How meditation may improve multitasking and attention

September, 2012

Three recent studies show that meditation training reduces the stress of multitasking and reduces task-switching, that it improves white matter efficiency, and that the improved executive control may be largely to do with better emotional awareness and regulation.

Meditation may improve multitasking

I recently reported that developing skill at video action games doesn’t seem to improve general multitasking ability, but perhaps another approach might be more successful. Meditation has, of course, been garnering growing evidence that it can help improve attentional control. A new study extends that research to multitasking in a realistic work setting.

The study involved three groups of 12-15 female human resource managers, of whom one group received eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, another received eight weeks of body relaxation training, and another initially received no training (control), before receiving the mindfulness training after the eight weeks.

Before and after each eight-week period, the participants were given a stressful test of their multitasking abilities, requiring them to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, telephone and word-processing tools to perform common office tasks (scheduling a meeting; finding a free conference room; writing a draft announcement of the meeting, eating snacks and drinking water, writing a memo proposing a creative agenda item for the meeting). Necessary information came from emails, instant messages, telephone calls, and knocks on the door. The participants had 20 minutes to complete the tasks.

The meditation group reported lower levels of stress during the multitasking test compared to the control and relaxation groups. They also spent more time on tasks and switched tasks less often, while taking no longer to complete the overall job than the others. Both meditation and relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they were performing.

After the control group underwent the meditation training, their results matched those of the meditation group.

The meditation training emphasized:

  • control of attentional focus
  • focusing attention in the present moment or task
  • switching focus
  • breath and body awareness.

The relaxation training emphasized progressive tensing and relaxing of major muscle groups, aided by relaxation imagery.

It's interesting that overall time on task didn't change (the researchers remarked that the meditators didn't take any longer, but of course most of us would be looking for it to become shorter!), but I wouldn't read too much into it. The task was relatively brief. It would be interesting to see the effects over the course of, say, a day. Nor did the study look at how well the tasks were done.

But it is, of course, important that meditation training reduced task-switching and stress. Whether it also has a postitive effect on overall time and quality of work is a question for another day.

IBMT improves white matter efficiency

A recent imaging study has found that four weeks of a form of mindfulness meditation called integrative body–mind training (IBMT) improved white matter efficiency in areas surrounding the anterior cingulate cortex, compared to controls given relaxation training.

The anterior cingulate is part of the brain network related to self-regulation. Deficits in activation in this part of the brain have been associated with attention deficit disorder, dementia, depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders.

Using the data from a 2010 study involving 45 U.S. college students, and another involving 68 Chinese students, researchers found that axon density (one factor in white matter efficiency) had improved after two weeks, but not myelin formation. After a month (about 11 hours of meditation), both had improved. Mood improved by two weeks.

Previous studies involving computer-based training for improving working memory have found changes in myelination, but not axon density.

Meditators’ better cognitive control may be rooted in emotional regulation

Previous work has found that people who engage in meditation show higher levels of executive control on laboratory tasks.

An electrical signal called the Error Related Negativity (ERN) occurs in the brain within 100 ms of an error being committed. When meditators and non-meditators were given the Stroop Test, meditators not only tended to do better on the test, but their ERNs were stronger.

The interesting thing about this is that the best performers were those who scored highest on emotional acceptance. Mindful awareness was less important. It’s suggested that meditators may be able to control their behavior better not because of their sharper focus, but because they are more aware of their emotions and regulate them better.

Something to think about!


Levy, D. M., Wobbrock, J. O., Kaszniak, A. W., & Ostergren, M. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment, 45–52. Full text available at

[3051] Tang, Y-Y., Lu Q., Fan M., Yang Y., & Posner M. I.
(2012).  Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109(26), 10570 - 10574.

[3052] Teper, R., & Inzlicht M.
(2012).  Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.



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Nature walks improve cognition in people with depression

June, 2012

A small study provides more support for the idea that viewing nature can refresh your attention and improve short-term memory, and extends it to those with clinical depression.

I’ve talked before about Dr Berman’s research into Attention Restoration Theory, which proposes that people concentrate better after nature walks or even just looking at nature scenes. In his latest study, the findings have been extended to those with clinical depression.

The study involved 20 young adults (average age 26), all of whom had a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. Short-term memory and mood were assessed (using the backwards digit span task and the PANAS), and then participants were asked to think about an unresolved, painful autobiographical experience. They were then randomly assigned to go for a 50-minute walk along a prescribed route in either the Ann Arbor Arboretum (woodland park) or traffic heavy portions of downtown Ann Arbor. After the walk, mood and cognition were again assessed. A week later the participants repeated the entire procedure in the other location.

Participants exhibited a significant (16%) increase in attention and working memory after the nature walk compared to the urban walk. While participants felt more positive after both walks, there was no correlation with memory effects.

The finding is particularly interesting because depression is characterized by high levels of rumination and negative thinking. It seemed quite likely, then, that a solitary walk in the park might make depressed people feel worse, and worsen working memory. It’s intriguing that it didn’t.

It’s also worth emphasizing that, as in earlier studies, this effect of nature on cognition appears to be independent of mood (which is, of course, the basic tenet of Attention Restoration Theory).

