.J. 2005. Morphing Marilyn into Maggie dissociates physical and identity face representations in the brain. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 107-113.

Memories of crime stories influenced by racial stereotypes

The influence of stereotypes on memory, a well-established phenomenon, has been demonstrated anew in a study concerning people's memory of news photographs. In the study, 163 college students (of whom 147 were White) examined one of four types of news stories, all about a hypothetical Black man. Two of the stories were not about crime, the third dealt with non-violent crime, while the fourth focused on violent crime. All four stories included an identical photograph of the same man. Afterwards, participants reconstructed the photograph by selecting from a series of facial features presented on a computer screen. It was found that selected features didn’t differ from the actual photograph in the non-crime conditions, but for the crime stories, more pronounced African-American features tended to be selected, particularly so for the story concerning violent crime. Participants appeared largely unaware of their associations of violent crime with the physical characteristics of African-Americans.

[675] Oliver MB, Jackson, II RL, Moses NN, Dangerfield CL. The Face of Crime: Viewers' Memory of Race-Related Facial Features of Individuals Pictured in the News. The Journal of Communication [Internet]. 2004 ;54(1):88 - 104. Available from:

Special training may help people with autism recognize faces

People with autism tend to activate object-related brain regions when they are viewing unfamiliar faces, rather than a specific face-processing region. They also tend to focus on particular features, such as a mustache or a pair of glasses. However, a new study has found that when people with autism look at a picture of a very familiar face, such as their mother's, their brain activity is similar to that of control subjects – involving the fusiform gyrus, a region in the brain's temporal lobe that is associated with face processing, rather than the inferior temporal gyrus, an area associated with objects. Use of the fusiform gyrus in recognizing faces is a process that starts early with non-autistic people, but does take time to develop (usually complete by age 12). The study indicates that the fusiform gyrus in autistic people does have the potential to function normally, but may need special training to operate properly.

Aylward, E. 2004. Functional MRI studies of face processing in adolescents and adults with autism: Role of experience. Paper presented February 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

Dawson, G. & Webb, S. 2004. Event related potentials reveal early abnormalities in face processing autism. Paper presented February 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

How faces become familiar

With faces, familiarity makes a huge difference. Even when pictures are high quality and faces are shown at the same time, we make a surprising number of mistakes when trying to decide if two pictures are of the same person – when the face is unknown to us. On the other hand, even when picture quality is very poor, we’re very good at recognising familiar faces. So how do faces become familiar to us? Recent research led by Vicki Bruce (well-known in this field) showed volunteers video sequences of people, episodes of unfamiliar soap operas, and images of familiar but previously unseen characters from radio's The Archers and voices from The Simpsons. They confirmed previous research suggesting that for unfamiliar faces, memory appears dominated by the 'external' features, but where the face is well-known it is 'internal' features such as the eyes, nose and mouth, that are more important. The shift to internal features occurred rapidly, within minutes. Speed of learning was unaffected by whether the faces were experienced as static or moving images, or with or without accompanying voices, but faces which belonged to well-known, though previously unseen, personal identities were learned more easily.

Bruce, V., Burton, M. et al. 2003. Getting To Know You – How We Learn New Faces. A research report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Face recognition may not be a special case

Many researchers have argued that the brain processes faces quite separately from other objects — that faces are a special class. Research has shown many ways in which face recognition does seem to be a special case, but it could be argued that the differences are due not to a separate processing system, but to people’s expertise with faces. We have, after all, plenty of evidence that babies are programmed right from the beginning to pay lots of attention to faces. A new study has endeavored to answer this question, by looking at separate and concurrent perception of faces and cars, by people who were “car buffs” and those who were not. If expert processing of these objects depends on a common mechanism (presumed to be related to the perception of objects as wholes), then car perception would be expected to interfere with concurrent face perception. Moreover, such interference should get worse, as the subjects became more expert at processing cars. This is indeed what was found. Experts were found to recognize cars holistically, but this recognition interfered with their recognition of familiar faces. While novices processed the cars piece by piece, in a slower process that did not interfere with face recognition. This study follows on from earlier research in which car fanciers and bird watchers were found to identify cars and birds, respectively, using the same area of the brain as is used in face recognition. A subsequent study found that people trained to identify novel, computer-generated objects, began to recognize them holistically (as is done in face recognition). This latest study shows that, not only is experts’ car recognition occurring in the same brain region as face recognition, but that the same neural circuits are involved.

