2011 November 05 Saturday
Mozart Effect For Better Colonoscopies

In a small scale study endoscopists appeared to do better at detecting pre-cancerous adenomas when they listened to Mozart. So take along a smart phone with Mozart on it and some speakers and offer their use to your endoscopist when you are getting wheeled in for a colonoscopy.

Washington, DC -- Physicians who listen to Mozart while performing colonoscopy may increase their detection rates of precancerous polyps, according to the results of a new study unveiled today at the American College of Gastroenterology's (ACG) 76th Annual Scientific meeting in Washington, DC.

The study, "The 'Mozart Effect' and Adenoma Detection," by Catherine Noelle O'Shea, DO and David Wolf, MD, of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, found adenoma detection rate—the proportion of patients undergoing screening colonoscopy in whom an adenomatous polyp is found and an important measure of a high quality endoscopic exam --increased from baseline values with music compared to without for two endoscopists whose baseline adenoma detection rates were calculated over a one-year period prior to the start of the study. The "Mozart Effect" refers to a set of research results that found listening to Mozart's music may result in significant short-term improvement in spatial temporal reasoning. Researchers used this previous theory to determine whether or not listening to Mozart while performing a colonoscopy had any impact on an endoscopist's adenoma detection rate.

In this randomized controlled trial, two endoscopists each with experience completing at least 1000 colonoscopies performed screening colonoscopies randomly assigned to music -- where Mozart was played -- or no music. Each endoscopist was unblinded to music exposure. Adenoma detection rates from this study were than calculated and compared to the baseline rates.

"Both endoscopists had higher adenoma detection rates listening to music when compared with their baseline rates," said lead researcher Dr. O'Shea.

Endoscopist #1, who was blinded to outcome, had an adenoma detection rate of 66.7 percent listening to Mozart and 30.4 percent without the music. Endoscopist #2, who was unblinded to the outcome, had an adenoma detection rate of 36.7 percent with Mozart and 40.5 percent without the music. Baseline detection rates were 21.25 percent (Endoscopist #1) and 27.16 percent (Endoscopist #2).

So endoscopist productivity varies all over the map. I wish there was a way to choose an endoscopist based on adenoma detection rate. Ditto for other docs doing other kinds of early stage cancer detection.

Any readers tried different kinds of music when writing software? I'd love to see a software coding productivity study comparing different forms of music, no sounds, normal office sounds, and assorted kinds of white noise.

Got a favorite white noise for enabling the mind to concentrate? I'm looking to try some different forms of sound background to see whether I can up brain productivity by doing so.

By Randall Parker    2011 November 05 01:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2011 October 25 Tuesday
Willpower Depletes More In Younger Folks?

Self-regulation depletion or ego-depletion is the scientific study of willpower and how using willpower for one purpose can drain one's ability to exercise willpower for other reasons. An excellent recent book, Willpower, by Ray Baumeister and John Tierney surveys the research in the field. Well, a new report in Plos One took a look at ego-depletion as a function of age and found willpower seems to deplete much less as people get older.

Self-regulation depletion (SRD), or ego-depletion, refers to decrements in self-regulation performance immediately following a different self-regulation-demanding activity. There are now over a hundred studies reporting SRD across a broad range of tasks and conditions. However, most studies have used young student samples. Because prefrontal brain regions thought to subserve self-regulation do not fully mature until 25 years of age, it is possible that SRD effects are confined to younger populations and are attenuated or disappear in older samples. We investigated this using the Stroop color task as an SRD induction and an autobiographical memory task as the outcome measure. We found that younger participants (<25 years) were susceptible to depletion effects, but found no support for such effects in an older group (40–65 years). This suggests that the widely-reported phenomenon of SRD has important developmental boundary conditions casting doubt on claims that it represents a general feature of human cognition.

They used an Autobiographical Memory Task as part of their test. Do older people have an easier time on that test just due to having more episodic memories from life? In the report they say that in control groups the young do better than the old at this task. But I'm not sure that result is a sufficient control. This needs to be repeated using a number of other methods used to measure depletion of willpower. e.g. some experiments measure willingness to keep hands immersed in cold water and others fatigue the subjects with lots of decisions to make. This is an intriguing result. But I still expect decision fatigue to show up in the middle aged.