Of course, this study is, like the others, small, and involves the same demographic. Hopefully future research will extend the sample groups, to middle-aged and older adults.





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How exercise affects the brain, and who it benefits

June, 2012

New research indicates that the cognitive benefits of exercise depend on the gene variant you carry.

I’ve mentioned before that, for some few people, exercise doesn’t seem to have a benefit, and the benefits of exercise for fighting age-related cognitive decline may not apply to those carrying the Alzheimer’s gene.

New research suggests there is another gene variant that may impact on exercise’s effects. The new study follows on from earlier research that found that physical exercise during adolescence had more durable effects on object memory and BDNF levels than exercise during adulthood. In this study, 54 healthy but sedentary young adults (aged 18-36) were given an object recognition test before participating in either (a) a 4-week exercise program, with exercise on the final test day, (b) a 4-week exercise program, without exercise on the final test day, (c) a single bout of exercise on the final test day, or (d) remaining sedentary between test days.

Exercise both improved object recognition memory and reduced perceived stress — but only in one group: those who exercised for 4 weeks including the final day of testing. In other words, both regular exercise and recent exercise was needed to produce a memory benefit.

But there is one more factor — and this is where it gets really interesting — the benefit in this group didn’t happen for every member of the group. Only those carrying a specific genotype benefited from regular and recent exercise. This genotype has to do with the brain protein BDNF, which is involved in neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity, and which is increased by exercise. The BDNF gene comes in two flavors: Val and Met. Previous research has linked the less common Met variant to poorer memory and greater age-related cognitive decline.

In other words, it seems that the Met allele affects how much BDNF is released as a result of exercise, and this in turn affects cognitive benefits.

The object recognition test involved participants seeing a series of 50 images (previously selected as being highly recognizable and nameable), followed by a 15 minute filler task, before seeing 100 images (the previous 50 and 50 new images) and indicating which had been seen previously. The filler task involved surveys for state anxiety, perceived stress, and mood. On the first (pre-program) visit, a survey for trait anxiety was also completed.

Of the 54 participants, 31 carried two copies of the Val allele, and 23 had at least one Met allele (19 Val/Met; 4 Met/Met). The population frequency for carrying at least one Met allele is 50% for Asians, 30% in Caucasians, and 4% in African-Americans.

Although exercise decreased stress and increased positive mood, the cognitive benefits of exercise were not associated with mood or anxiety. Neither was genotype associated with mood or anxiety. However, some studies have found an association between depression and the Met variant, and this study is of course quite small.

A final note: this study is part of research looking at the benefits of exercise for children with ADHD. The findings suggest that genotyping would enable us to predict whether an individual — a child with ADHD or an older adult at risk of cognitive decline or impairment — would benefit from this treatment strategy.




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Scent of rosemary may help cognition

March, 2012

Rosemary is a herb long associated with memory. A small study now provides some support for the association, and for the possible benefits of aromatherapy. And a rat study indicates that your attitude to work might change how stimulants affect you.

A small study involving 20 people has found that those who were exposed to 1,8-cineole, one of the main chemical components of rosemary essential oil, performed better on mental arithmetic tasks. Moreover, there was a dose-dependent relationship — higher blood concentrations of the chemical were associated with greater speed and accuracy.

Participants were given two types of test: serial subtraction and rapid visual information processing. These tests took place in a cubicle smelling of rosemary. Participants sat in the cubicle for either 4, 6, 8, or 10 minutes before taking the tests (this was in order to get a range of blood concentrations). Mood was assessed both before and after, and blood was tested at the end of the session.

While blood levels of the chemical correlated with accuracy and speed on both tasks, the effects were significant only for the mental arithmetic task.

Participants didn’t know that the scent was part of the study, and those who asked about it were told it was left over from a previous study.

There was no clear evidence that the chemical improved attention, but there was a significant association with one aspect of mood, with higher levels of the scent correlating with greater contentment. Contentment was the only aspect of mood that showed such a link.

It’s suggested that this chemical compound may affect learning through its inhibiting effect on acetylcholinesterase (an important enzyme in the development of Alzheimer's disease). Most Alzheimer’s drugs are cholinesterase inhibitors.

While this is very interesting (although obviously a larger study needs to confirm the findings), what I would like to see is the effects on more prolonged mental efforts. It’s also a little baffling to find the effect being limited to only one of these tasks, given that both involve attention and working memory. I would also like to see the rosemary-infused cubicle compared to some other pleasant smell.

Interestingly, a very recent study also suggests the importance of individual differences. A rat study compared the effects of amphetamines and caffeine on cognitive effort. First of all, giving the rats the choice of easy or hard visuospatial discriminations revealed that, as with humans, individuals could be divided into those who tended to choose difficult trials (“workers”) and those who preferred easy ones (“slackers”). (Easy trials took less effort, but earned commensurately smaller reward.)

Amphetamine, it was found, made the slackers worked harder, but made the workers take it easier. Caffeine, too, made the workers slack off, but had no effect on slackers.

