Author Archives: cleaman

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.


Incredible Savants

I’m not going to lie. I had a major brain fart when thinking about what to write about for this blog post. I called my friend and asked him what topic somehow relating to cognitive psychology would be interesting to look further into. He told me about Savant Syndrome and was talking all about the movie “Rain Man”. I haven’t seen the movie, but after learning more about this syndrome, I would really like to! After doing more research online and seeking for answers in our textbook, this is what I have found regarding Savant Syndrome:

Individuals with savant syndrome generally have extraordinary and profound abilities in certain areas of learning or memory, while they are considered extremely disabled in other areas. It’s common for savants to have particularly low IQ scores. About fifty percent of individuals with this syndrome have autism, and the other fifty percent usually suffer from developmental disorders or central nervous system injuries. An incredible one in ten autistic people show evidence of savant skills. The most common areas or skills for these individuals to be exceptional in are:

  1. Calendar Calculations
  2. Musical Abilities
  3. Artistic Abilities
  4. Mathematics
  5. Spatial Skills

The most common of these skills is the calendar calculations. These savants could be asked a question such as ,” What day of the week did January 8, 1971 land on?” and answer within seconds– Friday. Because there are specific calculations one can do to come up with the answers, many people are skeptical of the calendar calculating savants, but when asked, all of the savants say they don’t know where they get the answer from; it just comes to them. They swear against using formulas to calculate and and describe that they somehow just know the answer. Here’s a short clip of a calendar calculating savant from a National Geographic interview:

Not much is known about savant syndrome, but it is know that an individual can either be born with it or it can be acquired. It is also more prevalent in males than in females. As for a cognitive explanation for this odd syndrome, no single theory has been found to potentially explain all savants, but no matter the skill a savant possesses, in all cases it has been linked to an incredible and massive memory.This memory has been said to be an unconscious memory, which Mishkin et al. (1984) referred to as a “non-conscious ‘habit’ formation rather than a ‘semantic’ memory system”. In the skill the savant is an expert in, the memory is very deeply rooted, but the savant has no knowledge of having such memory. This explains why the calendar calculators often say the answers “just come to them”.

One possible explanation is that, because of stunted development or injury to the left brain, the right brain compensates. It’s as if the brain rewires itself to account for what is missing. If a savant exceeds far above average in artistic abilities or musical abilities, it could be the right side compensating for the left brain. Brain scans of autistic individuals has revealed prevalent left brain dysfunction. Again, this is just a theory and the true cause of such a strange, but incredible, syndrome is still unknown. Many psychologists say now that “until we understand the autistic savant, we will never truly understand memory or cognition”.


Test Your Awareness

A couple of years ago, my sister showed me a video on YouTube and I thought of it while we were learning about attention in class. Go ahead and take a look:

So? Did you see all 21 differences? Personally, the first time I saw the video, I saw NO changes at all. It was pathetic. Even after watching it multiple times, I wasn’t able to spot all the changes right away. The phenomenon that  is being demonstrated in this video is called change blindness. In our textbook, it is defined as “a pattern in which perceivers do not see, or take a long time to see, large-scale  changes in a visual stimulus” ( Reisberg, 2013).

It has always boggled my mind that things can be changing RIGHT in front of our eyes and we won’t notice a thing! To learn more about change blindness, I looked up one of the men, Ren Rensink, who did a study on this phenomenon that was mentioned in our textbook. In this video, Dr. Ron Rensink from the University of British Columbia, sits down for an interview and talks about change blindness and possible theories for how we are capable of missing such prominent changes. The main idea conveyed by change blindness is that a great deal of attention is needed to notice such changes in the environment.

Dr. Rensink says there are two parts to that are contributing to our change blindness and our limited attention, the first being how much is represented at a single moment. The amount of information that is represented to us daily is incredible. Any time our eyes are open, we are picking up visual stimuli. Our visual cortex works to create these images, making edges, shapes and colors visible to us, but attention is not necessary for our brain to do this.

The second part of change blindness is how much of those visual stimuli is being remembered, which does require attention. Dr. Rensink argues that the amount of visual stimuli we remember is very little. Imagine if we remembered every single thing we have ever seen! We can see a lot in life, but the amount of space used to store those visual pictures is limited in capacity.  Because our memory is limited in capacity, we are not able to remember one shot to the next, or at least the details of those shots, from the Whodunnit clip. For example, I personally didn’t notice that the size of Lady Smithe’s pot from one shot to the next changed dramatically from one shot to the next. This is not because I didn’t see the pot in the first place, but because I didn’t process the visual stimuli enough to physically remember it.

So how does this apply to real life situations? Change blindness happens every day in all different situations. If you watched to the end of the video, text flashes up that says, “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for”. It brings up how dangerous change blindness could be while driving. After years of driving, it becomes such a ritualistic and almost mindless process that we begin to lose attention. THIS IS NOT OKAY. As shown by the change blindness phenomenon, we are all very susceptible to miss changes in our environment if we are being inattentive. While driving, this could lead to fatal consequences, so keep your eyes open, pay close attention, and take driving safety seriously!


Brain Training

Within the last couple years, people have become increasingly interested in self improvement of things such as memory, intelligence, reaction speed, and so on. To achieve this higher level of brain functioning, many people have turned to cognitive training, also known as brain training, games. Websites and apps such as Lumosity, Brain Age, and Brain Wars allow people to play games to practice mental skills and “exercise their brains”, do but these games actually do what they claim?

The video below is a commercial for one of the most popular brain training games, Brain Age, played on the Nintendo DS.

The commercial states that “cognitive exercises can stimulate your mind through increased blood flow to the brain.” Many studies have been conducted to test the validity of what these cognitive training games claim to do. The studies all boil down to the same conclusion: not enough evidence can be found as to whether brain games significantly increase mental functioning.  While many different researchers found results and had believed they had truly found a way to increase brain functioning, the studies were later found to have flaws.

There are two different types of intelligence to take into account when conducting studies like these: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is defined as the ability to think rationally and solve unusual problems, and is difficult improve. Through meta-analysis of 23 separate studies, researchers Monica Melby-Lervåg and Charles Hulme found no significant evidence that brain training showed any increase in an individual’s fluid intelligence. Like any task that one does repeatedly, players of brain games will get better at the certain tasks they are asked to perform, but a boost in their overall intelligence is too broad of a conclusion to make. The tasks performed in brain training games do not necessarily carry over into real-life situations, and therefore, a rational conclusion cannot be made as to whether an individual’s “real-life” intelligence is improved.

Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, can much more easily be improved and increased. Crystallized intelligence is defined as an individual’s acquired knowledge and skills. To improve crystallized intelligence, you could learn to play an instrument or play a new sport. You could teach yourself to solve a Rubik’s cube or study chemistry. Any task where you are acquiring new knowledge is going to increase your crystallized intelligence at a much faster rate than one can improve their fluid intelligence.

Overall, not enough information has been found to prove brain training can do exactly what it claims to be capable of doing. A flawless study has yet to be conducted in which the placebos and confounds are strictly monitored in a way that they won’t skew results. This is not to say that brain games should not be played. Some of the games can be carried into real life situations, such as simple math equations and pattern recognition practice, but if you really want to increase your intelligence, step out of your comfort zone and try new things. Expand your horizons to acquire new knowledge in all different areas of life! The time people are wasting playing brain training games to improve their mental functioning could be put to much better use by putting down the game and learning new material on their own.