Their point about the prefrontal region not maturing until about age 25 is important. The brain continues to develop into early adulthood. Humans gain more self control in their 20s and this is probably at least part of the cause of declining risk of car accidents in the 20s. Perhaps there are different forms of willpower that involve different parts of the brain. Resisting immediate gratification might involve different brain circuits than the ability to continue to subject oneself to mild pain such as cold water.

See my previous posts Brain Willpower Depleted By Use, Doing Tasks Depletes Willpower, Decision Fatigue And Conservation Of Willpower, and Good Or Evil Ups Willpower.

By Randall Parker    2011 October 25 08:40 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2011 October 18 Tuesday
Musical And Reading Ability Correlated

Areas of the brain involved in musical and reading ability not surprisingly overlap.

Auditory working memory and attention, for example the ability to hear and then remember instructions while completing a task, are a necessary part of musical ability. But musical ability is also related to verbal memory and literacy in childhood. New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Behavioral and Brain Functions shows how auditory working memory and musical aptitude are intrinsically related to reading ability, and provides a biological basis for this link.

Of course if you can't remember the notes in a melody and are slow at reading sheet music you are going to have a harder time learning music.

Researchers from the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University tested children on their ability to read and to recognize words. This was compared to the extent of their auditory working memory (remembering a sequence of numbers and then being able to quote them in reverse), and musical aptitude (both melody and rhythm). The electrical activity within the children's brains was also measured as auditory brainstem responses to rhythmic, or random, sounds based on speech.

Most cognitive abilities are highly correlated. So these results are not surprising.

The team lead by Dr Nina Kraus found that poor readers had reduced neural response (auditory brainstem activity) to rhythmic rather than random sounds compared to good readers. In fact the level of neural enhancement to acoustic regularities correlated with reading ability as well as musical aptitude. The musical ability test, specifically the rhythm aspect, was also related to reading ability. Similarly a good score on the auditory working memory related to better reading and to the rhythm aspect of musical ability.

Dr Kraus explained, "Both musical ability and literacy correlated with enhanced electrical signals within the auditory brainstem. Structural equation modeling of the data revealed that music skill, together with how the nervous system responds to regularities in auditory input and auditory memory/attention accounts for about 40% of the difference in reading ability between children. These results add weight to the argument that music and reading are related via common neural and cognitive mechanisms and suggests a mechanism for the improvements in literacy seen with musical training."

Does literacy really improve when children are given musical training?

Lately I've been introspecting about my mental state when various repetitive background noises are blocking out distracting non-repetitive noises outside. So, for example, I think the sound of a dishwasher helps me relax and think thru complex problems. I want to try playing some recorded forms of white noise and continuous yet rhythmic sounds that are not meant to be musical. Can one get more done mentally if a sort of wall of sound is blocking out every other source of sound?

By Randall Parker    2011 October 18 09:31 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2011 October 06 Thursday
Working Memory Capacity Separates Good From Great?

So then did Steve Jobs have a large working memory capacity?

EAST LANSING, Mich. — What makes people great? Popular theorists such as the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell and the New York Times’ David Brooks argue that intelligence plays a role – but only up to a point. Beyond that, they say, it’s practice, practice, practice.

Zach Hambrick agrees with the practice argument – imagine where Bill Gates would be if he hadn’t honed his programming skills, after all – but the Michigan State University scientist takes exception to the view that intelligence plays no role in determining excellence.

In a provocative new paper, Hambrick suggests working memory capacity – which is closely related to general intelligence – may sometimes be the deciding factor between good and great.

In a series of studies, Hambrick and colleagues found that people with higher levels of working memory capacity outperformed those with lower levels – and even in individuals with extensive experience and knowledge of the task at hand. The studies analyzed complex tasks such as piano sight reading.