The extent to which this applies to humans is of course unknown, but the idea that your attitude to cognitive effort might change how stimulants affect you is an intriguing one. And of course this is a more general reminder that factors, whatever they are, have varying effects on individuals. This is why it’s so important to have a large sample size, and why, as an individual, you can’t automatically assume that something will benefit you, whatever the research says.

But in the case of rosemary oil, I can’t see any downside! Try it out; maybe it will help.




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Pycnogenol improves cognition in college students in small trial

March, 2012

Another small study indicates that the plant extract Pycnogenol may improve working memory.

Back in 2008, I reported on a small study that found that daily doses of Pycnogenol® for three months improved working memory in older adults, and noted research indicating that the extract from the bark of the French maritime pine tree had reduced symptoms in children with ADHD. Now another study, involving 53 Italian university students, has found that cognitive performance improved in those taking 100 mg of Pycnogenol every day for eight weeks.

Students taking the supplement had higher scores on university exams than the control group, and they were apparently happier, less anxious, and more alert. It seems plausible that the improvement in academic performance results from working memory benefits.

The plant extract is an antioxidant, and benefits may have something to do with improved vascular function and blood flow in the brain.

However, the control group was apparently not given a placebo (I’m relying on the abstract and press release here, as this journal is not one to which I have access), they were simply “a group of equivalent students”. I cannot fathom why a double-blind, placebo procedure wasn’t followed, and it greatly lessens the conclusions of this study. Indeed, I wouldn’t ordinarily report on it, except that I have previously reported on this dietary supplement, and I am in hopes that a better study will come along. In the meantime, this is another small step, to which I wouldn’t give undue weight.


Luzzi R., Belcaro G., Zulli C., Cesarone M. R., Cornelli U., Dugall M., Hosoi M., Feragalli B. 2011. Pycnogenol® supplementation improves cognitive function, attention and mental performance in students. Panminerva Medica, 53(3 Suppl 1), 75-82.



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

How emotion affects memory (general)

Mixed feelings not remembered as well as happy or sad ones

A series of studies that tested participants' emotions when they faced scenarios such as taking tests and moving, events that are typically associated with mixed emotions, has found that the intensity of mixed emotions tends to be underestimated when recalling the experience. This underestimation increases over time, to the point that people sometimes don't remember having felt ambivalent at all. This is more likely among those who are uncomfortable feeling mixed emotions. Interestingly, Asian Americans in the study did not exhibit the same degree of memory decline for mixed emotions as Anglo-Americans did.

Aaker, J., Drolet, A. & Griffin, D. 2008. Recalling Mixed Emotions. Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (2), 268-278.

Emotions help memory, at the cost of other memories

Do we remember emotionally charged events better? Maybe — but at a price. A new study presented volunteers with lists of neutral words with one disturbing noun, such as murder or scream, embedded. As expected, the emotional words were much better remembered than the neutral words. More interestingly, the poorest memory occurred for neutral words that were presented immediately before the disturbing words. The effect was greater for women — women forgot those words twice as often as men.

[214] Strange, B. A., Hurlemann R., & Dolan R. J.
(2003).  An emotion-induced retrograde amnesia in humans is amygdala- and beta-adrenergic-dependent.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 100(23), 13626 - 13631.

How memory helps make life pleasant

Surveys consistently show that people are generally happy with their lives. A review of research into autobiographical memory suggests why - human memory is biased toward happiness. Across 12 studies conducted by five different research teams, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and of different ages consistently reported experiencing more positive events in their lives than negative events, suggesting that pleasant events do in fact outnumber unpleasant events because people seek out positive experiences and avoid negative ones. Our memory also treats pleasant emotions differently from unpleasant emotions. Pleasant emotions appear to fade more slowly from our memory than unpleasant emotions. This is not repression; people do remember negative events, they just remember them less negatively. Among those with mild depression, however, unpleasant and pleasant emotions tend to fade evenly.

Walker, W.R., Skowronski, J.J. & Thompson, C.P. 2003. Life Is Pleasant -- and Memory Helps to Keep It That Way! Review of General Psychology, 7(2),203-10.

Suppressing your expression of emotion affects your memory for the event

The way people go about controlling their reactions to emotional events affects their memory of the event. In a series of experiments designed to assess the effect of suppressing the expression of emotion, it was found that, when people were shown a video of an emotional event and instructed not to let their emotions show, they had poorer memory for what was said and done than did those people who were given no such instructions. However, when shown slides of people who had been injured, people in both groups were equally good at picking which in an array of subtly different versions of each slide had been shown earlier - but when prompted to recall information that had been presented verbally with each slide, those in the suppression group again remembered fewer details. People who were asked to adopt the neutral attitude of a medical profession however, performed better than the control group on nonverbal recall, indicating the regulation of emotions via reappraisal was not associated with any memory impairment. These experimental results were supported by a naturalistic study.

[607] Richards, J. M., & Gross J. J.
(2000).  Emotion regulation and memory: The cognitive costs of keeping one's cool..
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79(3), 410 - 424.


