Tag Archives: attention

Spring 2015

I’m not the first one to say this and I certainly won’t be the last, but this wasn’t the best semester for anyone here at UMW. We’ve had some tough losses, but as Eagles we need to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off in order to finish this last week up strong. But all the events going on got me thinking about what the actual effect of grief is on cognition. We know it makes us more depressed, obviously, but does it have an effect on any other area of cognition?

The first step is to take a look at the effects that Depression has on the brain and how that can affect students in the first place. It’s important to note that 1 in 10 college students has Depression, so we need to rule out the group of students with symptoms already associated with it. This handy article tells us all we need to know about the symptoms. Emotionally, it causes stress and anxiety with no identifiable cause. Cognitively, it causes the person to be less alert and have more trouble making basic decisions and even paying attention, which leads to more stress.

Now that we’ve got the baseline down, let’s head to the grieving process. According to this article, grief may be a major cause of Depression. This is most likely because the two have so many symptoms in common, but let’s keep going further. Around the time a loved one is lost, a person’s thoughts tend to revolve around that person. They wonder why and how they passed, what they could have done to prevent it, how they’ll go on without them, etc. These thoughts eventually become intrusive and tend to overtake the mind, leading to attention deficits in everyday interactions. The afflicted person finds themselves always reverting back to thinking about their loved one, and it only stops when they seek help. In serious cases, a griever may begin to hallucinate about the deceased in order to cope with the loss and fill a void left by them. The realization that the hallucinations are in fact just that causes the feelings of depression to resume at a much deeper level.

In the DSM-4, bereavement is defined as something that “may be a focus of clinical attention.” That’s it. Holly G. Prigerson, a psychologist focused on grief studies, wanted to push the DSM-5 to acknowledge the cognitive effects of grief, saying “We knew that grief predicted a lot of bad outcomes—over and above depression and anxiety—and thought it was worthy of clinical attention in its own right.” So does this mean that grief is actually above Depression and that it’s actually one of the causes? Well, duh. However, just because one causes the other does not necessarily mean that the treatments will be the same. This article states that “grief is tied to a particular event […] whereas the origins of a bout of clinical depression are often more obscure. Antidepressants do not ease the longing for the deceased that grievers feel. So in most cases, treating grieving people for depression is ineffective.”

So, what does this all mean? It means we need to take care of ourselves, fellow Eagles. We’ve been through some tough times and they’re going to take a toll on us cognitively, possibly even leading to some more serious conditions if left untreated. Seek help, talk to someone you trust, or by all means utilize the campus resources offered to us all. That one session with a counselor might make the difference between being cognitively aware during your final exams and being completely spaced out.

Is Your Brain Weird?

It is, according to this Buzzfeed article. The article is entitled “11 Memory Facts That Prove Your Brain Is Weird.” The article talks about weird memory phenomena, like false memories and context-dependent memories. Along with each fact is a description and a nifty GIF of a fuzzy animal or a movie quote. So that’s pretty cool. But even cooler, unlike many social media mentions of cognition, this article actually backs its assertions up with real cognitive research! I’ll take you through a few of the mentioned memory facts, summarizing their points, and then I’ll analyze their respective research articles.

open-door-day-samo-za-vjesti-1First, the Buzzed article talks about that familiar sensation of walking into a room and totally forgetting why you had to go to that room. In this study by Gabriel Radvansky, participants were given tasks to complete in a virtual reality comprised of many rooms. Each room had two tables with an object on one table. They had to carry the object to the other table or into another room, but once holding it, they couldn’t see it any longer. They would be tested frequently on which object they were holding and which they had just put down. Participants performed much more poorly on memory tasks when they had just crossed through a door than when they had traveled the same distance but remained in the same room.

This study made me think of memory tasks where participants forget details of a story (the bus driver example) because their brain automatically makes the call about what information is important and what isn’t, without the person actually deciding, and doesn’t encode the irrelevant info into long term memory. Similarly, in this study, participants’ brains recognize the doorway as a marker of the end of an episode. The door serves as an event boundary, so the brain decides which information is no longer likely going to be relevant, and it is dropped from the working memory in preparation for new, more relevant information in the new room. This is an example of our brain jumping the gun and automating a process to save us time, attention, and effort. When it works to our advantage, it’s great, and we don’t notice it. When it doesn’t, however, we forget why we came into a room and get really frustrated!

