Category Archives: Tips and Advice

These posts take wisdom gained from cognitive research and apply it to life.


Over the past month, my daughter, Harper, has become increasingly vocal. Her speech has increased dramatically and she’s amazed her dad and I with how much she is able to remember. Lately, we tell her something just once, or just a couple of times, and she is able to repeat that word and remember it hours and even days later. She’s able to recall her animals and their sounds (cow, chicken, dog, cat, duck, sheep) after being told just once or twice. We even thought her “more” in sign language and some words in Spanish and she was able to recall either after once or twice of just telling her. It’s amazing to think that she’s already a-year-and-a-half and saying phrases such as, “bye, mama” and “hi, doggie.” Until you become a parent, you never truly understand how incredible it is to watch your little baby, now toddler, learn and discover things about the world.

Based on what we have learned during lecture, I started wondering how much of what Harper remembers are implicit memories and how much are explicit memories. As we learned, implicit memories are memories that are recalled without necessarily thinking about them. They are influenced and triggered by previous experiences no matter how long ago they occurred. One way to define implicit memories is by saying that we learn things without awareness—we have that memory stored, but we are not aware that it is a memory. On the other hand, explicit memories involve explicitly retrieving that memory from storage. These types of memories involve actively searching for that memory from the past and recalling it. It shocked me to learn that toddlers do not have explicit memories until they are about three to four years old. In Harper’s case, when we teach her a new word and recalls it weeks after or she sees her sippy cup and remembers that it is usually filled with her, “agua”, she is using her implicit memory.

Remarkably, an article from Today’s Parent mentions that children are actually able to retrieve explicit memories from toddlerhood, however most children forget these memories because they experience something called infantile amnesia. The article mentions that infants are able to experience explicit memories, but are unable to recall them later on in their lives because those explicit memories happened before that child had any language. As children get older, they begin to forget more and more memories from their childhood because of infantile amnesia.

I wonder if Harper will experience this childhood amnesia? Implicit memories are easily recalled because they are automatic, but how will her explicit memories be affected by childhood amnesia? A study done by the Psychology Department at the University of Otago in New Zealand sought to find out more about the childhood amnesia phenomenon. They observed that most children and adults have no recollection of their early childhood. Something that was very puzzling to them was the fact that although learning happens from birth on, yet the memories that are created from this early learning are somehow lost. Here is an excerpt from their findings:

“If forgetting occurs within days or weeks during early infancy, it is hardly surprising that those memories are unavailable when we try to access them after retention intervals of years (or decades)! Over the course of development, however, the forgetting function gradually flattens, increasing the accessibility of a given memory even after very long delays. Furthermore, even after forgetting has occurred, data collected using re- minder procedures has shown that the accessibility of the representation varies dramatically as a function of age. Older infants retrieve their memories more quickly, over longer delays, and once retrieved, maintain them for longer periods of time.”


A closer look into road rage: How and why it happens

As we were discussing driving the other day, I noticed that almost everyone raised their hand when Dr. Rettinger asked whether we had been driving for more than five years. This leads me to assume that at some point within those five years we have all, at least once, been the victim of road rage or have been the source of someone else’s road rage. In simple terms, rage road is angry or aggressive behavior displayed by a driver as a result of something that negatively impacted their driving experience. Road rage can simply be an unkind hand gesture, insult, or even physical violence.

In an attempt to better understand why road rage exists, Dr. Reidbord looked our perception. Perception, another important topic with have discussed in class, essentially describes our mental interpretation and representation of the stimuli we perceive.  What Dr. Reidbord found is that the cause of road rage is almost never the actual offensive that the victim experiences. In other words, road rage is rarely the result of being cut off, slow drivers, or almost crashing. Instead, it is the interpretation of our perception of the offensive that causes road rage. To exemplify this, when you get passed on I-95 and the driver almost hits your car as he passes, you immediately view that driver as having no respect for you. One assumes that the other driver just views his or her own time as being more valuable and that they do not care about anyone else’s wellbeing. It turns out this mindset is very commonly the cause of road rage.

One factor that furthers our road rage is that there is no easy way to communicate with the aggressive driver. There is no easy way to tell whether the driver that just cut us off did so because they are a terrible human being or because they are trying to rush to the hospital. Since we tent to paint the actions of other drivers as being intentional and malicious, it’s rather easy to see how most road rage is a self-product of our own mind.  This knowledge of our tendency to assume the worst of other drivers can help us control our road rage. It is research like that of Dr. Reidbord and many others that are actually influencing how driver’s education courses are being taught.