When mood affects memory

The effect of mood on memory depends on what questions are asked; only some aspects of memory are affected by incidental mood. For example, your memory of a restaurant's food won't be affected by the mood you were in when you ate it, but your memory of how much you enjoyed it will be. A new study shows that the effects of mood also depend on whether you had thought about that aspect during the experience — whether you had thought about how enjoyable the experience was at the time. In the study, people were shown a painting. Half of them were first put in a negative mood by reading and answering questions about an unpleasant subject. After looking at the painting, half were asked what they thought of it. Five days later, the participants were all asked how much they had liked the painting. While being in a negative mood had affected those who had evaluated the painting at the time, it did not affect those who had not made an evaluation at the time of presentation.

Pocheptsova, A. & Novemsky, N. 2009. When Do Incidental Mood Effects Last? Lay Beliefs versus Actual Effects. Journal of Consumer Research, Published online September 10, 2009

Perception affected by mood

An imaging study has revealed that when people were shown a composite image with a face surrounded by "place" images, such as a house, and asked to identify the gender of the face, those in whom a bad mood had been induced didn’t process the places in the background. However, those in a good mood took in both the focal and background images. These differences in perception were coupled with differences in activity in the parahippocampal place area. Increasing the amount of information is of course not necessarily a good thing, as it may result in more distraction.

[1054] Schmitz, T. W., De Rosa E., & Anderson A. K.
(2009).  Opposing Influences of Affective State Valence on Visual Cortical Encoding.
J. Neurosci.. 29(22), 7199 - 7207.

Positive mood may not help in tasks requiring attention to detail

A series of experiments with different child age groups who had happy or sad moods induced with the aid of music and selected video clips before then being asked to undertake a task that required attention to detail has found that the children induced to feel a sad or neutral mood performed the task better than those induced to feel happy. Other research has found that a positive mood is beneficial in other situations, such as when a task calls for creative thinking.

[854] Schnall, S. [1], Jaswal V. K. [2], & Rowe C. [1]
(2008).  A hidden cost of happiness in children.
Developmental Science. 11, F25-F30 - F25-F30.

Omega-3 boosts grey matter

A study of 55 healthy adults has found that those who had high levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids had more gray matter in areas of the brain associated with emotional arousal and regulation — the bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, the right amygdala and the right hippocampus. Although this doesn’t mean omega-3 necessarily causes such changes, the finding does support a recent study that found higher levels of omega-3 were associated with a more positive outlook, and animal studies showing that increasing omega-3 intake leads to structural changes in the brain. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are walnuts, flax, and fatty fish such as salmon and sardines.

The findings were presented March 7 at the American Psychosomatic Society's Annual Meeting, in Budapest, Hungary.

Insight into the processes of 'positive' and 'negative' learners

An intriguing study of the electrical signals emanating from the brain has revealed two types of learners. A brainwave event called an "event-related potential" (ERP) is important in learning; a particular type of ERP called "error-related negativity" (ERN), is associated with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. This region is activated during demanding cognitive tasks, and ERNs are typically more negative after participants make incorrect responses compared to correct choices. Unexpectedly, studies of this ERN found a difference between "positive" learners, who perform better at choosing the correct response than avoiding the wrong one, and "negative" learners, who learn better to avoid incorrect responses. The negative learners showed larger ERNs, suggesting that "these individuals are more affected by, and therefore learn more from, their errors.” Positive learners had larger ERNs when faced with high-conflict win/win decisions among two good options than during lose/lose decisions among two bad options, whereas negative learners showed the opposite pattern.

[818] Frank, M. J., Woroch B. S., & Curran T.
(2005).  Error-Related Negativity Predicts Reinforcement Learning and Conflict Biases.
Neuron. 47(4), 495 - 501.

Positive emotions help people see big picture details

A study involving 89 students, who watched a video designed to induce either joy and laughter, anxiety, or no emotion, found that those who were in a positive mood had a far greater ability to recognize members of another race when briefly shown photos of individuals. In the absence of positive emotions, subjects recognized members of their own race 75% of the time but only recognized members of another race 65% of the time. Their ability to recognize members of their own race was unaffected by their emotional state.

[2551] Johnson, K. J., & Fredrickson B. L.
(2005).  “We All Look the Same to Me”.
Psychological Science. 16(11), 875 - 881.

Mood affects eyewitness accuracy and reasoning

A new study suggests people in a negative mood provide more accurate eyewitness accounts than people in a positive mood state. Moreover, people in a positive mood showed poorer judgment and critical thinking skills than those in a negative mood. The researchers suggest that a negative mood state triggers more systematic and attentive, information processing, while good moods signal a benign, non-threatening environment where we don't need to be so vigilant.

[2550] Forgas, J. P., Laham S. M., & Vargas P. T.
(2005).  Mood effects on eyewitness memory: Affective influences on susceptibility to misinformation.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 41(6), 574 - 588.

Excitement helps memory for unrelated events

We’ve long known that emotionally charged events are easier to remember than boring ones. New research suggests that the reason is the flood of emotion, not the personal meaningfulness of the event. Subjects asked to memorize a list of words did better if they subsequently watched a gory film of a bloody dental extraction, rather than a dull video on tooth brushing.

