Author Archives: chadvelezis

…Wait, what am I writing about?

I love finals season. Distressed students juggling several enriching projects and exams crammed into unrealistic time frames, friends disappearing into their rooms and favorite study spots, and my GPA on the verge of collapse. What accentuates the stress and pressure associated with this period, especially for me, are the many distractions that exist regardless of my physical location. In the seclusion of my dorm, I am surrounded by tech and the comfort of my bed (memory foam toppers are the truth). In Mercer, my college’s psychology building, friends constantly pass by, and despite my introversion, I can’t help but entertain them. After convincing them to join me for sushi next door and neglecting my academic obligations through small talk and stress-eating, my cycle of socializing and procrastination continues. Welcome to the wonderful world of anxiety, identity crisis, and hopping majors without doing your research.

Why are we so easy to distract? There are several theories about how attention functions. As any psychology enthusiast knows, there is rarely a single comprehensive model or explanation for a specific condition or phenomenon. It is especially important to consider multiple perspectives when discussing attention. Broadbent’s filter model, directing one’s attention to a particular thing impairs their ability to notice other stimuli since irrelevant information is being actively filtered out. The capacity model devised by Kahneman challenges the filter model by proposing that one is only able to pay attention to a certain number of stimuli at any given time, as they do not possess enough cognitive resources to detect everything in their external environment. Regardless of which model explains attention more accurately, there are clearly limitations with attention. However, research on attention suggests that there are few limitations to the types of stimuli that grab our attention.

For example, the strength of attentional biases has been found to correlate with one’s emotional state. Research conducted by Bradley et al. in 1999 focused on patients with General Anxiety Disorder, analyzing specific attentional biases. Participants were shown faces displaying happy, neutral, or threatening facial expressions, and were subsequently tested to see how quickly they could identify each emotion. Their results showed a significantly slower reaction time to recognize threatening expressions when compared to the happy and neutral face conditions. They concluded that patients with GAD experience attentional biases in tasks such as expression recognition.

The famous Stroop Effect has been used in many applications, the most common example involving text color and word identification. Participants are often presented with the written form of a color printed in a font of a different color and asked to say what color the word is written in. Findings show that it is challenging for participants to not instinctively read the word instead (Cherry 2019). Given that an attentional bias varies depending on emotional affiliations (as seen in the Bradley study), it is to be expected that participants would be likely to identify the colors of emotionally neutral words quicker than emotionally charged. The theme reoccurs that more attention would be required to process and understand more complex, emotionally charged words.

These models and research merely scratch the surface of understanding our multifaceted capabilities of attention. The big takeaway is that attentional bias is a crucial component in understanding how our brains utilize cognitive faculties to attend to various stimuli. Despite being difficult to ignore or overcome the effects that this bias has on us, it can be used to analyze, refine, or correct attention-based habits and management techniques used by people with specific psychological conditions or circumstances.

Sources:
Attentional Bias/Stroop Effect: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-an-attentional-bias-2795027

Basic overview of attention: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attention-2795009

Broadbent’s Filter Model https://www.simplypsychology.org/attention-models.html

How the Attentional Bias Influences the Decisions We Make (Cherry 2019)

https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-an-attentional-bias-2795027

Anxiety and Problem Solving

Anxiety is defined by the Psychology Dictionary as a “mood state characterized by worry, apprehension, and somatic symptoms.” Everyone experiences it at some point in their life, and in varying forms and intensities. There is ongoing research within the fields of medicine and psychology on how to minimize the frequency and severity of anxiety within individuals who experience it regularly. You may be aware of some of these treatments; SSRIs and SNRIs, cognitive-behavioral, group, and exposure therapies, and so forth. However, you may not know of alternative forms of treatment and self-care that have been found to reduce anxiety in certain individuals.

I would like to show you a fascinating article from Psychology Today, which highlights a brain imaging study conducted by Duke University in 2017. Researchers assessed a group of 120 participants to find out which were most at-risk in terms of responding to anxiety triggers. They did so by exposing participants to stimuli designed to stimulate the brain areas most associated with threats and rewards. Threats cause activation in the amygdala, sometimes resulting in the fight-or-flight response, while the ventral striatum is responsible for regulating motivation and emotions related to reward. The researchers then asked participants to complete a problem-solving task; in this case, a simple math-based memory task, to stimulate activity in their brains’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DPC). The DPC is known to be the executive control center of the brain, meaning that it regulates the problem-solving procedures that enable us to overcome obstacles and reach solutions, otherwise known as “goal states.”