A couple summers ago, I had to take a driver’s improvement course for a speeding ticket I received. One of the things I vividly remember the instructor discussing in the course was the different methods for reducing road rage. The first tip was to change how we perceive the actions of others. This program urged drivers to shift from an accusatory mindset to one that gives other drivers the benefit of the doubt. This goes back to the idea of being able to find positive reasoning for the actions of other drivers.

I think the influence of perception is very interesting. Much like Dr. Reidbord states, further examining our perception can also help us understand why we get angry when someone brings more than 15 items into the 15 items or less lane at Walmart. Overall, I believe that by devoting more time to studying perception we can advance our understanding with regards to why human beings respond to the world around them in the way that they do.


Attention Blink and ADHD



People who have ADHD are more likely to experience difficulties with the attention blink test.  Due to their difficulty to stare at a fixed space and attention deficit they miss more letter sequences. 



To put this into perspective, this can be applied to the real world for any given person in circumstances such as if a driver in front of you is swerving off the road, you will briefly become focused on that catastrophe (attention blink) in the making and lose sight of the specific details of the traffic around you in that moment.  I can only imagine how difficult it may be for a student in a classroom that is not on ADHD medication and is trying to pay attention to a lecture but sees phones lighting up with notifications or hears students talking outside in the hallway.

As someone who has ADHD (not on medication) this makes sense to me.  When doing the attention blink test on the Zaps program used in my Cognitive Psychology class there was a continuous stream of 80 different tests.  I found myself fidgeting in my seat and having to take breaks.  It made me feel irritable and impatient and I had a hard time finding the first letter in the sequence for the first few trials.  Eventually I sort of picked it up but I struggled finding a second letter in the sequence.




Saving and spending seems to be something that any college student would be willing to do. Make that a college student with a 16-month-old at home (that’s me!) and you will scour the internet for anything on how to spend less and save more. Part of my weekly routine before grocery shopping is looking at grocery store flyers to see which store has the cheapest berries (my daughter’s favorite), where I can buy organic and not the break the bank, and where I can get chicken and ground turkey (a Ware family staple) cheap by the pound. Spending less and saving more seems simple enough; just spend less on what need and you will save more in the long run. However, as “Want to Save more? Try Making It Automatic” tells us, “the field of psychology has shown most of us tend to overvalue the short-term over the much hazier long-term.” As the article states, this explains why we choose to eat the chocolate cake now and not think about improved health, or why we choose to splurge on something now, rather than saving for later. Having to think about willpower can become useless, especially if willpower is what we rely on for long-term decisions. So, does my daughter really need another cute set of pajamas? Does my husband really need more socks (he’s really particular when it comes to socks) even though we just bought some last week? Or do I spend less by not getting useless things so that I can save more for the future? How can I not rely solely on willpower to make this happen?

So, what does this have to do with cognitive psychology? As cognitive researchers and behavioral economists have discovered, “we set ourselves up for more cognitive fatigue if we have to make a choice to, say, spend less and save more—repeatedly.” It is simply taxing for our brain to have to make the conscious effort to make short term decisions repeatedly. Instead, they suggest different long-term techniques we could apply when making the decision to save more. Interestingly, they suggest that one should adopt “a plan that sets you up for repeated saving or spending.” All of these saving techniques deal with boosting contributions to retirement plans and 401(k) plans (something I am not a pro at) and the spending less techniques deals with examining your habits. Think about what you are spending extra money on. First, do not eat out all the time. Cancel the recurring monthly charge of $1.99 for those magazines you don’t even read. You don’t need to buy another pair of headphones because you think you “lost” your other pair. Second, stay away from the word upgrade. This is just a ploy from tech companies to get you to buy even more expensive junk. And most importantly, if you are really thinking of spending, go and shop for something in person. You become more aware of what you’re purchasing and for how much. Shopping on line makes it easier for you to just click it and forget it.


Returning to an Unchanged Place Reveals How You Have Changed

Nelson Mandela once said-“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to see the ways that you yourself have changed.”

I wanted to write my last blog post about remembrance and change. The returning to a place that we have once been to realize the changes and experiences we’ve gone through since we left. I write this for the graduating seniors as well as everyone else on our campus who has experienced an incredibly difficult semester.