[1318] Gauthier I, Curran T, Curby KM, Collins D. Perceptual interference supports a non-modular account of face processing. Nat Neurosci [Internet]. 2003 ;6(4):428 - 432. Available from:

Detection of foreign faces faster than faces of your own race

A recent study tracked the time it takes for the brain to perceive the faces of people of other races as opposed to faces from the same race. The faces were mixed with images of everyday objects, and the subjects were given the distracting task of counting butterflies. The study found that the Caucasian subjects took longer to detect Caucasian faces than Asian faces. The study complements an earlier imaging study that showed that, when people are actively trying to recognize faces, they are better at recognizing members of their own race. [see Why recognizing a face is easier when the race matches our own]

[2544] Caldara R, Thut G, Servoir P, Michel CM, Bovet P, Renault B. Face versus non-face object perception and the ‘other-race’ effect: a spatio-temporal event-related potential study. Clinical Neurophysiology [Internet]. 2003 ;114(3):515 - 528. Available from:

Women better at recognizing female but not male faces

Women’s superiority in face recognition tasks appears to be due to their better recognition of female faces. There was no difference between men and women in the recognition of male faces.

[671] Lewin C, Herlitz A. Sex differences in face recognition--Women's faces make the difference. Brain and Cognition [Internet]. 2002 ;50(1):121 - 128. Available from:

Imaging confirms people knowledge processed differently

Earlier research has demonstrated that semantic knowledge for different classes of inanimate objects (e.g., tools, musical instruments, and houses) is processed in different brain regions. A new imaging study looked at knowledge about people, and found a unique pattern of brain activity was associated with person judgments, supporting the idea that person knowledge is functionally dissociable from other classes of semantic knowledge within the brain.

[766] Mitchell JP, Heatherton TF, Macrae NC. Distinct neural systems subserve person and object knowledge. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [Internet]. 2002 ;99(23):15238 - 15243. Available from:

Identity memory area localized

An imaging study investigating brain activation when people were asked to answer yes or no to statements about themselves (e.g. 'I forget important things', 'I'm a good friend', 'I have a quick temper'), found consistent activation in the anterior medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate. This is consistent with lesion studies, and suggests that these areas of the cortex are involved in self-reflective thought.

[210] Johnson SC, Baxter LC, Wilder LS, Pipe JG, Heiserman JE, Prigatano GP. Neural correlates of self-reflection. Brain [Internet]. 2002 ;125(8):1808 - 1814. Available from:

Recognizing yourself is different from recognizing other people

Recognition of familiar faces occurs largely in the right side of the brain, but new research suggests that identifying your own face occurs more in the left side of your brain. Evidence for this comes from a split-brain patient (a person whose corpus callosum – the main bridge of nerve fibers between the two hemispheres of the brain - has been severed to minimize the spread of epileptic seizure activity). The finding needs to be confirmed in studies of people with intact brains, but it suggests not only that there is a distinction between recognizing your self and recognizing other people you know well, but also that memories and knowledge about oneself may be stored largely in the left hemisphere.

[1075] Turk DJ, Heatherton TF, Kelley WM, Funnell MG, Gazzaniga MS, Macrae NC. Mike or me? Self-recognition in a split-brain patient. Nat Neurosci [Internet]. 2002 ;5(9):841 - 842. Available from:

Differential effects of encoding strategy on brain activity patterns

Encoding and recognition of unfamiliar faces in young adults were examined using PET imaging to determine whether different encoding strategies would lead to differences in brain activity. It was found that encoding activated a primarily ventral system including bilateral temporal and fusiform regions and left prefrontal cortices, whereas recognition activated a primarily dorsal set of regions including right prefrontal and parietal areas. The type of encoding strategy produced different brain activity patterns. There was no effect of encoding strategy on brain activity during recognition. The left inferior prefrontal cortex was engaged during encoding regardless of strategy.