“While the specialized knowledge that accumulates through practice is the most important ingredient to reach a very high level of skill, it’s not always sufficient,” said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology. “Working memory capacity can still predict performance in complex domains such as music, chess, science, and maybe even in sports that have a substantial mental component such as golf.”

Imagine you could think very fast but couldn't hold enough different pieces in your working memory to process all that much data. You might be good at reacting to a fast-changing environment that presents a series of smaller sized problems to solve but not so good at dealing with a single larger sized problem. Just like with computers human memory capacity is just as important as brain processing speed.

A couple of Michigan State University researchers go at differences in intellectual ability from another perspective: People differ in their ability to form longer term memories when sleeping. So someone could process lots of information rapidly but forget most of the conclusions by the next day.

In the study of more than 250 people, Fenn and Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology, suggest people derive vastly different effects from this "sleep memory" ability, with some memories improving dramatically and others not at all. This ability is a new, previously undefined form of memory.

"You and I could go to bed at the same time and get the same amount of sleep," Fenn said, "but while your memory may increase substantially, there may be no change in mine." She added that most people showed improvement.

Someone who has a large memory working set but a poor ability to retain info across sleep cycles could still do things like juggle schedules of taxis, do air traffic controller work, or wait tables in a restaurant. These occupations all involve manipulating a lot of information with a short shelf life.

Someone with large working memory working set but a lower ability to form long term memories might still be able to learn a complex field by just studying for a much longer period of time. But such a willingness to persist shouldn't be applied toward mastery of a field where the basic knowledge guiding practitioners changes rapidly.

Imagine a set of aptitude tests that measure processing time, working memory, and capacity to form longer term memories. The results of such a series of tests could help steer people in career directions that map better to their strengths.

By Randall Parker    2011 October 06 10:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (23)
2011 September 20 Tuesday
Exercise Increases Mitochondria In Brain Cells

At least in mice exercise increases the number of energy-generating mitochondria in brain cells.

Bethesda, Md. (Sept. 16, 2011)—Researchers have long known that regular exercise increases the number of organelles called mitochondria in muscle cells. Since mitochondria are responsible for generating energy, this numerical boost is thought to underlie many of the positive physical effects of exercise, such as increased strength or endurance. Exercise also has a number of positive mental effects, such as relieving depression and improving memory. However, the mechanism behind these mental effects has been unclear. In a new study in mice, researchers at the University of South Carolina have discovered that regular exercise also increases mitochondrial numbers in brain cells, a potential cause for exercise’s beneficial mental effects.

What I would like to know: Would a before-and-after exercise regimen test of willpower (see Roy Baumeister and John Tierney's excellent book Willpower for a survey of the current state of scientific research on the subject) show that exercise increases one's ability to sustain resistance to temptation and sustain other acts of will? Also, does exercise increase one's ability to sustain concentration on complex tasks?

By Randall Parker    2011 September 20 06:17 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2011 September 05 Monday
We Are Biased Toward Choosing Middle Items In Lists

Don't trust your feelings of preferring one thing over another. If you can manipulate the order of items you can see if your desired choices really represent what you want. We are drawn to liking what is at the center of the stage.

In their article 'Preferring the One in the Middle: Further Evidence for the Centre-stage Effect', researchers Paul Rodway, Astrid Schepman and Jordana Lambert of the University of Chester, UK analyze three separate but related experiments in which they tested the association between the location of an item in a series and how often that item is selected as preferable over other choices. The results indicate a clear tendency toward favoring items located in the middle of a row – regardless of whether it runs horizontally or vertically.

The researchers did a few experiments with the order of different sorts of items (e.g. socks and pictures). Order of pictures clearly influenced what people liked the most. But their least preferred picture choice did not appear to be influenced by order.

In the first experiment 100 participants evaluated 17 rows of pictures. Half the survey-takers were asked to choose which of the five pictures in each row they "most prefer" with the other half choosing the one they "least prefer." A significant trend toward the item in the middle was identified when participants were asked to declare a positive preference. However, location did not appear to influence selection when choosing the least preferred pictures.