There are things about returning to a familiar place that trigger memories within us. I know for me personally there is a perfume that is cucumber and melon that I wore one summer while on a trip to an Indian reservation in Montana. I still have the same bottle and when I wear it occasionally I remember vividly the experiences I had there of walking through yellow stone park or climbing up the side of a mountain to a secret site where people would meditate and fast for days at a time. These types of things are called Engrams. We experience them then as external stimuli allows for memories that are stored as “biophysical or biochemical changes in the brain” respond to things such as sight, smell etc…

In the article that I read about returning to unchanged places I thought of how many of us will be leaving Mary Washington very soon, within two weeks as we graduate on Ball Circle. I wonder how we will feel about this place five, ten or twenty years from now. Much of it I hope will remain the same like it has with the original parts of campus but I’m sure a lot will be different as we expand. That is the part I look forward to with engrams; the flashbacks to old memories when we come back one day and allowing the old memories and new memories combine and modify our neural networks that allow us to remain connected to the past.

The article also discussed Olfaction which it labels as out oldest primal sense. This is where the power of smell can be used to bring back powerful memories, some of which can be brought up in PTSD.  Although  there can be a negative memory associated with is “that remains unchanged and has deeply rooted negative associations—that it creates a window of opportunity to weave in positive associations and dilute the traumatic associations held in the engram.”

It is my hope that many of us have learned in this class how memory works, how our attention is processed and how our thoughts are formed. I hope that we can come back to Mary Washington and remember everything good about this place. May it be the smell of freshly cut grass even though the mowers were annoying at 6am, or the sodexo burgers being grilled out on Ball in the Fall and Spring. We can come back and help create out engrams with the new memories that we make from reminiscing on the old.





How to Chillax

Have you ever been so stressed in a situation that you don’t even know how to function? You walk into a stressful situation having a game plan, but then you freeze and the plan goes down the drain. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

I read an article by Psychology Today that discussed Dr. Charles A. Morgan of Yale Medical School and his research on the people who encounter possibly the most stressful situations possible: the Army Special Forces. The soldiers he researched were participating in mock prisoner-of-war camps as part of their survival training. In the training, soldiers were exposed to extremely realistic simulations in which they experienced the fear, anger, and adrenaline rush of real combat. Morgan measured a chemical in the soldiers’ brains called neuropeptide Y (NPY) that regulates blood pressure and works as a tranquilizer in the brain to control anxiety and break down the effects of stress hormones, such as adrenaline (epinephrine). NPY is also responsible for regulating alarm and fear responses. He found that soldiers in the survival training of the Special Forces had significantly greater levels of NPY in their brains than regular troops, allowing them to feel less anxiety and fear. As well as having more NPY in their systems, the Special Forces troops showed the ability to return to regular levels of NPY less than 24 hours after the simulations, rather than the regular troops who took longer to return back to normal.

Why did the simulation seem to have so much of an effect on the Special Forces? The answer is a topic we learned about in class: state-dependent learning. “State-dependent learning is a phenomenon in which the retrieval of information is better if the subject is in the same sensory context and physiological state as during the encoding phase” (Shulz, Sosnik, Ego, Haidarliu, & Ahissar, 2000). Because the special forces had previously been put into the stressful situation of simulated combat, they were able to perform better and remain focused under such stressful circumstances. Essentially, state dependent learning is like practice for your brain. Although putting yourself in stressful situations or experiencing adrenaline rushes does not sound enjoyable to all, it will allow you to make clearer decisions and react effectively in real situations in which your stress levels are high, rather than letting the adrenaline shut you down. When we experience big adrenaline rushes, we typically drop our “game plans” as said before and focus on “fight or flight”.

This is where the adrenaline junkies in the classroom will be happy! Seeking out adrenaline rushes has shown to be effective in allowing for better brain processing and decision making in times of intense stress or fear. Now I’m not saying that you should start putting yourself in danger, but things like skydiving, bungee jumping, making a big speech, or riding a roller coaster– all things I know I’m not fond of– would give you experience in dealing with adrenaline rushes so if, God forbid, you were ever in a life or death situation or even something that is just personally stressful to you, you will more easily be able to stay calm and be rational. The article I read also gave tips as to how to stay as calm as possible when seeking out adrenaline rushes:

    1. Breathe deeply in and out through your nose. Do not hyperventilate or hold your breath,
    2. Exercise your peripheral vision – be aware of your surroundings,
    3. Listen to the sounds around you and hear what people are saying,
    4. Try to perform the task a correctly as possible,
    5. Calm yourself down afterward
    6. Focus on what you accomplished and what you can improve

Do it again. Have more fun and less anxiety.

Good luck, but be safe! It’ll just get easier with time! May the odds be ever in your favor.


Can Art Improve Cognition?