Nielson, K.A., Yee, D. & Erickson, K.I. 2002. Modulation of memory storage processes by post-training emotional arousal from a semantically unrelated source. Paper presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, 4 November.

Mood needs to be matched to cognitive task for best performance

An imaging study looked at the brain activity of 14 college-aged men and women as they performed difficult cognitive tasks requiring the active retention of information in working memory, after watching short, emotional videos, designed to elicit one of three emotional states: pleasant, neutral or anxious. It was found that mild anxiety improved performance on some tasks, but hurt performance on others. Being in a pleasant mood boosted some kinds of performance but impaired other kinds. A region of the prefrontal cortex was jointly influenced by a combination of mood state and cognitive task, but not by either one alone.

[227] Gray, J. R., Braver T. S., & Raichle M. E.
(2002).  Integration of emotion and cognition in the lateral prefrontal cortex.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99(6), 4115 - 4120.

Brain study shows how surprises help us learn

Because they are hard to forget, surprises can help us learn. Now scientists have identified a part of the brain that may be involved in learning from surprises. A team led by Dr. Paul C. Fletcher at the University of Cambridge monitored the brain activity in a group of volunteers who were participating in a simulation exercise. The participants pretended to work at drug companies and were asked to predict whether a particular fictitious drug would trigger a particular fictitious syndrome. In the early phase of the study, when the participants were not familiar with the effects of the various drugs, imaging tests detected high levels of activity in this part of the brain. As the volunteers became familiar with the effects of the drugs, so that they were no longer surprised by the results, activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex declined, but later in the study, this region became more active when the participants were surprised by unexpected responses.

[1329] Fletcher, P. C., Anderson J. M., Shanks D. R., Honey R., Carpenter T. A., Donovan T., et al.
(2001).  Responses of human frontal cortex to surprising events are predicted by formal associative learning theory.
Nat Neurosci. 4(10), 1043 - 1048.

Motivation & attitude

Confidence as important as IQ in exam success

I’ve talked repeatedly about the effects of self-belief on memory and cognition. One important area in which this is true is that of academic achievement. Evidence indicates that your perceived abilities matter, just as much? more than? your actual abilities. It has been assumed that self perceived abilities, self-confidence if you will, is a product mainly of nurture. Now a new twin study provides evidence that nurture / environment may only provide half the story; the other half may lie in the genes. The study involved 1966 pairs of identical twins and 1877 pairs of fraternal twins. The next step is to tease out which of these genes are related to IQ and which to personality variables.

[1080] Greven, C. U., Harlaar N., Kovas Y., Chamorro-Premuzic T., & Plomin R.
(2009).  More Than Just IQ: School Achievement Is Predicted by Self-Perceived Abilities—But for Genetic Rather Than Environmental Reasons.
Psychological Science. 20(6), 753 - 762.

Anticipation strengthens memory

An imaging study has revealed that the amygdala and the hippocampus become activated when a person is anticipating a difficult situation (some type of gruesome picture). Moreover, the higher the level of activation during this anticipation, the better the pictures were remembered two weeks later. The study demonstrates how expectancy can affect long-term memory formation, and suggests that the greater our anxiety about a situation, the better we’ll remember that situation. If it’s an unpleasant one, this will only reinforce the anxiety, setting up a vicious cycle. The study has important implications for the treatment of psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety.

[354] Mackiewicz, K. L., Sarinopoulos I., Cleven K. L., & Nitschke J. B.
(2006).  The effect of anticipation and the specificity of sex differences for amygdala and hippocampus function in emotional memory.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 103(38), 14200 - 14205.

Why motivation helps memory

An imaging study has identified the brain region involved in anticipating rewards — specific brain structures in the mesolimbic region involved in the processing of emotions — and revealed how this reward center promotes memory formation. Cues to high-reward scenes that were later remembered activated the reward areas of the mesolimbic region as well as the hippocampus. Anticipatory activation also suggests that the brain actually prepares in advance to filter incoming information rather than simply reacting to the world.

[1254] Adcock, A. R., Thangavel A., Whitfield-Gabrieli S., Knutson B., & Gabrieli J. D. E.
(2006).  Reward-Motivated Learning: Mesolimbic Activation Precedes Memory Formation.
Neuron. 50(3), 507 - 517.

Different brain regions for arousing and non-arousing words

An imaging study has found that words representing arousing events (e.g., “rape”, “slaughter”) activate cells in the amygdala, while nonarousing words (e.g., “sorrow”, “mourning”) activated cells in the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus was active for both type of words. On average, people remembered more of the arousing words than the others, suggesting stress hormones, released as part of the response to emotionally arousing events, are responsible for enhancing memories of those events.