RV-AB577_WEEKIN_DV_20110208191537Another weird memory fact mentioned in the Buzzfeed article is that closing your eyes can help you remember more effectively. In a recall study, participants were shown a video and then reported on it (free or cued recall). They were tested a few minutes later and again a week later. Some participants had their eyes open during recall tests, and others had their eyes closed. The study found that eye-closure had no effect on recall in the first test, but increased accuracy on the second test by 37%. It even helped participants recall things they hadn’t reported the first time.

What is causing this phenomenon? My first inclination is to think it has something to do with attention. We learned in class that attention is a resource (why else do we say “pay” attention?). This resource is limited, and our brains can only consciously focus on so many things at once. Perhaps something about closing our eyes helps limit which stimuli are demanding our attention, and allows us to focus inwardly and more effectively recall previously encoded information. The study mentions also that eye-closure only helps us with “fine-grain visual details,” not overall big picture, or even auditory details. This indicates that the effectiveness of eye closing has to do with how we encode information. When the information we encode is very visual (the example in the study is “she elbowed him in the face”), closing our eyes allows us to relive the moment and re-visualize what occurred. This improves recall.

I found this article to be very interesting. Memory is complicated and messy, and that makes it always worth studying. I especially appreciated the references to how our brain automates complicated processes in order to make our experience more simple and streamlined. We’ve learned a lot about this trend in class, and seeing it at work in memory was interesting. In some ways, it departed from the usual social media science article, which tends to throw out crazy facts with vague research backing it up. The article provided direct links to cognitive research that supported its assertions. My only issue with the article was the way it approached some of the research findings. It seemed that the author was more focused on the “wow” factor of its studies than in actually imparting the main points of the research studies. In the eye-closing study, for example, many interesting findings were left out of the Buzzfeed summary in favor of the more simple, attractive finding. Overall, however, I liked this article.

It’s Groovy, Baby.

You ever have a song stuck in your head or found yourself bobbing your head to music playing in the background? How about get so moved by music you spontaneously break out into dance because you can’t stop your body from feeling the groove?  According to the study I read, this is due to the brain’s attention system in conjunction with an individual interaction with the music.  This cognitive processes is called sensorimotor coupling, the attentional engagement of an individual due to their mental arousal of music.  You synchronize your body readily to music due to sensorimotor coupling.  This works best when the music has good attentional capture, the unintentional change of attention by a change in stimulus, this could interrupt other processing.  Spontaneous sensorimotor coupling with a music related study showed to have positive affects (the internal feeling state when a goal has been reached, a threat has been avoided, or a feeling of content with present state of affairs.)

I was interested in this article because I love to dance and I often do get lost in this so called “groove.” I find myself bobbing my head, tapping my foot, or (given the right environment) spontaneously interpretive dancing to whatever jam is playing. This is all due to the attentional capture of the song. For example, the beat or the swell of the chorus that catches our attention and (whether we are “paying attention” to it or not) we get carried by the music.  This happens more easily in individuals whose response selector more readily recognises it as music to groove to.  Automaticity plays into this too by becoming an unconscious, spontaneous reaction to hearing the music.  This is more prominent in musically trained individuals and those who dance (trained/untrained dancers) this is referred to as muscle memory (automaticity of spontaneous rehearsed movements).

So what causes this groove?  Why do we get so much enjoyment out of moving our bodies freely to music?  It’s obvious that music has it’s own individual formula for what’s “good music?”  We already know that music and sensorimotor coupling combined have positive affects and we like that it makes us feel good.  According to the study, we enjoy a good, steady beat just as much as the next aspiring club DJ, but we enjoy asymmetry in music as well.  The more complex the music (while still sounding like music of course) increases the stimulus intensity, which arouses our mind more.  Giving way to more spontaneous sensorimotor movement and more readily engages listeners to move (aka feel the groove).