The study found that by completing the memory task, participants were consequently less responsive to the threat and reward stimuli usually provoked by stimulation of the amygdala and ventral striatum. In other words, occupying the participants’ prefrontal cortex with cognitive tasks seemed to deter their brains from amplifying the extreme threat and limited reward responses to anxiety. This reduction in symptoms allows for increased mental clarity, higher overall positivity, and (presumably) higher productivity in sufferers of anxiety. What excites me about studies like this is the potential for basic lifestyle choices and task management to be combined with other treatments to significantly decrease or eliminate symptoms of anxiety in its most severe forms. With the increasing knowledge of the brain, which areas are associated with specific functions, and how personal adaptations can lead to greater physiological wellness, I am optimistic about the future of mental health research and development.

Cognition is dependent on a lot of processes; memory, communication, learning, and much more. All of these tasks (and more) are assisted, to some degree, by problem-solving. As you saw with this study, problem-solving can serve to help with more than just overcoming obstacles and forming solutions. If you are interested in learning more about the processes through which we use rules such as algorithms and heuristics to simplify life in a complex world, check out this video from Crash Course (specifically 3:21-5:46):


References:

1. Main article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuronarrative/201801/problem-solving-buffers-the-brain-against-anxiety

2. Definition of Anxiety: https://psychologydictionary.org/anxiety/

3. The original study: https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/29/1/70/4637600

Another Memory Post…I think?

I have constructed a deeper understanding of myself through direct experience and introspection on my physical, personality, and other characteristics. However, this self-concept is not guaranteed to reflect those of others. So, who are you? Are you the choices that you make? Your past experiences? The people you regularly associate with? Perhaps, more specifically, your collective memories? Memories are deeply personal and, when accurate, are reflective of the experiences and information you have gathered from the external world.

Memory, as we have discussed in class, is crucial for many aspects of learning and socialization. As we learn things from our external environment, information gets encoded and stored in our memory. We are then usually able to retrieve that information at a later time. However, being that our memory is reconstructive, recollections are not a carbon copy of what we perceive or experience. Sometimes, the process of retrieving memories is imperfect. False memories are extreme recollections of events that are either highly distorted or completely inaccurate. People with false memories are usually adamant about the accuracy of said memories. These are severe cases involving substantial errors in memory retrieval. What would cause such significant lapses?

Enter suggestibility, one of the seven sins of memory we covered in class today. Receiving new information after an event can alter one’s memory of what occurred. A study conducted in 1974 by Loftus and Palmer involved exposing participants to various videos of car collisions. After witnessing each individual collision, they were asked specific framing questions, including “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed/collided/bumped/hit/contacted) each other?” As you might expect, the slight variance in wording to describe each collision resulted in participants reporting higher than average speeds on questions that used more extreme terminology such as “smashed” and “collided.” Merely altering the presentation of a statement, inflecting a particular tone, or including polarizing details in explanations, can affect how a recipient interprets and encodes that information into their own memory. More importantly, skewing one’s memory of information and events can lead to both the propagation of falsehoods and all-out psychological manipulation.

In the case of this study, suggestions made through subtle alterations in word choice led to significant changes in eyewitness testimony. The reason for this form of evidence losing its credibility in the court of law over the centuries is our growing understanding of memory. Memory is flexible, perhaps a little too much so. We as humans are naturally biased, notably, in that we tend to notice and exaggerate some experiences and minimize or overlook others to meet expected outcomes (the introspection illusion!). Broadly speaking, no matter the individual or circumstances, being convincing does not mean that one is truthful.

Consider this quote by Frank Herbert:

“Belief can be manipulated. Only knowledge is dangerous.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Now, consider the questions we introduced at the beginning of this post. If our perceptions of “self” are, in fact, built upon subjective experiences and resulting memories, it is essential to draw the line between beliefs and knowledge. When we are confident that we know something factually, we do not usually go back and try to verify it. Our beliefs, however, are continually being challenged; by ourselves, people around us, situations, and so forth. Our beliefs, even when flawed or manipulated, make us unique. They dictate our individual and social behaviors, determination of what is right and wrong, how we perceive ourselves and others, and so much more.