Kensinger, E.A. & Corkin, S. 2004. Two routes to emotional memory: Distinct neural processes for valence and arousal. PNAS, 101, 3310-3315. Published online before print February 23 2004, 10.1073/pnas.0306408101


Gender & age effects

When emotions involved, older adults may perform memory tasks better than young adults

A study involving 72 young adults (20-30 years old) and 72 older adults (60-75) has found that regulating emotions – such as reducing negative emotions or inhibiting unwanted thoughts – is a resource-demanding process that disrupts the ability of young adults to simultaneously or subsequently perform tasks, but doesn’t affect older adults. In the study, most of the participants watched a two-minute video designed to induce disgust, while the rest watched a neutral two-minute clip. Participants then played a computer memory game. Before playing 2 further memory games, those who had watched the disgusting video were instructed either to change their negative reaction into positive feelings as quickly as possible or to maintain the intensity of their negative reaction, or given no instructions. Those young adults who had been told to turn their disgust into positive feelings, performed significantly worse on the subsequent memory tasks, but older adults were not affected. The feelings of disgust in themselves did not affect performance in either group. It’s speculated that older adults’ greater experience allows them to regulate their emotions without cognitive effort.

[200] Scheibe, S., & Blanchard-Fields F.
(2009).  Effects of regulating emotions on cognitive performance: what is costly for young adults is not so costly for older adults.
Psychology and Aging. 24(1), 217 - 223.

Aging brains allow negative memories to fade

Another study has found that older adults (average age 70) remember fewer negative images than younger adults (average age 24), and that this has to do with differences in brain activity. When shown negative images, the older participants had reduced interactions between the amygdala and the hippocampus, and increased interactions between the amygdala and the dorsolateral frontal cortex. It seems that the older participants were using thinking rather than feeling processes to store these emotional memories, sacrificing information for emotional stability. The findings are consistent with earlier research showing that healthy seniors are able to regulate emotion better than younger people.

[680] St Jacques, P. L., Dolcos F., & Cabeza R.
(2009).  Effects of aging on functional connectivity of the amygdala for subsequent memory of negative pictures: a network analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 20(1), 74 - 84.

Emotions help memory, at the cost of other memories

Do we remember emotionally charged events better? Maybe — but at a price. A new study presented volunteers with lists of neutral words with one disturbing noun, such as murder or scream, embedded. As expected, the emotional words were much better remembered than the neutral words. More interestingly, the poorest memory occurred for neutral words that were presented immediately before the disturbing words. The effect was greater for women — women forgot those words twice as often as men.

[214] Strange, B. A., Hurlemann R., & Dolan R. J.
(2003).  An emotion-induced retrograde amnesia in humans is amygdala- and beta-adrenergic-dependent.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 100(23), 13626 - 13631.

Why women better remember emotional memories

A new brain imaging study reveals gender differences in the encoding of emotional memories. We have long known that women are better at remembering emotional memories, now we can see that the sexes tend to encode emotional experiences in different parts of the brain. In women, it seems that evaluation of emotional experience and encoding of the memory is much more tightly integrated.

[807] Canli, T., Desmond J. E., Zhao Z., & Gabrieli J. D. E.
(2002).  Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99(16), 10789 - 10794.

Older adults better at forgetting negative images

It seems that this general tendency, to remember the good, and let the bad fade, gets stronger as we age. Following recent research suggesting that older people tend to regulate their emotions more effectively than younger people, by maintaining positive feelings and lowering negative feelings, researchers examined age differences in recall of positive, negative and neutral images of people, animals, nature scenes and inanimate objects. The first study tested 144 participants aged 18-29, 41-53 and 65-80. Older adults recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and neutral images. For the older adults, recognition memory also decreased for negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults remembered the negative pictures better. Preliminary brain research suggests that in older adults, the amygdala is activated equally to positive and negative images, whereas in younger adults, it is activated more to negative images. This suggests that older adults encode less information about negative images, which in turn would diminish recall.

[343] Charles, S T., Mather M., & Carstensen L. L.
(2003).  Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 132(2), 310 - 324.

Gender & race stereotypes


Nasal spray boosts consolidation of emotional memory

A study in which 17 healthy young men were given a nasal spray of either interleukin-6 or a placebo after reading a short story (emotional on one occasion; neutral on the other) before going to bed, has found that those given the immune system molecule showed improved memory for emotional text (but not other kinds of material). Interleukin-6 is involved in inflammatory responses, but recently has also been implicated in memory consolidation during sleep. This finding supports that role, and demonstrates an interaction between the immune system and the central nervous system.

[811] Benedict, C., Scheller J., Rose-John S., Born J., & Marshall L.
(2009).  Enhancing influence of intranasal interleukin-6 on slow-wave activity and memory consolidation during sleep.
FASEB J.. 23(10), 3629 - 3636.

Sleep selectively preserves emotional memories

It’s now generally accepted that sleep plays an important role in consolidating procedural (skill) memories, but the position regarding other types of memory has been less clear.  A new study has found that sleep had an effect on emotional aspects of a memory. The study involved showing 88 students neutral scenes (such as a car parked on a street in front of shops) or negative scenes (a badly crashed car parked on a similar street). They were then tested for their memories of both the central objects in the pictures and the backgrounds in the scenes, either after 12 daytime hours, or 12 night-time hours, or 30 minutes after viewing the images, in either the morning or evening.  Those tested after 12 daytime hours largely forgot the entire negative scene, forgetting both the central objects and the backgrounds equally. But those tested after a night’s sleep remembered the emotional item (e.g., the smashed car) as well as those who were tested only 30 minutes later. Their memory of the neutral background was however, as bad as the daytime group. The findings are consistent with the view that the individual components of emotional memory become 'unbound' during sleep, enabling the brain to selectively preserve only that information it considers important.