Of course, there's a flip side to this: If you want people to choose a specific item put it in the middle.

Our brains are incredibly flawed instruments. We've got try to compensate for staging effects, decision fatigue, and other mental handicaps that we are often not consciously aware of.

By Randall Parker    2011 September 05 06:45 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2011 August 23 Tuesday
Older Brains Better At Longer Term Strategy Games?

Brains age and many research projects have shown younger minds perform better than older minds in tests of decision-making. But in a test where decisions at each step affected not only the immediate reward but also the size of future rewards eldery people beat college-age students in a mental game.

We make decisions all our lives—so you'd think we'd get better and better at it. Yet research has shown that younger adults are better decision makers than older ones. Some Texas psychologists, puzzled by these findings, suspected the experiments were biased toward younger brains.

So, rather than testing the ability to make decisions one at a time without regard to past or future, as earlier research did, these psychologists designed a model requiring participants to evaluate each result in order to strategize the next choice, more like decision making in the real world.

Perhaps older minds have decades of experiences where going for immediate rewards is no always optimal.

Older folks beat the young when a large advantage accrued from thinking ahead.

In the first experiment, groups of older (ages 60 to early 80s) and younger (college-age) adults received points each time they chose from one of four options and tried to maximize the points they earned. In this portion, the younger adults were more efficient at selecting the options that yielded more points.

In the second experiment—the setup was a sham test of two "oxygen accumulators" on Mars—the rewards received depended on the choices made previously. The "decreasing option" gave a larger number of points on each trial, but caused rewards on future trials to be lower. The "increasing option" gave a smaller reward on each trial but caused rewards on future trials to increase. In one version of the test, the increasing option led to more points earned over the course of the experiment; in another, chasing the increasing option couldn't make up for the points that could be accrued grabbing the bigger bite on each trial.

The older adults did better on every permutation.

Perhaps older minds have learned thru repeated trial-and-error that one should play a longer term game.

By Randall Parker    2011 August 23 11:47 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2011 August 22 Monday
Decision Fatigue And Conservation Of Willpower

NY Times reporter John Tierney and researcher Roy Baumeister have written a book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”, about Baumeister's area of scientific research: how the brain's performance degrades when it has to make lots of decisions and when it is tired. A New York Times Mag article by Tierney surveys some of the findings from the book. If you make a group of decisions count on the later ones to be of lower quality.

As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer.

When able to do so it is best to order your decisions to make the most important and consequential ones first.

If you go for a buying approach increases the number of decisions you have to make you will make poorer quality decisions overall.

Similar results were found in the experiment with custom-made suits: once decision fatigue set in, people tended to settle for the recommended option. When they were confronted early on with the toughest decisions — the ones with the most options, like the 100 fabrics for the suit — they became fatigued more quickly and also reported enjoying the shopping experience less.

If you really want to take a more complex approach then try to spread your complex set of decisions out over different days. I've been doing that for a belated spring cleaning where I go thru lots of old possessions and ask myself do I really want to keep them. I could do it all in a few days. But I'm doing pieces each weekend over several weeks and and delaying decisions that I'm unsure about.

Another lesson from the article: If you are poorer then making buying decisions is more fatiguing. Buy less stuff and keep more money in your checking account so when you do go to buy you'll suffer less mental exhaustion from it. Living close to the financial edge is mentally exhausting.

Here is a blog post by Tierney on the same topic.

By Randall Parker    2011 August 22 08:01 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2011 June 10 Friday
Focus On A Chase Cuts Mental Notice Of Side Events

Boston police officer Kenny Conley, convicted of perjury for claiming he did not see a beating as he ran past after another suspect (who was the correct suspect btw), likely was telling the honest truth. Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Union College staged similar incidents to test student ability to notice what was going on and two thirds of the students missed the fight.

To test whether someone could actually run past a fight without seeing it, Chabris and his students set up an experiment in which subjects had to "chase" a researcher for three minutes on a college campus. The subjects, who were tested individually, had to follow the runner at a distance of about 30 feet and count the number of times he touched his head.

