attention training

The right sort of video game can increase your intelligence

June, 2011

Games that use the n-back task, designed to challenge working memory, may improve fluid intelligence, but only if the games are at the right level of difficulty for the individual.

It has been difficult to train individuals in such a way that they improve in general skills rather than the specific ones used in training. However, recently some success has been achieved using what is called an “n-back” task, a task that involves presenting a series of visual and/or auditory cues to a subject and asking the subject to respond if that cue has occurred, to start with, one time back. If the subject scores well, the number of times back is increased each round.

In the latest study, 62 elementary and middle school children completed a month of training on a computer program, five times a week, for 15 minutes at a time. While the active control group trained on a knowledge and vocabulary-based task, the experimental group was given a demanding spatial task in which they were presented with a sequence of images at one of six locations, one at a time, at a rate of 3s. The child had to press one key whenever the current image was at the same location as the one n items back in the series, and another key if it wasn’t. Both tasks employed themed graphics to make the task more appealing and game-like.

How far back the child needed to remember depended on their performance — if they were struggling, n would be decreased; if they were meeting the challenge, n would be increased.

Although the experimental and active control groups showed little difference on abstract reasoning tasks (reflecting fluid intelligence) at the end of the training, when the experimental group was divided into two subgroups on the basis of training gain, the story was different. Those who showed substantial improvement on the training task over the month were significantly better than the others, on the abstract reasoning task. Moreover, this improvement was maintained at follow-up testing three months later.

The key to success seems to be whether or not the games hit the “sweet spot” for the individual — fun and challenging, but not so challenging as to be frustrating. Those who showed the least improvement rated the game as more difficult, while those who improved the most found it challenging but not overwhelming.

You can try this task yourself at http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/.

Reference: 

Jaeggi, Susanne M, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Priti Shah. “Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2011 (June 13, 2011): 2-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21670271.

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

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Neurofeedback offers hope for attention training

May, 2011

Receiving immediate feedback on the activity in a brain region enabled people to improve their control of that region’s activity, thus improving their concentration.

I’ve always been intrigued by neurofeedback training. But when it first raised its head, technology was far less sophisticated. Now a new study has used real-time functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) feedback from the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex to improve people's ability to control their thoughts and focus their attention.

In the study, participants performed tasks that either raised or lowered mental introspection in 30-second intervals over four six-minute sessions. Those with access to real-time fMRI feedback could see their RLPFC activity increase during introspection and decrease during non-introspective thoughts, such as mental tasks that focused on body sensations. These participants became significantly better at controlling their thoughts and performing the mental tasks. Moreover, the improved regulation was reflected only in activity in the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex. Those given inaccurate or no brain feedback showed no such improvement.

The findings point to a means of improving attentional control, and also raise hope for clinical treatments of conditions that can benefit from improved awareness and regulation of one's thoughts, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

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Brief diversions vastly improve focus

March, 2011

A new study suggests we lose focus because of habituation, and we can ‘reset’ our attention by briefly switching to another task before returning.

We’ve all experienced the fading of our ability to concentrate when we’ve been focused on a task for too long. The dominant theory of why this should be so has been around for half a century, and describes attention as a limited resource that gets ‘used up’. Well, attention is assuredly a limited resource in the sense that you only have so much of it to apply. But is it limited in the sense of being used up and needing to refresh? A new study indicates that it isn’t.

The researchers make what strikes me as a cogent argument: attention is an endless resource; we are always paying attention to something. The problem is our ability to maintain attention on a single task without respite. Articulated like this, we are immediately struck by the parallel with perception. Any smell, touch, sight, sound, that remains constant eventually stops registering with us. We become habituated to it. Is that what’s happening with attention? Is it a form of habituation?

In an experimental study, 84 volunteers were tested on their ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for 50 minutes under various conditions: one group had no breaks or distractions; two groups memorized four digits beforehand and were told to respond if they saw them on the screen during the task (but only one group were shown them during the task); one group were shown the digits but told to ignore them if they saw them.

As expected, performance declined significantly over the course of the task for most participants — with the exception of those who were twice shown the memorized digits and had to respond to them. That was all it took, a very brief break in the task, and their focus was maintained.

The finding suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance, but briefly deactivating and reactivating your goals is all you need to stay focused.

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Training improves visual perception

December, 2010

A month-long training program has enabled volunteers to instantly recognize very faint patterns.

In a study in which 14 volunteers were trained to recognize a faint pattern of bars on a computer screen that continuously decreased in faintness, the volunteers became able to recognize fainter and fainter patterns over some 24 days of training, and this correlated with stronger EEG signals from their brains as soon as the pattern flashed on the screen. The findings indicate that learning modified the very earliest stage of visual processing.

The findings could help shape training programs for people who must learn to detect subtle patterns quickly, such as doctors reading X-rays or air traffic controllers monitoring radars, and may also help improve training for adults with visual deficits such as lazy eye.