[566] Bernstein LJ, Beig S, Siegenthaler AL, Grady CL. The effect of encoding strategy on the neural correlates of memory for faces. Neuropsychologia [Internet]. 2002 ;40(1):86 - 98. Available from:

Babies' experience with faces leads to narrowing of perception

A theory that infants' experience in viewing faces causes their brains (in particular an area of the cerebral cortex known as the fusiform gyrus) to "tune in" to the types of faces they see most often and tune out other types, has been given support from a study showing that 6-month-old babies were significantly better than both adults and 9-month-old babies in distinguishing the faces of monkeys. All groups were able to distinguish human faces from one another.

[526] Pascalis O, de Haan M, Nelson CA. Is Face Processing Species-Specific During the First Year of Life?. Science [Internet]. 2002 ;296(5571):1321 - 1323. Available from:

Different brain regions implicated in the representation of the structure and meaning of pictured objects

Imaging studies continue apace! Having established that that part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus is important in picture naming, a new study further refines our understanding by studying the cerebral blood flow (CBF) changes in response to a picture naming task that varied on two dimensions: familiarity (or difficulty: hard vs easy) and category (tools vs animals). Results show that although familiarity effects are present in the frontal and left lateral posterior temporal cortex, they are absent from the fusiform gyrus. The authors conclude that the fusiform gyrus processes information relating to an object's structure, rather than its meaning. The blood flows suggest that it is the left posterior middle temporal gyrus that is involved in representing the object's meaning.

[691] Whatmough C, Chertkow H, Murtha S, Hanratty K. Dissociable brain regions process object meaning and object structure during picture naming. Neuropsychologia [Internet]. 2002 ;40(2):174 - 186. Available from:

Debate over how the brain deals with visual information

Neuroscientists can't agree on whether the brain uses specific regions to distinguish specific objects, or patterns of activity from different regions. The debate over how the brain deals with visual information has been re-ignited with apparently contradictory findings from two research groups. One group has pinpointed a distinct region in the brain that responds selectively to images of the human body, while another concludes that the representations of a wide range of image categories are dealt with by overlapping brain regions. (see below)

Specific brain region responds specifically to images of the human body

Cognitive neuroscientists have identified a new area of the human brain that responds specifically when people view images of the human body. They have named this region of the brain the 'extrastriate body area' or 'EBA'. The EBA can be distinguished from other known anatomical subdivisions of the visual cortex. However, the EBA is in a region of the brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus, where other areas have been implicated in the perception of socially relevant information such as the direction that another person's eyes are gazing, the sound of human voices, or the inferred intentions of animate entities.

Brain scan patterns identify objects being viewed

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) scientists have shown that they can tell what kind of object a person is looking at — a face, a house, a shoe, a chair — by the pattern of brain activity it evokes. Earlier NIMH fMRI studies had shown that brain areas that respond maximally to a particular category of object are consistent across different people. This new study finds that the full pattern of responses — not just the areas of maximal activation — is consistent within the same person for a given category of object. Overall, the pattern of fMRI responses predicted the category with 96% accuracy. Accuracy was l00% for faces, houses and scrambled pictures.

[683] Downing PE, Jiang Y, Shuman M, Kanwisher N. A Cortical Area Selective for Visual Processing of the Human Body. Science [Internet]. 2001 ;293(5539):2470 - 2473. Available from:

[1239] Haxby JV, Gobbini IM, Furey ML, Ishai A, Schouten JL, Pietrini P. Distributed and Overlapping Representations of Faces and Objects in Ventral Temporal Cortex. Science [Internet]. 2001 ;293(5539):2425 - 2430. Available from:

Why recognizing a face is easier when the race matches our own

We have known for a while that recognizing a face is easier when its owner's race matches our own. An imaging study now shows that greater activity in the brain's expert face-discrimination area occurs when the subject is viewing faces that belong to members of the same race as their own.

Golby, A. J., Gabrieli, J. D. E., Chiao, J. Y. & Eberhardt, J. L. 2001. Differential responses in the fusiform region to same-race and other-race faces. Nature Neuroscience, 4, 845-850.

Boys' and girls' brains process faces differently

Previous research has suggested a right-hemisphere superiority in face processing, as well as adult male superiority at spatial and non-verbal skills (also associated with the right hemisphere of the brain). This study looked at face recognition and the ability to read facial expressions in young, pre-pubertal boys and girls. Boys and girls were equally good at recognizing faces and identifying expressions, but boys showed significantly greater activity in the right hemisphere, while the girls' brains were more active in the left hemisphere. It is speculated that boys tend to process faces at a global level (right hemisphere), while girls process faces at a more local level (left hemisphere). This may mean that females have an advantage in reading fine details of expression. More importantly, it may be that different treatments might be appropriate for males and females in the case of brain injury.