On the way, the subjects passed a staged fight about 8 meters (26 feet) off the pathway they were using.

"We tried to set up conditions that were as similar as we could to the situation Conley faced while still maintaining experimental control," Chabris said. "Two students were beating up a third, and they were kicking and punching and yelling and coughing."

A first study was conducted at night to simulate the original incident. The researchers then repeated the experiment during daylight.

I think we fool ourselves about how well our minds and process and remember what is going on around us. Therefore we have too much trust in eyewitness accounts and in our own memories. There are implications here for our criminal justice system, civil courts, and other institutions.

Students chasing someone were less likely to notice a beating at night. But even during the day the percentage who missed it was substantial.

"At night, which was when officer Conley had his experience, only about a third of people noticed the fight," Simons said. "When we did it during the day, over 40 percent still missed it."

"One of the hallmarks of inattentional blindness is that increasing the demands on a person's attention decreases the likelihood that he or she will notice something unexpected," Chabris said.

Giving the chasing students 2 things to do further reduced the odds of noticing a fight.

To verify that inattentional blindness was involved, some study subjects were asked to keep separate counts for the number of times the runner's right hand and left hand touched his head.

"Keeping two counts made them much less likely to notice the fight than keeping no counts," he said.

It would be interesting to see the same sort of experiment done on bank hold-ups, convenience store hold-ups, car accidents, and other things that could be staged with cameras to record what really happened. How much do people get right?

By Randall Parker    2011 June 10 02:08 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2011 January 27 Thursday
IGF-II Boosts Memory Formation In Rats

Body builders take steroids and other hormones. How soon until drug-taking brain builders out number drug-taking body builders? Insulin-like growth factor II (IGF-II) improves memory formation in rats.

Researchers from Mount Sinai School of Medicine have identified a therapy that may enhance memory and prevent the loss of long-term memory. The research is published in the January 27th issue of Nature.

Led by Cristina Alberini, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai, the research team evaluated how a protein called insulin-like growth factor II (IGF-II), a gene expressed during brain development that declines with aging, impacts memory formation and retention.

IGF-II is enriched in the adult brain in several areas, including the hippocampus and cortex, which are known to be important for memory formation. Researchers injected the hippocampus of rats with the protein and found that IGF-II significantly improved long-term memory. The team also found that IGF-II levels increased after learning, and that when that increase was blocked long-lasting memories could not form.

Granted, lots of people take drugs to stimulate their minds. Most of this drug use is aimed at wakefulness. But drug use aimed at growing neurons more closely resembles drug use aimed at growing muscles.

By Randall Parker    2011 January 27 11:37 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2011 January 19 Wednesday
Lift Weights For More Brain Power?

Rats made to do muscle-building exercises generated more neurons in their brains.

In a study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in November, researchers from Brazil secured weights to the tails of a group of rats and had them climb a ladder five sessions a week. Other rats on the same schedule ran on a treadmill, and a third group just sat around. After eight weeks, the running rats had much higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (B.D.N.F.), a growth factor that is thought to help spark neurogenesis, than the sedentary rats. So did the rats with weights tied to their tails. The weight-­bearing rats, like the runners, did well on tests of rodent learning and memory, like rapidly negotiating a water maze. Both endurance and weight training seemed to make the rats smarter.

Pump iron for greater brain power? Anyone find this works?

By Randall Parker    2011 January 19 11:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2010 December 15 Wednesday
Happy Videos Improve Learning

Psychology researchers at the University of Western Ontario find that students learn better if their mood is manipulated with videos or music to make them happier.

Students who took part in the study were put into different moods and then given a category learning task to do (they learned to classify sets of pictures with visually complex patterns). The researchers manipulated mood with help from music clips and video clips; first, they tried several out to find out what made people happiest and saddest. The happiest music was a peppy Mozart piece, and the happiest video was of a laughing baby. The researchers then used these in the experiment, along with sad music and video (a piece of music from Schindler’s List and a news report about an earthquake) and a piece of music and a video that didn’t affect mood. After listening to the music and watching the video, people had to try to learn to recognize a pattern.