Being interested in art and music has many more positive sides than many people would believe. Something that intrigues me is the idea that art, music and performing arts could improve cognitive functioning. Could engaging in visual arts or music have an effect on cognition?


The answer is yes! There are many benefits of art for the brain and cognition. The arts can influence many cognitive processes. An extensive amount of research has been done by several scientists teaming together, and there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that art and music really effectively help improve cognitive abilities such as learning, attention, motivation and intelligence. The first finding was that performance in art leads to higher motivation in individuals and in turn produces sustained attention. This higher motivation and attention can lead to better performance in school. These qualities in kids were found to lead to better performance on intelligence test scores. Another finding was that high levels of music training lead to a vast improvement in working memory and long-term memory and an ability to manipulate the information in each domain.

Another finding of the scientist’s studies was that practicing music could lead to greater skills in geometrical representation, greater reading skills, and sequence learning. It has also been found that early music training leads to earlier ability to read and greater phonological awareness or speech production and perception. Training in acting was found to lead to better memory, specifically improvement of semantic memory.


Other studies have found that there was a significant improvement in psychological resilience as well as increased levels of functional connectivity in the brain amongst people who participated in the visual arts. Also mentioned was that making art could even delay or reverse age related decline of many brain functions.

Art can help improve so many cognitive skills such as reading, math, critical thinking, memory and attention. So why are schools not as focused on art education as we are in other fields? According to all this research, it would be incredibly beneficial for schools to keep art and music at the forefront of education along with all the other important subjects that we learn in school like English and math, since art can help you with other domains of school. Finally, art can even improve mental and emotional health.


Art has been found to decrease negative emotions and help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. This is the reason art therapy can be so useful to people struggling with mental health issues. Doing art helps reduce so many of the negative symptoms associated with mental illness.

So, as we can see from overwhelming evidence from many studies, participating in arts- whichever one you enjoy most: visual arts, performing arts, or music is highly beneficial for the brain, cognition and health in general. So whichever art form is your favorite, make sure to continue with it because it has so many positive effects on many aspects of your life!


Where did I park again??

We’ve all done it. In fact, I did it just last week. When walking to my car after class, I got to the space on College Avenue where I had parked earlier that morning, and it was gone. After a brief moment of panicking and wondering if I had parked illegally and been towed, I realized that the reason my car wasn’t there was because I had parked it further down the street and forgotten. Why would I have thought that my car was parked in one place instead of another? Simple: Proactive Interference.

Proactive Interference refers to the inability to remember new information due to interference by old information. In this case, I was unable to remember where I had parked my car because old information about where I had parked it previously was interfering. Not being able to find my car is just one of many instances where proactive interference can occur. Ever try to get into a new locker using last year’s code? Or have you ever had difficulty remembering when your appointment for next week is because you can only recall this week’s appointment time?Proactive interference is prevalent in our day to day lives, and while it isn’t necessarily harmful, it can be a nuisance. For me, it meant having to walk the other direction clear to the other end of College Ave., making me late for meeting a friend.


So how do we overcome this problem? Research published in 2010 found that individuals who have prior experience with proactive interference and were given feedback have the best chance of overcoming it later on. For one experiment, participants were split into two groups. Both groups were given practice rounds for learning word pairs. Each were then asked to recall the proper word pairs and give a confidence estimate about how correct they believed they were. The first groups received no corrective feedback following the confidence rating and was immediately given a new word pair. The second group, however, received corrective feedback after each confidence rating. At the end of the first round, the second group was told how many total ‘points’ they had earned for that round before moving on to round two.

The group that received corrective feedback and was told their point total was able to more effectively avoid problems with proactive interference – even when the task difficulty was upped in a second experiment! So what does this mean for us? While we don’t live in a lab situation where someone can give us corrective feedback 24/7, we can be more conscious in situations we know this tends to happen in. For me, I now make an effort whenever I park in the morning or  re-park in the afternoon to take note of exactly where I parked so I’m not just going off old information later.

Research can be found at:



YOLO Generation and Regret

Some would call us the YOLO generation- and anyone with even the slightest knowledge of American pop culture might readily agree. Live hard live good have fun live like it’s your last night! Just do it, Nike tells us! You only live once, twitter hashtags reply! And Ke$ha plays in the background, telling us we need to “make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young!”

Our culture encourages us to live life without regrets, and adores a lifestyle that emphasizes hedonistic pleasures and living in the moment. Regret is negative, we tell ourselves. Why bother with it? After all, regret is just a wasted emotion- we can’t change the past. What’s the point?