That was a lot. I will leave you with a video that I found to be super fascinating regarding the perception of self and the formation of memories. In this video, Michael Stevens, the (subjective) genius behind the Vsauce YouTube channel, subjects participants to a modified version of a false memory experiment conducted by Loftus & Pickrell (1995). The goal of this experiment was to determine whether “reminding” participants of details from partially-fabricated childhood experiences affected their recall of said memories. It also includes a demonstration of “choice blindness,” a phenomenon in which people incorrectly claim that they fully understand the roots of their thoughts and emotions. Despite this, they are blind to their own choices and preferences when forced to act on a task.

“If even the most basic parts of you, like your memories or your past, can be forgotten or manipulated, how can you know ever really know who “you” are?”

Sources/Further Reading:
1. Formation of false memories, Loftus and Pickrell (1995): https://webfiles.uci.edu/eloftus/Loftus_Pickrell_PA_95.pdf

2. Loftus and Palmer suggestibility study, “Reconstruction of automobile destruction” https://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html

3. Eyewitness testimony: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/uncategorized/myth-eyewitness-testimony-is-the-best-kind-of-evidence.html

4. False Memory post on a fellow cognitive psych blog: http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2018/04/26/heres-a-suggestion-dont-trust-your-false-memory/#more-4141

Seeing is believing….or is it?

Multisensory interaction encompasses the combined efforts of our various biological senses. With combined sight and hearing, we can develop a conscious understanding of our surroundings and use it to better adapt to the unpredictability of nature. Smell and taste enable us to experience and conceptualize flavors, and evolutionarily, detect those of which are indicative of danger.

Some individuals are capable of experiencing cross-over between senses, meaning that perceiving a specific sense, such as sound, results in one concurrently experiencing another sense. One sense of synesthesia that stands out to me is grapheme-color synesthesia, where letters, numbers, and words have precise color associations. A musician and YouTuber that I follow by the name of Adam Neely has grapheme synesthesia. In this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEJ61gSwE3c – skip to 8:54), Adam describes the basic science and meaning behind his synesthetic capabilities, specifically his understanding of the condition as developing during early child development. Remarkably, Adam believes that his synesthetic abilities developed biologically, as the colors of the letter magnets he used to learn the alphabet as a child differ from those he perceived to be associated with letters in the present day. Though Adam’s case alone is not representative of the broader population of synesthetes, it convinced me that perhaps the condition is genuinely biologically-predetermined, rather than being learned early on in childhood. In a separate video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAqyw606WQQ), he notes the increased cross-activation in the visual cortex in grapheme synesthetes as found in a study of fMRI analysis of V4/V8 (see https://www.nature.com/articles/nn818), further strengthening his argument for synesthesia carrying more known biological underpinnings than otherwise debated.

With this information, I set off on a quest to find more on the opposing viewpoint, that synesthesia can be taught or realized beyond childhood. While I expected to find blogs and studies arguing in favor of “acquired synesthesia,” I found something even more…interesting.

Meet Sensorium – a vital resource towards “cultivating” synesthesia

This app claims to provide access to meditation and “personal exercises,” involving guided meditation, videos, and sounds that are designed to help one “uncover their senses” and “integrate synesthesia” into their daily lives…

The entire “experience,” whatever that entails, can be fully realized for a just $2.99/month, billed annually. I want to hear from you; do you feel that synesthesia can be acquired after early development? If you have any friends or relatives who experience the phenomenon, what is their take on it? Ethically speaking, I hope apps and resources like this encourage us to continually question the “science” and “magic remedies” that are thrown at us (or into our Spam folders) on a daily basis. The operative question remains – is synesthesia a biological phenomenon or purely perceptual?Enter the “Garden of Synesthesia” if you so please… 

Test Post!

Hey everyone! I am Chad Velezis, and I am a senior and psychology major. I am not interesting in the slightest, so I will dedicate my inaugural post to spreading positivity and encouraging you all to stay hydrated and treat yourself to a Netflix binge and a prime, non-UC meal. Think Panera pick-two roasted turkey avocado BLT with broccoli cheddar soup on the side. Don’t forget some baked goods before you head out. Well, my grade for this test post is probably in jeopardy, but it was worth it. Looking forward to a great semester! Reach out to me in class or over Facebook if you want to study together.