Happy volunteers were better at learning a rule to classify the patterns than sad or neutral volunteers. “If you have a project where you want to think innovatively, or you have a problem to carefully consider, being in a positive mood can help you to do that,” Nadler says. And music is an easy way to get into a good mood. Everyone has a different type of music that works for them—don’t feel like you have to switch to Mozart, she says.

Mood music. Comedy. How about mood music with comedy? Say, an old Steve Martin skit involving banjo playing and balloon head gear?

Watching funny videos at work is a form of self-medication to make one's brain function better.

Nadler also thinks this may be a reason why people like to watch funny videos at work. “I think people are unconsciously trying to put themselves in a positive mood”—so that apparent time-wasting may actually be good news for employers.

Okay dear readers, got any links to some videos that you think will help our brains function at higher levels? Know of some videos that'll make us learn faster and solve more problems more creatively?

By Randall Parker    2010 December 15 11:36 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2010 December 06 Monday
Active Learners Learn More Than Passive Learners

Interacting with a system you are trying to learn causes you to remember it better.

To better understand how these brain regions influence active versus passive learning, Voss designed an experiment that required participants to memorize an array of objects and their exact locations in a grid on a computer monitor. A gray screen with a window in it revealed only one object at a time. The "active" study subjects used a computer mouse to guide the window to view the objects.

"They could inspect whatever they wanted, however they wanted, in whatever order for however much time they wanted, and they were just told to memorize everything on the screen," Voss said. The "passive" learners viewed a replay of the window movements recorded in a previous trial by an active subject.

Then participants were asked to select the items they had seen and place them in their correct positions on the screen. After a trial, the active and passive subjects switched roles and repeated the task with a new array of objects.

Imagine history where a battle field is presented via an animation and you have the ability to move around your vantage point within the animation. Now, it is a lot of trouble to create the animation. But students studying the animation by moving around inside of it would learn more. Or picture organic chemistry where the reactions occur in animation where you can run the reaction forward or backward and from different vantage points.

Watching from different vantage points is not effective if you do not have control over where you watch from.

The study found significant differences in brain activity in the active and passive learners. Those who had active control over the viewing window were significantly better than their peers at identifying the original objects and their locations, the researchers found. Further experiments, in which the passive subjects used a mouse that moved but did not control the viewing window, established that this effect was independent of the act of moving the mouse.

By Randall Parker    2010 December 06 11:35 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2010 September 21 Tuesday
Oxytocin Helps Only Socially Less Proficient

If you are already socially competent oxytocin isn't going to raise the level of your game.

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have found that the naturally-occurring hormone oxytocin selectively improves social cognitive abilities for less socially proficient individuals, but has little effect on those who are more socially proficient. The study was published today in Psychological Science.

Researchers at the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Columbia University wanted to determine if oxytocin, popularly dubbed the "hormone of love," could have widespread benefit in making us more understanding of others. They conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over challenge, giving 27 healthy adult men oxytocin or a placebo delivered nasally. Participants then performed an empathic accuracy task in which they watched videos of people discussing emotional events from their life and rated how they thought the people in the videos were feeling.

That oxytocin can even improve the social skills of those with some degree of autism (and there's a spectrum of autism from quite mild to quite severe) is itself a curious result. If autism was caused only by a lack of some capability (e.g. missing or smaller neural networks for making sense of emotions of others) then one might expect a hormone couldn't help with that. Does oxytocin work by boosting the activity of of existing neural networks? Or by suppressing neural networks that themselves suppress yet other parts of the brain that do social calculating? In other words, does oxytocin free up some latent capabilities to enable to come online?

Improved empathic accuracy.

Although all participants were healthy adults who did not have autism, the researchers looked at whether differences in social cognitive expertise affected response to oxytocin. Social competency was measured using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a common self-report instrument that predicts social cognitive performance. Researchers hypothesized that oxytocin and AQ would interact to predict social cognitive performance. Results showed that oxytocin improved empathic accuracy, but only in those individuals who were less socially proficient.

