Author Archives: acaudle

Does Passionate Love Reduce Cognitive Ability?

Most of us, at some point of our lives, have experienced the feelings accompanied by finding a new love. Compassionate love has been associated with intimacy and commitment, two aspects that contribute to long-term relationships. But passionate love is thought to play a central role in forming a relationship with a partner by becoming attracted to that individual. Passionate love usually involves enhanced, near-obsessive attention to the beloved. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the lover’s concentration for daily tasks, like studying and work, may actually be impaired, suggesting reduced cognitive control.

This study, conducted by Steenbergen, et al (2014), looks to find empirical evidence to suggest that new, passionate love can effect an individual’s cognitive ability. They had fifty one participants take the passionate love scale as well as conducting both the Stroop and flanker tasks. These two tasks assess the individual ability to attend to relevant information while filtering out distracting, irrelevant spatial and semantic information. Effects on a Stroop task may reflect response inhibition whereas effects on the flanker task might reflect a modulation of the visuo-spatial focus of attention.

The participants, all of whom had to recently fallen in love within the last six months, received task instructions that emphasized speed and accuracy. They then proceeded to practice the Stroop and flanker tasks, which included performance feedback. The participants where then asked to imagine and write about an appropriate romantic event from their past, or focus on a romantic vignette. During this ten minute period, the participants were also listening to their own favorite love-related music through headphones. This ten minute period was to evoke intense feelings of romance. Participants then performed a block of 72 trials for each task, and the order of the tasks were counterbalanced across the participants.

The results of this study showed a negative correlation between passionate love and cognitive ability. Though the study could not express causation since it is a correlational study, there seems to be a strong relationship between passionate love and impaired cognitive control. This suggests that when we are in love, we are not able to focus and attend to the environment around us. When we are consciously aware of the love, our unconscious awareness takes away from our automaticity.

A perfect study would be a more longitudinal study in which participants would be asked to take the Stroop and flanker tasks before ever falling in love. Then, once they do, have them undergo a similar romance evoking situation, and then have them retake the Stroop and flanker tests. This way, participants do not have as much of a range in time they had fallen in love. Also, since all love is not the same, having the participants take more than just the passionate love scale could be beneficial. Brain studies would also be helpful as different forms of love have different systems and neurochemicals within the brain.

van Steenbergen, H., Langeslag, S. J. E., Band, G. P. H., & Hommel, B. (2014). Reduced cognitive control in passionate lovers. Motivation and Emotion, 38(3), 444-450. doi:10.1007/s11031-013-9380-3

Can You Think Too Much?


Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands have discovered that thinking too much about a certain task can actually lead to negative effects. Psychologists Bruno Bocanegra and Bernhard Hommel’s research suggests that under some circumstances, performance can decline if you exercise too much cognitive control. This finding calls into question the traditional ideas of thinking, namely more cognitive effort, should lead to a better result. Their research shows that if the environment already offers enough information for the cognitive system to carry out the task on “automatic pilot” then the less cognitive effort, the better the result of the task.

If you have experience in driving a stick-shift car, then you have likely experienced this effect. After knowing and continually driving the car, you get use to knowing when to push in the clutch and shift, and you have no difficulty in reacting to situations, like stopping quickly. But as soon as you consciously think about how to do a hill start. Now your mental effort disrupts your automatic skills, and rather than having no trouble, you can feel your car start to roll on the hill. Or when you play the piano or are touch-typing. As soon as you exercise cognitive mental control over the task you break the chain of automatic actions. Bocanegra states that “cognitive control is effective until you have mastered something and your skills have become automatic.”

They conducted research by asking participants to make mental efforts while carrying out a simple computer task. They were asked to click either the left or right button, depending on the stimulus given. Without the participant knowing, the task was manipulated so that color always predicted the correct answer. Contrary to what traditional ideas about mental effort states, the research found that the predicting information of color had a negative effect on the performance of the task.

I would like to see more studies done on automatic tasks. I think there is potential that there is retrieval problems when consciously thinking about a task that was encoded contextually and is now automatic. The study here was not well described and I would like to read more about the methodology and see the statistical results. I think it is true that when we are aware of the usually automatic task and we try to do it consciously, that we make more errors. I would like to see if this is a problem between incidental and intentional learning; that when you take an incidentally learned task, like touch-typing that just comes from typing often, and make it intentional, does that cause for interference because the retrieval pathways are not efficient? Or is it a problem of maintenance rehearsal because the information is staying active?

