training

Working memory capacity not 4 but 2+2

October, 2011

A monkey study finds that our very limited working memory capacity of around 4 items reflects two capacities of two items. The finding has practical implications for information presentation.

In the study, two rhesus monkeys were given a standard human test of working memory capacity: an array of colored squares, varying from two to five squares, was shown for 800 msec on a screen. After a delay, varying from 800 to 1000 msec, a second array was presented. This array was identical to the first except for a change in color of one item. The monkey was rewarded if its eyes went directly to this changed square (an infra-red eye-tracking system was used to determine this). During all this, activity from single neurons in the lateral prefrontal cortex and the lateral intraparietal area — areas critical for short-term memory and implicated in human capacity limitations — was recorded.

As with humans, the more squares in the array, the worse the performance (from 85% correct for two squares to 66.5% for 5). Their working memory capacity was calculated at 3.88 objects — i.e. the same as that of humans.

That in itself is interesting, speaking as it does to the question of how human intelligence differs from other animals. But the real point of the exercise was to watch what is happening at the single neuron level. And here a surprise occurred.

That total capacity of around 4 items was composed of two independent, smaller capacities in the right and left halves of the visual space. What matters is how many objects are in the hemifield an eye is covering. Each hemifield can only handle two objects. Thus, if the left side of the visual space contains three items, and the right side only one, information about the three items from the left side will be degraded. If the left side contains four items and the right side two, those two on the right side will be fine, but information from the four items on the left will be degraded.

Notice that the effect of more items than two in a hemifield is to decrease the total information from all the items in the hemifield — not to simply lose the additional items.

The behavioral evidence correlated with brain activity, with object information in LPFC neurons decreasing with increasing number of items in the same hemifield, but not the opposite hemifield, and the same for the intraparietal neurons (the latter are active during the delay; the former during the presentation).

The findings resolve a long-standing debate: does working memory function like slots, which we fill one by one with items until all are full, or as a pool that fills with information about each object, with some information being lost as the number of items increases? And now we know why there is evidence for both views, because both contain truth. Each hemisphere might be considered a slot, but each slot is a pool.

Another long-standing question is whether the capacity limit is a failure of perception or  memory. These findings indicate that the problem is one of perception. The neural recordings showed information about the objects being lost even as the monkeys were viewing them, not later as they were remembering what they had seen.

All of this is important theoretically, but there are also immediate practical applications. The work suggests that information should be presented in such a way that it’s spread across the visual space — for example, dashboard displays should spread the displays evenly on both sides of the visual field; medical monitors that currently have one column of information should balance it in right and left columns; security personnel should see displays scrolled vertically rather than horizontally; working memory training should present information in a way that trains each hemisphere separately. The researchers are forming collaborations to develop these ideas.

Reference: 

[2335] Buschman, T. J., Siegel M., Roy J. E., & Miller E. K.
(2011).  Neural substrates of cognitive capacity limitations.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Testing to learn: Best practice

September, 2011

Two studies reaffirm the value of retrieval practice, and suggest how often you need to retrieve each item.

In the first study, undergraduates studied English-Lithuanian word pairs, which were displayed on a screen one by one for 10 seconds. After studying the list, the students practiced retrieving the English words — they had 8 seconds to type in the English word as each Lithuanian word appeared, and those that were correct went to the end of the list to be asked again, and those wrong had to be restudied. Each item was pre-assigned a "criterion level" from one to five — the number of times it needed to be correctly recalled during practice.

In the first experiment, participants took one of four recall tests and one of three recognition tests after a 2-day delay. In the second experiment, in order to eliminate the reminder effect of the recall test, participants were only given a recognition test, after a 1-week delay.

Both experiments found that higher criterion levels led to better memory. More importantly, through the variety of tests, they showed that this occurred on all three kinds of memory tested: associative memory; target memory; cue memory. That is, practicing retrieval of the English word didn’t just improve memory for that word (the target), but also for the Lithuanian word (the cue), and the pairing (association).

While this may seem self-evident to some, it has been thought that only the information being retrieved is strengthened by retrieval practice. The results also emphasize that it is the correct retrieval of the information that improves memory, not the number of times the information is studied.

In a related study, 533 students learned conceptual material via retrieval practice across three experiments. Criterion levels varied from one to four correct retrievals in the initial session. Items also varied in how many subsequent sessions they were exposed to. In one to five testing/relearning sessions, the items were practiced until they were correctly recalled once. Memory was tested one to four months later.

It was found that the number of times items were correctly retrieved on the initial session had a strong initial effect, but this weakened as relearning increased. Relearning had pronounced effects on long-term retention with a relatively minimal cost in terms of additional practice trials.

On the basis of their findings, the researchers recommend that students practice recalling concepts to an initial criterion of three correct recalls and then relearn them three times at widely spaced intervals.

Reference: 

[2457] Vaughn, K. E., & Rawson K. A.
(2011).  Diagnosing Criterion-Level Effects on Memory.
Psychological Science.