[2541] Everhart ED, Shucard JL, Quatrin T, Shucard DW. Sex-related differences in event-related potentials, face recognition, and facial affect processing in prepubertal children. Neuropsychology. 2001 ;15(3):329 - 341.

Children's recognition of faces

Children aged 4 to 7 were found to be able to use both configural and featural information to recognize faces. However, even when trained to proficiency on recognizing the target faces, their recognition was impaired when a superfluous hat was added to the face.

[1424] Freire A, Lee K. Face Recognition in 4- to 7-Year-Olds: Processing of Configural, Featural, and Paraphernalia Information. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology [Internet]. 2001 ;80(4):347 - 371. Available from:

Differences in face perception processing between autistic and normal adults

An imaging study compared activation patterns of adults with autism and normal control subjects during a face perception task. While autistic subjects could perform the face perception task, none of the regions supporting face processing in normals were found to be significantly active in the autistic subjects. Instead, in every autistic patient, faces maximally activated aberrant and individual-specific neural sites (e.g. frontal cortex, primary visual cortex, etc.), which was in contrast to the 100% consistency of maximal activation within the traditional fusiform face area (FFA) for every normal subject. It appears that, as compared with normal individuals, autistic individuals `see' faces utilizing different neural systems, with each patient doing so via a unique neural circuitry.

[704] Pierce K, Muller R-A, Ambrose J, Allen G, Courchesne E. Face processing occurs outside the fusiform `face area' in autism: evidence from functional MRI. Brain [Internet]. 2001 ;124(10):2059 - 2073. Available from:

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Spacing Effect

See also



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

The smart way to study

A large internet study has clarified the optimal timing for spacing out your learning. The very systematic study found much larger benefits to spacing your review of material than has been seen in earlier research when shorter intervals have been used. Given a fixed amount of study time, the optimal gap improved recall by 64% and recognition by 26%. Basically, the study found that if you want to remember just for a week, the optimal gap was one day; for remembering for a month, it was 11 days; for 2 months (70 days) it was 3 weeks, and similarly for remembering for a year. Extrapolating, it seems likely that if you’re wanting to remember information for several years, you should review it over several months. (You can read more about this study in my article on the most effective way of spacing your learning).

[872] Cepeda NJ, Vul E, Rohrer D, Wixted JT, Pashler H. Spacing effects in learning: a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS [Internet]. 2008 ;19(11):1095 - 1102. Available from:

Cramming doesn't work in the long term

Thinking back on how much you remember from your schooldays, it’s apparent to most of us that despite all the time spent in school, we’ve forgotten most of what we learned. A new study points to what we were doing wrong. The study looked at overlearning, which is the term for continuing to study after you’ve apparently learned it. Students went through a list of new words either five times (getting a perfect score no more than once) or ten times (getting it perfect at least three times). A week later, students who did the extra drilling performed better when tested, but four weeks later there was no difference. The results suggest that overlearning in a single session is wasted effort. However, when the material was studied in two separate sessions, and the break between sessions was at least a month, students did much better. Although the experiments involved rote learning, the researchers have also found similar effects with more abstract learning, like math.

[878] Rohrer D, Pashler H. Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time. Current Directions in Psychological Science [Internet]. 2007 ;16(4):183 - 186. Available from:

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."

[1167] Simon DA, Bjork RA. Metacognition in Motor Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition [Internet]. 2001 ;27(4):907 - 912. Available from:

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Strategies for Older Adults

This concerns studies into strategies specifically for older adults, but that doesn't mean other cognitive strategies can't also be useful! See also Strategies and the specific strategy pages.

See also the separate page for Mental stimulation & cognitive reserve

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

Characteristics of age-related cognitive decline in semantic memory

A study involving 117 healthy elderly (aged 60-91) has found that, while increasing age was associated with poorer memory for names of famous people, age didn’t affect memory for biographical details about them. It also found that names served as better cues to those details than faces did. A follow-up study (to be published in Neuropsychologia) found that, in contrast, those with mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s showed not only an increased inability to remember names, but also a decline in memory for biographical details.