An article in Psychology Today seeks to answer that question.

We have all experienced regret. It is a painful cognitive/emotional state that involves feelings of loss and/or sorrow over choices and past decisions that we wish we could undo. However, while regret is a negative emotion, it can also be a helpful one.

Regret can play in important role in several behavioral functions. Chief among them, regret can be very important in making corrective action and avoiding future negative behaviors. By regretting a past choice, we can more easily resolve not to repeat the same action (or series of actions) in the future. In this sense, regret can be extremely valuable in redirecting one’s life path, such as an addict seeking help due to regret over his or her previous actions.

Especially for young people with the rest of their lives ahead of them, regret can also be helpful in other regards, in addition to motivating positive actions. Researcher Neal Roese found that young people ranked regret as the most helpful of all negative emotions in five functions: making sense of the world, avoiding future negative behaviors, gaining insight, achieving social harmony, and improving ability to approach desired opportunities. Essentially, regret can help motivate us to pursue our dreams and ambitions, get a more realistic sense of the world, and avoid repeating previous (unhealthy) mistakes.

Obviously however, regret is not all positive. Excessive fixation and rumination on the past can lead to chronic stress that negatively impacts both mind and body. Self-blame and fruitless regret can be extraordinarily unhealthy, and can be correlated with depression. Additionally, the easier it is to envision a different outcome- and the easier it is to image what you could have done differently to advert it- the more regret we are likely to have. This is a result of the cognitive process of counterfactual thinking. Hindsight is always 20/20.

However, even the negative feelings associated with regret can be mitigated with the help of cognitive techniques. There are several ways to cope with regret, including trying to learn from it, make sure you are not blaming yourself excessively, and reframing the situation in a more positive light.

However ultimately, if there is nothing you can do to change the situation, let it go. Perhaps YOLO did get something right.

Cell Phone Apocalypse?

Imagine yourself bench sitting on a beautiful day out and you look up and you see student after student mindlessly walking on campus walk with their heads bowed down- bumping into poles, falling down stairs, and even running into other people. BUT the weird thing is that after they run into things whether it be a pole, a tree, or other people, they go right back to putting their heads down and walking mindlessly.

Are you in the middle of a zombie apocalypse? No you’re witnessing a different kind- the 21st century cell phone apocalypse. 

If you are like the majority of the people today, you are constantly on your phone. This is extremely distracting and most especially with finals week coming up, it is much harder to resist the temptation to waste countless hours on twitter, instagram, facebook, etc.

According to a study done by researchers Przybylski and Weinstein, the mere presence of a cell phone during a social interaction in which individuals are having a casual conversation led people to have lower trust and an overall lower quality of relationship. So, due to this, cell phones have been found to impede human social interaction.

But despite this, according to the Student Science website, the average college student still uses their cell phone fore about NINE hours each day. This article also puts into perspective that If you think about it, the average college student spends more time on their cell phones than they do sleeping!

James Roberts, a marketing professor at Baylor University associates cell phone use with addiction. Yes, a behavioral addiction! People panic when their batteries die or when there’s no service. Roberts ties this in with symptoms of withdrawal that is seen in many if not all addiction problems. A newly coined term called ringxiety has also made its way to popular culture which is when you think that your phone is ringing or vibrating when in reality is isn’t.

So, the big question is- how can we rely less on our cell phones? Again, especially with finals week coming up and us college students need to stay focused

Webmd offers three basic tips that people could follow in order to better manage their time better with their cell phone use- they can do this by being conscious, strong, and disciplined. 

1.) Being conscious– of all situations and emotions that you feel whenever you feel as if you have to check your phone, such as boredom, loneliness, or procrastination, you can find something else that would fill your time that is much more productive.
2.) Being strong- whenever your phone beeps or rings. This allows you to manage your time better and not losing track of time when you do check it. Try turning of the sound and the vibration so you aren’t tempted to check your phone every single time it goes off.
3.) Being disciplined- in certain situations where you should not be using your cell phone such as in class, when you are driving, and especially right before you go to bed.

Yes, it seems to be easier said than done. However, although it’s hard- trust me I have tried to follow these 3 steps. You can always start small. I started putting my phone away for 5, then 10, then 15 minutes when I’m studying and I have personally seen the increase in my productivity with my work. So next time you’re itching to grab that phone, try silencing it for a couple minutes and resisting the urge to go on social media. According to the article, you will not only be able to concentrate better but you will also feel less stressed and more relaxed.

*Even if it’s only for 5 minutes a day 🙂