"Oxytocin is widely believed to make all people more empathic and understanding of others," said Jennifer Bartz, PhD, Assistant Professor, Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and lead author of the study. "Our study contradicts that. Instead, oxytocin appears to be helpful only for those who are less socially proficient."

Kids should probably be given AQ tests along with IQ tests so that their nature is less mysterious to them. Let them know where they stand and what their weaknesses are. That'll put them in a better position to make career choices and work on methods to compensate for their weaknesses while figuring out how to better leverage their strengths.

By Randall Parker    2010 September 21 10:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2010 September 14 Tuesday
Video Games Improve Fast Decision Making?

Play a video game to improve your mind's ability to accurately assess and act on information?

Cognitive scientists from the University of Rochester have discovered that playing action video games trains people to make the right decisions faster. The researchers found that video game players develop a heightened sensitivity to what is going on around them, and this benefit doesn't just make them better at playing video games, but improves a wide variety of general skills that can help with everyday activities like multitasking, driving, reading small print, keeping track of friends in a crowd, and navigating around town.

In an upcoming study in the journal Current Biology, authors Daphne Bavelier, Alexandre Pouget, and C. Shawn Green report that video games could provide a potent training regimen for speeding up reactions in many types of real-life situations.

Video games have grown in popularity to the point where 68 percent of American households have members that play them, according to a 2009 report by the Entertainment Software Association.

I'm picturing a mom saying "No outdoor sports for you young man. You can't go out and play until you get a better score on your video game".

Strategy games do not speed up decision-making ability.

The researchers tested dozens of 18- to 25-year-olds who were not ordinarily video game players. They split the subjects into two groups. One group played 50 hours of the fast-paced action video games "Call of Duty 2" and "Unreal Tournament," and the other group played 50 hours of the slow-moving strategy game "The Sims 2."

Faster decisions with no loss of accuracy.

After this training period, all of the subjects were asked to make quick decisions in several tasks designed by the researchers. In the tasks, the participants had to look at a screen, analyze what was going on, and answer a simple question about the action in as little time as possible (i.e. whether a clump of erratically moving dots was migrating right or left across the screen on average). In order to make sure the effect wasn't limited to just visual perception, the participants were also asked to complete an analogous task that was purely auditory.

The action game players were up to 25 percent faster at coming to a conclusion and answered just as many questions correctly as their strategy game playing peers.

But is the sort of faster decision-making that action games develop the best for better performance in the business world?

By Randall Parker    2010 September 14 10:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2010 June 02 Wednesday
Illusory Benefits Of Regular Coffee Use

German and British researchers find that ,edium to heavy coffee drinkers are no more alert than non-coffee drinkers. Basically, without coffee the regular drinkers are less alert than non-drinkers. The coffee just boosts alertness up to a level that non-drinkers already function at.

Speaking as someone who does not drink coffee: I've been waiting to see this result published for years. I have been skeptical that a body can have its alertness artificially boosted above natural alertness levels for sustained levels of time. There's got to be a cost to brain boosts. Either a drug boosts the brain and causes damage or the body adjusts to the drug and the brain isn't boosted.

I can see exceptions where drugs that calm the brain could boost performance in a sustained way. But I do not expect stimulant drugs to provide a sustained boost.

By Randall Parker    2010 June 02 11:44 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2010 April 20 Tuesday
No IQ Boost From Brain Training

A paper published in Nature finds that brain training games do not boost general problem solving abilities.

In the study of more than 11,400 healthy adults, those who played brain-training games did get better at the specific tasks involved in the games, such as solving mathematical problems, but these improvements did not transfer into any other general mental abilities.

You have to be born smart - at least until gene therapies and cell therapies enable you to boost your general intelligence.

A review of the research literature also didn't find a big benefit.

Peter Snyder, a professor of neurology at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and vice president of research at Lifespan Hospitals in Rhode Island, published a review last year of the existing literature on brain training games, concluding it was both sparse and inconsistent, as this Globe story said.