[1308] Langlois R, Fontaine F, Hamel C, Joubert S. [The impact of aging on the ability to recognize famous faces and provide biographical knowledge of famous people]. Canadian Journal on Aging = La Revue Canadienne Du Vieillissement [Internet]. 2009 ;28(4):337 - 345. Available from:

Rote learning may improve verbal memory in seniors

A study involving 24 older adults (aged 55—70) has found that six weeks of intensive rote learning (memorizing a newspaper article or poem of 500 words every week) resulted in measurable changes in N-acetylaspartate, creatine and choline, three metabolites in the brain that are related to memory performance and neural cell health, in the left posterior hippocampus — but only after a six-week rest period, at which time the participants also showed improvements in their verbal and episodic memory, and also only in one of the two learning groups. The group that didn’t show any change were said to have low compliance with the memorization task.

McNulty, J. et al. The Identification of Neurometabolic Sequelae Post-learning Using Proton Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy. Presented November 26 at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Actors’ memory tricks help students and older adults

The ability of actors to remember large amounts of dialog verbatim is a marvel to most of us, and most of us assume they do by painful rote memorization. But two researchers have been studying the way actors learn for many years and have concluded that the secret of actors' memories is in the acting; an actor learning lines by focusing on the character’s motives and feelings — they get inside the character. To do this, they break a script down into a series of logically connected "beats" or intentions. The researchers call this process active experiencing, which uses "all physical, mental, and emotional channels to communicate the meaning of material to another person." This principle can be applied in other contexts. For example, students who imagined themselves explaining something to somebody else remembered more than those who tried to memorize the material by rote. Physical movement also helps — lines learned while doing something, such as walking across the stage, were remembered better than lines not accompanied with action. The principles have been found useful in improving memory in older adults: older adults who received a four-week course in acting showed significantly improved word-recall and problem-solving abilities compared to both a group that received a visual-arts course and a control group, and this improvement persisted four months afterward.

[2464] Noice H, Noice T. What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us About Memory and Cognitive Functioning. Current Directions in Psychological Science [Internet]. 2006 ;15(1):14 - 18. Available from:

'Imagination' helps older people remember to comply with medical advice

A new study suggests a way to help older people remember to take medications and follow other medical advice. Researchers found older adults (aged 60 to 81) who spent a few minutes picturing how they would test their blood sugar were 50% more likely to actually do these tests on a regular basis than those who used other memory techniques. Participants were assigned to one of three groups. One group spent one 3-minute session visualizing exactly what they would be doing and where they would be the next day when they were scheduled to test their blood sugar levels. Another group repeatedly recited aloud the instructions for testing their blood. The last group were asked to write a list of pros and cons for testing blood sugar. All participants were asked not to use timers, alarms or other devices. Over 3 weeks, the “imagination” group remembered 76% of the time to test their blood sugar at the right times of the day compared to an average of 46% in the other two groups. They were also far less likely to go an entire day without testing than those in the other two groups.

[473] Liu LL, Park DC. Aging and medical adherence: the use of automatic processes to achieve effortful things. Psychology and Aging [Internet]. 2004 ;19(2):318 - 325. Available from:

How to benefit from memory training

Brain and memory training programs are increasingly popular, but they don't work well for everyone. In particular, they tend to be much less effective for those who need them the most — those 80 and older, and those with lower initial ability. But a new study shows the problem is not intrinsic, but depends on the strategies people use.  The study found that people in their 60s and 70s used a strategy of spending most of their time on studying the materials and very little on the test, and showed large improvements over the testing sessions. By contrast, most people in their 80s and older spent very little time studying and instead spent most of their time on the test. These people did not do well and showed very little improvement even after two weeks of training.

[882] Bissig D[1], Lustig C[2]. Who Benefits From Memory Training?. Psychological Science [Internet]. 2007 ;18:720 - 726. Available from:

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Frequent multitaskers are the worst at it

March, 2013

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.



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Memory for Facebook posts better than that of faces and books

February, 2013

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.



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

February, 2013

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.


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


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Intensive training helps seniors with long-term aphasia

February, 2013

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!



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Checklists dramatically reduce errors in operating room crises

February, 2013

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

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.



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