Distractions While Driving

As we all know, talking on the cell phone while driving is very risky, causing many more distracted driving accidents a year. When dividing our attention we experience interference in the tasks. Specificity of Resources says that the more different the tasks being done, such as knitting and listening to a lecture, should be easily done for the tasks do not require the same resources. All language-based resources would be used for the lecture, but are not needed for the knitting. However, task similarity is not the only thing that matters for divided attention. If specificity is the only thing that contributes to attention, then driving while talking on the cell phone should not matter for they use different resources, language skills for communicating, and hand-eye coordination for driving. However, it is obvious that driving while on the phone does effect capability. General Resources and Executive Control can help explain why this is. This explains attention like a “bank,” that we only have a certain amount of resource availability, and it is difficult to divide across tasks regardless of how different the tasks are.

This study looks at driving and many distraction s while doing so such as talking on the cell phone, interacting with passengers, applying make-up, tail-gating, etc. Virginia Tech Transportation Institute researchers used results from the Second Strategic Highway Research Program Naturalistic Driving Study. “The naturalistic driving study involves equipping volunteer participants’ vehicles with unobtrusive instrumentation – cameras, sensors, and radars – that continuously collects real-world driver performance and behavior.” They had over 3500 participants who participated between one and two years each. They found that activities that require the drivers to take their eyes off the road, such as reading or writing, reaching for an object, or using a handheld phone, increase crash risk. The researchers collected more than 1600 verified crash events ranging in severity from low, like curb strikes, to severe, including police reported crashes. In the high severity crashes involving injury or property damage, nearly 90% of the drivers were fatigued, had impairments, or were distracted. The purpose of the study was to increase awareness amongst policymakers, educators, law enforcement, and vehicle designers.

There are a few problems with this study though. The fact that they were volunteers means that the participants likely were better drivers than the general public. Since the study was not a direct experiment, but more of an observational study, causation cannot be claimed. It can be inferred however, since there are many studies that show distractions while driving increase risks. I would also like to know where they did the study, whether it was across different states, or all in the same general area. In order to use the statistics found for the general population, the participants should be from different generations and from different areas. The study says that the factors analyzed were compared to episodes of model driving, or episodes in which the drivers were verified to be alert, attentive, and sober,” but does not say how this was verified.

The Yin and Yang of Sleep and Attention

Emerging scientific evidence is suggesting that sleep serves several distinct functions. We have all experienced the bad days in school and at work when we didn’t get enough sleep the night before and we have a hard time focusing. In animals like worms with simple nervous systems, sleep-like states are associated with development and environmental stress, while animals like mammals and humans, sleep also has a major role in supporting cognitive processes, such as learning and attention. The need for sleep is increased by behaviors that require selective attention and operant learning. So, Leonie Kirszenblat hypothesizes that though sleep and attention have been viewed as fundamentally different states, they may involve similar mechanisms for suppressing external stimuli.

In her study at the Queensland Brain Institute in Australia, PhD student Kirszenblat says that since sleep and attention have mutual effects on each other, they seem to be complementary like the yin and yang of Chinese Philosophy in which contrary forces combine to create harmony. “This is a revolutionary way of thinking about how the brain works during sleep and wakefulness,” Kirszenblat’s supervisor, Professor Bruno Van Swinderen said, “Although sleep and attention seem like opposite brain states, they both essentially help an animal to ignore the outside world.”

An idea has been emerging that suggests that sleep is inextricably linked with synaptic plasticity (the strengthening or weakening of synapses in the nervous system as a result of experience). So if sleep is linked to plasticity, what is the consequence of losing sleep? Obviously one effect of having a bad night’s sleep is the inability to pay attention effectively the next day. Kirszenblat found that when we are sleep deprived, our reaction times are much slower and behaviors become unstable and unpredictable. But though attention is affected, basic sensory responses, such as vision and auditory processing, remain largely intact. Sleep deprivation also affects our ability to deal with large amounts of information, and disrupts functional connectivity between different brain regions. Kirszenblat also held experiments on sleep and learning processes and found that learning processes that require more attention amd more coordinated activity across the brain have a greater dependency on sleep.

Looking at her study, it is obvious that sleep affects our attention. However, she has done very little research in seeing whether attention affects our sleep. In order for her to state that attention and sleep act like yin and yang, attention must also play an important role in regulating our sleeping patterns. Though attention may affect sleep, Kirszenblat did not do any experiments on this idea, she focused heavily on the sleep side of her argument. Further research needs to be done in order to say that attention affects sleep.

Kirszenblat, L. (2015). The Yin and Yang of Sleep and Attention. In Trends in      Neurosciences (Vol. 38, pp. 776-786). Netherlands: Elsevier Science.