Tag Archives: cognitive performance

Attitudes that enhance vs. limit broad creative thinking

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What motivates you as you go about your life? Is your attitude more of approach or avoidance, the willingness to go for a reward or the desire to avoid harm?

I know it isn’t strictly either/or for anyone, but it’s helpful to think of your motivations in different situations and how they affect your thought processes, including your creativity and memory.

I came across an interesting study from 2001, The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity. It centers on an experimental set-up where you have to get a cartoon mouse out of a maze by finding a route through the maze to the exit.

In one condition, there was a piece of cheese drawn outside of the maze, suggesting that if you successfully found the correct route out, the mouse would get the cheese. This condition was meant to evoke a style of thinking focused more on promotion: you complete a task in order to attain something new and nurturing.

In another condition, there wasn’t any cheese; instead, an owl hovered above the maze, making you think that if the mouse didn’t get out, the owl would eat it. The style of thinking evoked here was based on prevention: more about risk aversion and vigilance, avoiding bad outcomes.

So what happened in the experiment? The participants did well on solving the mazes (one would hope, given they were college students), but the interesting difference between participants who were in the promotion vs. prevention condition emerged later, when they were all given another task to complete. In one version of the experiment, they got a task that required them to detect images of simple objects embedded in a noisy visual. In another version, they had to come up with a list of ways that they could use a brick. In yet another, they had to complete word fragments by coming up with whole words that matched.

Independently of how much they enjoyed any given task, it seemed that overall, the participants in the promotion group were able to think more broadly and more creatively during the follow-up tasks. In contrast, an attitude of avoidance/prevention tended to make their thinking narrower. (And this wasn’t even tied to anything personal – the participants themselves weren’t going to enjoy the cheese or avoid a monster owl about to attack them, though they may have identified with the mouse; basically they were just cued into thinking within a certain framework, promotion vs. prevention).

You always have to be cautious when applying the results of one study to day-to-day life, but this does get me thinking about the implications. I’m more in the habit of avoidance than approach, which I don’t think always serves me well; while I don’t want to change this orientation completely, I don’t want to skew too much towards it either. Having risk-avoidance as a dominant approach may not be good in the long-run, in terms of thinking big and developing ideas creatively over time; it might limit you more to narrower, tried-and-tested paths.

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Deficits in working memory – but not ADHD

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The go-to diagnosis for kids who have trouble learning, focusing and following directions in school is ADHD. Even leaving aside official diagnoses, when we look at the way parents and teachers talk about these children, it doesn’t take long for ADHD to pop up as the label of choice regardless of the actual problem.

In The Learning Brain by Torkel Klingberg, the author points out that kids who have deficits in working memory may be misdiagnosed with ADHD. People with ADHD often have problems with working memory, but not everyone with working memory issues has ADHD.

What’s working memory? There’s a colorful description of it here: “your brain’s Post-it note.”

Working memory helps you retain and process incoming information, such as a set of directions with multiple steps, the thread of a conversation, unfolding stories, math problems and other academic exercises. Even if most of this information never makes it to your long-term memory, you need to hold onto it for the present time to carry out different tasks successfully.

Working memory diagram
(Image links to source: usablealgebra.landmark.edu)

You can see why kids with working memory deficits struggle at school. And given that working memory and attention are closely intertwined, the label of ADHD hovers over these kids. It doesn’t help that when kids are struggling with schoolwork and falling behind their classmates, they often get restless, act out, or let their attention wander – which further reinforces the notion in people’s minds that they have ADHD.

And in kids with both ADHD and working memory deficits, the concern is that people will focus on controlling (medicating) any hyperactivity, at the expense of addressing the working memory problems.

The Internet and Intelligence

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Over time, IQ scores have been going up (the Flynn Effect), so the Internet and T.V. can’t be making us dumber, right?

A recent Der Spiegel article, Is the Internet Really Making Us Dumber? (which is also worth reading for the questions it raises about what IQ tests measure) brings up the idea that the Internet and other digital media aren’t making us dumber but are instead changing the way we think: developing certain kinds of mental skills while de-emphasizing others. So what’s de-emphasized?