Rawson, K.A. & Dunlosky, J. 2011. Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Jun 27, 2011, No Pagination Specified. doi: 10.1037/a0023956

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Simple training helps infants maintain ability to distinguish other-race faces

July, 2011

New research confirms the role of experience in the other race effect, and shows how easily the problem in discriminating faces belonging to other races might be prevented.

Our common difficulty in recognizing faces that belong to races other than our own (or more specifically, those we have less experience of) is known as the Other Race Effect. Previous research has revealed that six-month-old babies show no signs of this bias, but by nine months, their ability to recognize faces is reduced to those races they see around them.

Now, an intriguing study has looked into whether infants can be trained in such a way that they can maintain the ability to process other-race faces. The study involved 32 six-month-old Caucasian infants, who were shown picture books that contained either Chinese (training group) or Caucasian (control group) faces. There were eight different books, each containing either six female faces or six male faces (with names). Parents were asked to present the pictures in the book to their child for 2–3 minutes every day for 1 week, then every other day for the next week, and then less frequently (approximately once every 6 days) following a fixed schedule of exposures during the 3-month period (equating to approximately 70 minutes of exposure overall).

When tested at nine months, there were significant differences between the two groups that indicated that the group who trained on the Chinese faces had maintained their ability to discriminate Chinese faces, while those who had trained on the Caucasian faces had lost it (specifically, they showed no preference for novel or familiar faces, treating them both the same).

It’s worth noting that the babies generalized from the training pictures, all of which showed the faces in the same “passport photo” type pose, to a different orientation (three-quarter pose) during test trials. This finding indicates that infants were actually learning the face, not simply an image.

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Brains of those with MCI still flexible and trainable

April, 2011

A small study demonstrates that mild cognitive impairment doesn’t preclude retraining the brain to find new ways to perform cognitive tasks.

A training program designed to help older adults with MCI develop memory strategies has found that their brains were still sufficiently flexible to learn new ways to compensate for impairment in some brain regions. The study involved 30 older adults, of whom 15 had MCI. Participants’ brains were scanned 6 weeks prior to memory training, one week prior to training and one week after training.

Before training, those with MCI showed less activity in brain regions associated with memory. After training they showed increased activation in these areas as well as in areas associated with language processing, spatial and object memory and skill learning. In particular, new activity in the right inferior parietal gyrus was associated with improvement on a memory task.

The findings demonstrate that even once diagnosed with MCI (a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease), brains can still be ‘rewired’ to use undamaged brain regions for tasks customarily done by now-damaged regions.

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Individual differences in learning motor skills reflect brain chemical

April, 2011

An imaging study demonstrates that people who are quicker at learning a sequence of finger movements have lower levels of the inhibitory chemical GABA.

What makes one person so much better than another in picking up a new motor skill, like playing the piano or driving or typing? Brain imaging research has now revealed that one of the reasons appears to lie in the production of a brain chemical called GABA, which inhibits neurons from responding.

The responsiveness of some brains to a procedure that decreases GABA levels (tDCS) correlated both with greater brain activity in the motor cortex and with faster learning of a sequence of finger movements. Additionally, those with higher GABA concentrations at the beginning tended to have slower reaction times and less brain activation during learning.

It’s simplistic to say that low GABA is good, however! GABA is a vital chemical. Interestingly, though, low GABA has been associated with stress — and of course, stress is associated with faster reaction times and relaxation with slower ones. The point is, we need it in just the right levels, and what’s ‘right’ depends on context. Which brings us back to ‘responsiveness’ — more important than actual level, is the ability of your brain to alter how much GABA it produces, in particular places, at particular times.

However, baseline levels are important, especially where something has gone wrong. GABA levels can change after brain injury, and also may decline with age. The findings support the idea that treatments designed to influence GABA levels might improve learning. Indeed, tDCS is already in use as a tool for motor rehabilitation in stroke patients — now we have an idea why it works.

Reference: 

[2202] Stagg, C J., Bachtiar V., & Johansen-Berg H.
(2011).  The Role of GABA in Human Motor Learning.
Current Biology. 21(6), 480 - 484.

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Computer-based program may help ADHD symptoms in children

January, 2011

A five-week training program to improve working memory has significantly improved working memory, attention, and organization in many children and adolescents with ADHD.

A working memory training program developed to help children with ADHD has been tested by 52 students, aged 7 to 17. Between a quarter and a third of the children showed significant improvement in inattention, overall number of ADHD symptoms, initiation, planning/organization, and working memory, according to parental ratings. While teacher ratings were positive, they did not quite reach significance. It is worth noting that this improvement was maintained at the four-month follow-up.

The children used the software in their homes, under the supervision of their parents and the researchers. The program includes a set of 25 exercises in a computer-game format that students had to complete within 5 to 6 weeks. For example, in one exercise a robot will speak numbers in a certain order, and the student has to click on the numbers the robot spoke, on the computer screen, in the opposite order. Each session is 30 to 40 minutes long, and the exercises become progressively harder as the students improve.

The software was developed by a Swedish company called Cogmed in conjunction with the Karolinska Institute. Earlier studies in Sweden have been promising, but this is the first study in the United States, and the first to include children on medication (60% of the participants).