[875] Payne, J. D., Stickgold R., Swanberg K., & Kensinger E. A.
(2008).  Sleep preferentially enhances memory for emotional components of scenes.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 19(8), 781 - 788.

Why emotion enhances memory

We know that emotion can increase the memorability of events, but we haven’t known exactly why it does so. Now a new study reveals that during emotional arousal, the stress hormone norepinephrine makes synapses dramatically more sensitive by increasing the number of GluR1 receptors.

[423] Hu, H., Real E., Takamiya K., Kang M-G., Ledoux J., Huganir R. L., et al.
(2007).  Emotion Enhances Learning via Norepinephrine Regulation of AMPA-Receptor Trafficking.
Cell. 131(1), 160 - 173.

How emotions interfere with memory

We know emotion can interfere with cognitive processes. Now an imaging study adds to our understanding of how that occurs. Emotional images evoked strong activity in typical emotional processing regions (amygdala and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) while simultaneously deactivating regions involved in memory processing (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and lateral parietal cortex). The researchers also found individual differences among the subjects in their response to the images. People who showed greater activity in a brain region associated with the inhibition of response to emotional stimuli rated the emotional distracters as less distracting.

[270] Dolcos, F., & McCarthy G.
(2006).  Brain Systems Mediating Cognitive Interference by Emotional Distraction.
J. Neurosci.. 26(7), 2072 - 2079.

Different aspects of attention located in different parts of the brain

We all know attention is important, but we’ve never been sure exactly what it is. Recent research suggests there’s good reason for this – attention appears to be multi-faceted, far less simple than originally conceived. Patients with specific lesions in the frontal lobes and other parts of the brain have provided evidence that different types of attentional problems are associated with injuries in different parts of the brain, suggesting that attention is not, as has been thought, a global process. The researchers have found evidence for at least three distinct processes, each located in different parts of the frontal lobes. These are: (1) a system that helps us maintain a general state of readiness to respond, in the superior medial frontal regions; (2) a system that sets our threshold for responding to an external stimulus, in the left dorsolateral region; and (3) a system that helps us selectively attend to appropriate stimuli, in the right dorsolateral region.

[260] Stuss, D. T., Binns M. A., Murphy K. J., & Alexander M. P.
(2002).  Dissociations within the anterior attentional system: effects of task complexity and irrelevant information on reaction time speed and accuracy.
Neuropsychology. 16(4), 500 - 513.

How emotions interfere with staying focused

In a new imaging study, Duke University researchers have shown how emotional stimuli and "attentional functions" like driving move in parallel streams through the brain before being integrated in a specific part of the brain's prefrontal cortex (the anterior cingulate, which is located between the right and left halves). Emotional stimuli are thus more likely than simple distractions to interfere with a person's efforts to focus on a task such as driving. These findings may help us understand the neural dynamics underlying emotional distractibility on attentional tasks in affective disorders.

[835] Yamasaki, H., LaBar K. S., & McCarthy G.
(2002).  Dissociable prefrontal brain systems for attention and emotion.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99(17), 11447 - 11451.

Cerebellum implicated in remembering emotions

The part of the brain known as the cerebellum has been most closely associated with motor coordination skills. Experiments with rats suggest that it may also be involved in remembering strong emotions, in particular, in the consolidation of long-term memories of fear.

[763] Sacchetti, B., Baldi E., Lorenzini C A., & Bucherelli C.
(2002).  Cerebellar role in fear-conditioning consolidation.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99(12), 8406 - 8411.

Amygdala may be critical for allowing perception of emotionally significant events despite inattention

We choose what to pay attention to, what to remember. We give more weight to some things than others. Our perceptions and memories of events are influenced by our preconceptions, and by our moods. Researchers at Yale and New York University have recently published research indicating that the part of the brain known as the amygdala is responsible for the influence of emotion on perception. This builds on previous research showing that the amygdala is critically involved in computing the emotional significance of events. The amygdala is connected to those brain regions dealing with sensory experiences, and the theory that these connections allow the amygdala to influence early perceptual processing is supported by this research. Dr. Anderson suggests that “the amygdala appears to be critical for the emotional tuning of perceptual experience, allowing perception of emotionally significant events to occur despite inattention.”

[968] Anderson, A. K., & Phelps E. A.
(2001).  Lesions of the human amygdala impair enhanced perception of emotionally salient events.
Nature. 411(6835), 305 - 309.

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A good mood reduces working memory capacity

April, 2011

A new study suggests a positive mood affects attention by using up some of your working memory capacity.

Following earlier research suggesting mood affects attention, a new study tries to pin down exactly what it’s affecting.