One thing stands out, though: While young test subjects are particularly good at solving visual and logical tasks quickly, their vocabulary is increasing only minimally — unlike that of their parents… One possible reason for the change is that today’s young people read and write many short messages on Facebook and on their cell phones, but they rarely immerse themselves in books anymore.

(In addition to not immersing themselves in books, kids might also be participating less in involved conversations and other kinds of meaningful verbal interaction. Very young kids for instance are now being exposed to e-readers and e-books – a development that might be problematic if parents rely too heavily on them for story time. Some research shows that parents reading to kids from e-books tend to interact less with them about the story itself and ask them fewer questions than parents reading to kids from print books. That’s even assuming the parent is sitting and reading with the child, and not handing the child over entirely to the device and its captivating animations and sound effects.)

The brain could be adapting to deal with digital technology on a regular basis but there’s still a place (maybe increasingly unrecognized) for mental processing that isn’t fast-paced: rumination, patience, the ability to follow the developments of a complex verbal argument. People describe our world as “fast-paced,” and in many ways it is, but not everything about the world and our way of living, thinking, and relating to others is fast-paced (or ought to be).

Aging, memory, and context

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There are limitations to memory research studies conducted only in the lab, especially if they never include memory tasks and situations that are encountered in everyday life (in fact this is a limitation of lab studies investigating any cognitive process, not just memory).

For example, when researchers take into account how aging adults remember things in day-to-day life, they start to get a different picture of the difficulties people experience with memory as they get older:

When people are tested in the lab and have nothing to rely on but their own memories, young adults typically do better than older adults, she said.

Remarkably, when the same studies are conducted in real-world settings, older adults sometimes outperform young adults at things like remember appointments or when to take medicines.

Synaptic Sunday #2

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This Sunday, a few links on excessive anxiety.

1) Anxiety May Hinder Your Sense of Danger

The result implies that worriers are less aware of potential danger—challeng­ing the common theory that anxious individuals are hypervigilant. Frenkel be­lieves that worrywarts’ low sensitivity to external warning signs causes them to be startled frequently by the seemingly sudden appearance of threats, which leaves them in a state of chronic stress.

Further study is needed, but it’s an interesting example of how the brain might work against itself. High anxiety and stress are not meant to be chronic states of being, but reactions to specific situations.

2) Anxious Girls’ Brains Work Harder

A young woman could be intelligent, competent and knowledgeable, but if she has problems with anxiety her brain might not be functioning as efficiently as possible.

“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” Moser said. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids — and especially anxious girls — have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math.”

Initially the article points out that high brain activity was observed in the more anxious women when they detected an error in their performance on a task (had they not been able to tell when they were making a mistake, would the results have been different?) At least part of the problem could involve fixating on errors: worrying that you’ll repeat them, that you’re no good at this… and any other self-defeating thoughts. But I haven’t seen the original paper, just the write-up at the Sciencedaily link.

3) New Study Suggests Depression May Increase Vulnerability to Anxiety

Depressive disorders and anxiety disorders often go hand-in-hand. Why that is, is not 100% clear at this point. They might have similar neurological underpinnings and can both arise (and interact with each other) as a reaction to adverse circumstances in life. One kind of disorder might also make you more vulnerable to the other (as this study suggests, speculating about depression paving the way for anxiety). Anxiety could possibly make you more vulnerable to depression as well. If someone for example suffers from severe social anxiety, and in consequence experiences poor academic performance, difficulty securing a job, and personal relationships that are strained or nonexistent, depression could set in.

Don’t neglect any problems you have with anxiety. Even if you don’t have a formal diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, you might still be worrying too much and experiencing more stress than is good for you; excessive worrying can hinder cognitive performance and have other adverse effects on your mental activity and physical health. Finding healthy ways to manage anxiety is one of the best things you can do for yourself (here’s one set of suggestions, also making the important point that people with anxiety disorders often have more difficulty coping with life’s uncertainties; here’s another interesting discussion about worrying, with tips to cut down on it and further links to relaxation techniques).