The findings are also noteworthy for showing that learning is not confined to ‘higher-order’ processes, but can occur at even the most basic, unconscious and automatic, level of processing.

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Sharpening your brain through talking

November, 2010
  • Indications that talking provides mental stimulation that helps sharpen your brain are supported and explained by new evidence that particular types of conversation are beneficial.

Following on from earlier research suggesting that simply talking helps keep your mind sharp at all ages, a new study involving 192 undergraduates indicates that the type of talking makes a difference. Engaging in brief (10 minute) conversations in which participants were simply instructed to get to know another person resulted in boosts to their executive function (the processes involved in working memory, planning, decision-making, and so on). However when participants engaged in conversations that had a competitive edge, their performance showed no improvement. The improvement was limited to executive function; neither processing speed nor general knowledge was affected.

Further experiments indicated that competitive discussion could boost executive function — if the conversations were structured to allow for interpersonal engagement. The crucial factor seems to be the process of getting into another person’s mind and trying to see things from their point of view (something most of us do naturally in conversation).

The findings also provide support for the social brain hypothesis — that we evolved our larger brains to help us deal with large social groups. They also support earlier speculations by the researcher, that parents and teachers could help children improve their intellectual skills by encouraging them to develop their social skills.

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Brain fitness program produces working memory improvement in older adults

August, 2010

A new study shows improvement in visual working memory in older adults following ten hours training with a commercial brain training program. The performance gains correlated with changes in brain activity.

While brain training programs can certainly improve your ability to do the task you’re practicing, there has been little evidence that this transfers to other tasks. In particular, the holy grail has been very broad transfer, through improvement in working memory. While there has been some evidence of this in pilot programs for children with ADHD, a new study is the first to show such improvement in older adults using a commercial brain training program.

A study involving 30 healthy adults aged 60 to 89 has demonstrated that ten hours of training on a computer game designed to boost visual perception improved perceptual abilities significantly, and also increased the accuracy of their visual working memory to the level of younger adults. There was a direct link between improved performance and changes in brain activity in the visual association cortex.

The computer game was one of those developed by Posit Science. Memory improvement was measured about one week after the end of training. The improvement did not, however, withstand multi-tasking, which is a particular problem for older adults. The participants, half of whom underwent the training, were college educated. The training challenged players to discriminate between two different shapes of sine waves (S-shaped patterns) moving across the screen. The memory test (which was performed before and after training) involved watching dots move across the screen, followed by a short delay and then re-testing for the memory of the exact direction the dots had moved.

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Resistance training improves attention in older women

January, 2010

A study has found resistance training significantly improved selective attention and conflict resolution in older women, but balance and tone training did not.

A study involving 155 women aged 65-75 has found that those who participated in resistance training once or twice weekly for a year significantly improved their selective attention (maintaining mental focus) and conflict resolution (as well as muscular function of course!), compared to those who participated in twice-weekly balance and tone training. Performance on the Stroop test improved by 12.6% and 10.9% in the once-weekly and twice-weekly resistance training groups respectively, while it deteriorated by 0.5% in the balance and tone group. Improved attention and conflict resolution was also significantly associated with increased gait speed.

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At-risk children who can self-regulate have higher test scores

July, 2010

At the end of first grade, at-risk children showing strong self-regulation in preschool and kindergarten did dramatically better on math, reading and vocabulary, than at-risk children with weaker self-regulation.

A study following nearly 1300 young children from birth through the first grade provides more evidence for the importance of self-regulation for academic achievement. The study found that children showing strong self-regulation in preschool and kindergarten did significantly better on math, reading and vocabulary at the end of first grade, independent of poverty, ethnic status, and maternal education (all of which had significant negative effects on reading, math, and vocabulary achievement in first grade). At-risk children with stronger self-regulation in kindergarten scored 15 points higher on a standardized math test in first grade, 11 points higher on an early reading test, and nearly seven points higher on a vocabulary test than at-risk children with weaker self-regulation. The findings emphasize the need to help children learn how to listen, pay attention, follow instructions, and persist on a task.

Reference: 

[1590] Sektnan, M., McClelland M. M., Acock A., & Morrison F. J.
(Submitted).  Relations between early family risk, children's behavioral regulation, and academic achievement.
Early Childhood Research Quarterly. In Press, Uncorrected Proof,

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Ritalin boosts learning by increasing brain plasticity

March, 2010

A rat study shows how Ritalin improves concentration and, it now appears, speed of learning. The finding may help the development of better-targeted drugs.

A rat study shows how Ritalin improves concentration and, it now appears, speed of learning. The study reveals that it does this by increasing the activity of dopamine at two specific types of neurotransmitter receptors in the amygdala. The dopamine receptor tagged “D2” appears to control the ability to stay focused on a task, while the D1 receptor underlies learning efficiency. The finding may help the development of better-targeted drugs.

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