To induce different moods, participants were shown either a video of a stand-up comedy routine or an instructional video on how to install flooring. This was followed by two tests, one of working memory capacity (the Running Memory Span), during which numbers are presented through headphones at a rate of four numbers per second ending with subjects asked to recall the last six numbers in order, and one of response inhibition (the Stroop task).

Those that watched the comedy routine performed significantly worse on the RMS task but not on the Stroop task. To confirm these results, a second experiment used a different measure of response inhibition, the Flanker task. Again, those in a better mood performed worse on the span task but not the inhibition task.

These findings point to mood affecting storage capacity — something we already had evidence for in the case of negative mood, like anxiety, but a little more surprising to find it also applies to happy moods. Basically, it seems as if any emotion, whether good or bad, is likely to leave you less room in your working memory store for information processing. That shouldn’t be taken as a cue to go all Spock! But it’s something to be aware of.


[2180] Martin, E. A., & Kerns J. G.
(2011).  The influence of positive mood on different aspects of cognitive control.
Cognition & Emotion. 25(2), 265 - 265.



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A positive mood allows your brain to think more creatively

February, 2011

Students who watched a video of a laughing baby or listened to a peppy Mozart piece performed better on a classification task.

A link between positive mood and creativity is supported by a study in which 87 students were put into different moods (using music and video clips) and then given a category learning task to do (classifying sets of pictures with visually complex patterns). There were two category tasks: one involved classification on the basis of a rule that could be verbalized; the other was based on a multi-dimensional pattern that could not easily be verbalized.

Happy volunteers were significantly better at learning the rule to classify the patterns than sad or neutral volunteers. There was no difference between those in a neutral mood and those in a negative mood.

It had been theorized that positive mood might only affect processes that require hypothesis testing and rule selection. The mechanism by which this might occur is through increased dopamine levels in the frontal cortex. Interestingly, however, although there was no difference in performance as a function of mood, analysis based on how closely the subjects’ responses matched an optimal strategy for the task found that, again, positive mood was of significant benefit.

The researchers suggest that this effect of positive mood may be the reason behind people liking to watch funny videos at work — they’re trying to enhance their performance by putting themselves in a good mood.

The music and video clips were rated for their mood-inducing effects. Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik—Allegro” was the highest rated music clip (at an average rating of 6.57 on a 7-point scale), Vivaldi’s Spring was next at 6.14. The most positive video was that of a laughing baby (6.57 again), with Whose Line is it Anyway sound effects scoring close behind (6.43).


[2054] Nadler, R. T., Rabi R., & Minda J P.
(2010).  Better Mood and Better Performance.
Psychological Science. 21(12), 1770 - 1776.



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Natural scenes have positive impact on brain

October, 2010

Images of nature have been found to improve attention. A new study shows that natural scenes encourage different brain regions to synchronize.

A couple of years ago I reported on a finding that walking in the park, and (most surprisingly) simply looking at photos of natural scenes, could improve memory and concentration (see below). Now a new study helps explain why. The study examined brain activity while 12 male participants (average age 22) looked at images of tranquil beach scenes and non-tranquil motorway scenes. On half the presentations they concurrently listened to the same sound associated with both scenes (waves breaking on a beach and traffic moving on a motorway produce a similar sound, perceived as a constant roar).

Intriguingly, the natural, tranquil scenes produced significantly greater effective connectivity between the auditory cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, and between the auditory cortex and posterior cingulate gyrus, temporoparietal cortex and thalamus. It’s of particular interest that this is an example of visual input affecting connectivity of the auditory cortex, in the presence of identical auditory input (which was the focus of the research). But of course the take-home message for us is that the benefits of natural scenes for memory and attention have been supported.

Previous study:

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).


[1867] Hunter, M. D., Eickhoff S. B., Pheasant R. J., Douglas M. J., Watts G. R., Farrow T. F. D., et al.
(2010).  The state of tranquility: Subjective perception is shaped by contextual modulation of auditory connectivity.
NeuroImage. 53(2), 611 - 618.

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




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Background music can impair performance

August, 2010

Music may help you get in the mood for learning or intellectual work, but background music is likely to diminish your performance.

While studies have demonstrated that listening to music before doing a task can improve performance on that task, chiefly through its effect on mood, there has been little research into the effects of background music while doing the task. A new study had participants recall a list of 8 consonants in a specific order in the presence of five sound environments: quiet, liked music, disliked music, changing-state (a sequence of random digits such as "4, 7, 1, 6") and steady-state ("3, 3, 3"). The most accurate recall occurred when participants performed the task in the quieter, steady-state environments. The level of recall was similar for the changing-state and music backgrounds.

Mind you, this task (recall of random items in order) is probably particularly sensitive to the distracting effects of this sort of acoustical variation in the environment. Different tasks are likely to be differentially affected by background music, and I’d also suggest that the familiarity of the music, and possibly its predictability, also influence its impact. Personally, I am very aware of the effect of music on my concentration, and vary the music, or don’t play at all, depending on what I’m doing and my state of mind. I hope we’ll see more research into these variables.


[1683] Perham, N., & Vizard J.
(2010).  Can preference for background music mediate the irrelevant sound effect?.
Applied Cognitive Psychology. 9999(9999), n/a - n/a.




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