This study concluded that the relationship between complex musical scenes and attentional engagement was shown in spontaneous sensorimotor coupling and emotion (positive and happy emotions).  The more complex and emotional the song, the more easily it would grab our attention, invoking the spontaneous and emotional groove where the music could “carry the body”.  This ability to feel the groove was rated, on average, the same for musically trained and non-musically trained individuals.  For those individuals who had a hard time finding the groove, they became a phenomenon referred to as “beat deafness.”  These individuals moved slower and rated to feel the groove lower than average.  They also had a difficult time synchronizing with the beats. This was shown to be a task-specific sensorimotor deficit.  To conclude myself, I found this study so interesting.  The fact that they would put this much effort into learning the connections of the mind with music.  Music has long been used to tell stories and relay emotions and memories for a long time, dance as well.  To know the cognitive processes behind the expressions of music and how it is expressed and connected to dance, that’s groovy.

 

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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

Sources:

http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~lds/pdfs/DanaSpelke.pdf

http://web.stanford.edu/group/co-sign/Sussman.pdf

http://www.dana.org/Publications/ReportDetails.aspx?id=44253

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/08/how-art-changes-your-brain_n_5567050.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/

The Psychology Behind Mindfulness

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You know those nights when you’re lying in bed (for what feels like forever!) and you just cannot fall asleep? All the thoughts about the day and whatever else might be popping into your head are swimming through your mind and keeping you awake…

It turns out mindfulness has been found to help people quiet those thoughts that keep them awake. The practice of mindfulness has been studied for use in treating all kinds of maladies, such as depression and stress as well as for use with patients suffering from physical conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, or HIV. This article asserts that it has also been found beneficial in helping with weight loss and maintaining an exercise program. The article also notes the technique’s usefulness in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. So, the question is, why? And how?

Mindfulness relies on the ability to focus attention on your awareness of the current moment. You allow yourself to be aware of any and all thoughts, feelings, and experiences you may have in order to process them without evaluating them critically. In essence, it relies on the ability to focus attention and maintain enough concentration so that you can seize control of thoughts that enter your awareness (which obviously takes a lot of practice). The more you practice mindfulness, the more you will prime the neural networks required for the process of identifying and acknowledging thoughts without criticizing them. Given all this, it makes sense that the technique might be effective in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. By shifting the focus of your attention and being more aware of the current moment (instead of whatever thoughts are keeping you awake), you may be able to better control your emotional responses to your thoughts.

The trick to mindfulness is the promotion of increased awareness of thoughts in order to promote better control over emotional responses to them. This is why mindfulness has been used as a treatment for anxiety disorders as well. The ruminative thinking that keeps us awake at night is a major cause of insomnia and also present in many anxiety disorders. The idea is that the ability to acknowledge thoughts in a different way, without driving yourself crazy over them, will ease anxiety (which is caused by this type of thinking). In order to do this, mindfulness encourages a sort of selective attention in which you focus your attention on something such as breathing, instead of rumination.

Okay, that explains why mindfulness is effective. But what types of strategies do people use?

Breathing is only one of many techniques you can use in order to focus your attention and be more aware of what is currently happening. (This short video explains how to do a common breathing exercise called the “4-7-8 Breath.”) Meditation is the technique that is perhaps the most talked about. Movement exercises can also be helpful.

In fact, mindfulness has been shown to have an impact on the functioning of the brain in general. For example, This article says that people who meditate show superior performance on tasks associated with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which deals with tasks related to self-regulation, the ability to direct attention, behavior and suppress immediate responses, and the ability to alternate strategies quickly. These skills are all necessary to exercise mindfulness and you would develop them the more you practice the technique.

In addition, when practiced regularly, mindfulness also leads to a weakening in the “functional connectivity” between the amygdala and the rest of the brain and a strengthening in the “functional connectivity” among areas associated with attention and concentration. So, “mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness, says.

So, next time your thoughts keep you awake, maybe consider being more mindful about what you are thinking. Like every other skill, it may take some practice before you start reaping the rewards from practicing mindfulness, but who knows what will happen once you’re able to focus your attention more effectively.

What do you think? Do you practice mindfulness or think it could be useful?

Mindfulness-MindMap