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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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Gender gap in spatial ability can be reduced through training

October, 2010

Male superiority in mental rotation is the most-cited gender difference in cognitive abilities. A new study shows that the difference can be eliminated in 6-year-olds after a mere 8 weeks.

Following a monkey study that found training in spatial memory could raise females to the level of males, and human studies suggesting the video games might help reduce gender differences in spatial processing (see below for these), a new study shows that training in spatial skills can eliminate the gender difference in young children. Spatial ability, along with verbal skills, is one of the two most-cited cognitive differences between the sexes, for the reason that these two appear to be the most robust.

This latest study involved 116 first graders, half of whom were put in a training program that focused on expanding working memory, perceiving spatial information as a whole rather than concentrating on details, and thinking about spatial geometric pictures from different points of view. The other children took part in a substitute training program, as a control group. Initial gender differences in spatial ability disappeared for those who had been in the spatial training group after only eight weekly sessions.

Previously:

A study of 90 adult rhesus monkeys found young-adult males had better spatial memory than females, but peaked early. By old age, male and female monkeys had about the same performance. This finding is consistent with reports suggesting that men show greater age-related cognitive decline relative to women. A second study of 22 rhesus monkeys showed that in young adulthood, simple spatial-memory training did not help males but dramatically helped females, raising their performance to the level of young-adult males and wiping out the gender gap.

Another study showing that expert video gamers have improved mental rotation skills, visual and spatial memory, and multitasking skills has led researchers to conclude that training with video games may serve to reduce gender differences in visual and spatial processing, and some of the cognitive declines that come with aging.

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People learn better when brain activity is consistent

October, 2010

A new way of analyzing brain activity has revealed that memories are stronger when the pattern of brain activity is more closely matched on each repetition.

An intriguing new study has found that people are more likely to remember specific information if the pattern of activity in their brain is similar each time they study that information. The findings are said to challenge the long-held belief that people retain information more effectively when they study it several times under different contexts, thus giving their brains multiple cues to remember it. However, although I believe this finding adds to our understanding of how to study effectively, I don’t think it challenges the multiple-context evidence.

The finding was possible because of a new approach to studying brain activity, which was used in three experiments involving students at Beijing Normal University. In the first, 24 participants were shown 120 faces, each one shown four times, at variable intervals between the repetitions. They were tested on their recognition (using a set of 240 faces), and how confident they were in their decision, one hour later. Subsequent voxel-by-voxel analysis of 20 brain regions revealed that the similarity of the patterns of brain activity in nine of those regions for each repetition of a specific face was significantly associated with recognition.

In the second experiment, 22 participants carried out a semantic judgment task on 180 familiar words (deciding whether they were concrete or abstract). Each word was repeated three times, again at variable intervals. The participants were tested on their recall of the words six hours later, and then tested for recognition. Fifteen brain regions showed a higher level of pattern similarity across repetitions for recalled items, but not for forgotten items.

In the third experiment, 22 participants performed a different semantic judgment task (living vs non-living) on 60 words. To prevent further encoding, they were also required to perform a visual orientation judgment task for 8 seconds after each semantic judgment. They were given a recall test 30 minutes after the session. Seven of the brain regions showed a significantly higher level of pattern similarity for recalled items.

It's interesting to observe how differences in the pattern of activity occurred when studying the same information only minutes apart — a difference that is presumed to be triggered by context (anything from the previous item to environmental stimuli or passing thoughts). Why do I suggest that this finding, which emphasizes the importance of same-context, doesn’t challenge the evidence for multiple-context? I think it’s an issue of scope.

The finding shows us two important things: that context changes constantly; that repetition is made stronger the closer context is matched. Nevertheless, this study doesn’t bear on the question of long-term recall. The argument has never been that multiple contexts make a memory trace stronger; it has been that it provides more paths to recall — something that becomes of increasing importance the longer the time between encoding and recall.

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Brain fitness programs may help frail elderly walk faster

September, 2010
  • Walking speed and balance may be improved in seniors through a brain training program. Research has indicated that a common pathology underlies cognitive impairment and gait and balance problems.

On the subject of the benefits of walking for seniors, it’s intriguing to note a recent pilot study that found frail seniors who walked slowly (no faster than one meter per second) benefited from a brain fitness program known as Mindfit. After eight weeks of sessions three times weekly (each session 45-60 minutes), all ten participants walked a little faster, and significantly faster while talking. Walking while talking requires considerably more concentration than normal walking. The success of this short intervention (which needs to be replicated in a larger study) offers the hope that frail elderly who may be unable to participate in physical exercise, could improve their mobility through brain fitness programs. Poor gait speed is also correlated with a higher probability of falls.

The connection between gait speed and cognitive function is an interesting one. Previous research has indicated that slow gait should alert doctors to check for cognitive impairment. One study found severe white matter lesions were more likely in those with gait and balance problems. Most recently, a longitudinal study involving over 900 older adults has found poorer global cognitive function, verbal memory, and executive function, were all predictive of greater decline in gait speed.

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