Snyder makes some salient comments about this latest study. Click thru and read his critical points. One point: The brain training study was rather short. A more intensive brain training program would be needed to try to detect general improvements in intelligence.

A lot of people want to think of the brain as akin to a muscle which you can make stronger by exercising it. Brains can learn and develop useful skills for processing information. But brains can't exercise there way to greater intellectual capacity.

By Randall Parker    2010 April 20 10:58 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2010 April 19 Monday
Good Or Evil Ups Willpower

People who act morally ambivalent have less willpower. Use the force Luke. The dark side works too.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 19, 2010 -- New research from Harvard University suggests that moral actions may increase our capacity for willpower and physical endurance. Study participants who did good deeds -- or even just imagined themselves helping others -- were better able to perform a subsequent task of physical endurance.

The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows a similar or even greater boost in physical strength following dastardly deeds.

Researcher Kurt Gray, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard, explains these effects as a self-fulfilling prophecy in morality.

"People perceive those who do good and evil to have more efficacy, more willpower, and less sensitivity to discomfort," Gray says. "By perceiving themselves as good or evil, people embody these perceptions, actually becoming more capable of physical endurance."

The world is a battle between good and evil because the morally neutral just do not have the get up and go.

There's a cool part of this: It is enough to just imagine yourself helping others to boost your willpower. No need for real altruism. You can just pretend to be good. Is that cool or what? Explains so much moral posturing. Next time you see someone flashing symbols of taking the moral high road you can be sure they are just trying to build up their willpower to do what they really want to do.

So I'm imagining a superhero who doesn't have enough willpower to fly thru the air. Suddenly a thought bubble pops up over their head showing them saving babies and mothers from, say, an evil biker gang. Suddenly the superhero can fly off and he flies to a tropical beach to hang out and pick up surfer girls while drinking margaritas. Make your moral battle fantasies big enough and who knows what great feat you'll be able to pull off.

By Randall Parker    2010 April 19 11:49 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2010 March 28 Sunday
Elite Few Can Multitask Driving And Cell Phone

Are you a member of the 2.5% cognitive elite who can talk on the cell phone while driving without suffering reduced driving ability?

SALT LAKE CITY, March 29, 2010 – A new study from University of Utah psychologists found a small group of people with an extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.

These individuals – described by the researchers as "supertaskers" – constitute only 2.5 percent of the population. They are so named for their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.

The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

This finding is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone – the study confirms that the vast majority cannot – but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Further research may lead eventually to new understanding of regions of the brain that are responsible for supertaskers' extraordinary performance.

Is there a correlation here with IQ? Or is this due to a different form of cognitive ability? Since the supertaskers were better at single tasks this suggests a more general ability.

Yet contrary to current understanding in this area, the small number of supertaskers showed no impairment on the measurements of either driving or cell conversation when in combination. Further, researchers found that these individuals' performance even on the single tasks was markedly better than the control group.

Possibly these people think so rapidly that they are able to do both tasks fast enough that performance degradation doesn't occur due to switching between the tasks.

By Randall Parker    2010 March 28 11:54 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (38)
2009 December 17 Thursday
Cardiovascular Health Boosts Mental Performance

Teens who are in better cardiovascular shape perform better on cognitive tests. More muscle mass does not help. The researchers controlled for genetics by including twins in their analysis.

Pedersen, lead author Maria Åberg of the University of Gothenburg and the research team looked at data for all 1.2 million Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976 who enlisted for mandatory military service at the age of 18.

In every measure of cognitive functioning they analyzed – from verbal ability to logical performance to geometric perception to mechanical skills – average test scores increased according to aerobic fitness.

However, scores on intelligence tests did not increase along with muscle strength, the researchers found.

"Positive associations with intelligence scores were restricted to cardiovascular fitness, not muscular strength," Pedersen explained, "supporting the notion that aerobic exercise improved cognition through the circulatory system influencing brain plasticity."

The fact that muscle strength doesn't boost brain performance suggests better oxygen and nutrient supply to the brain is key.

"Direct causality cannot be established. However, the fact that we demonstrated associations between cognition and cardiovascular fitness but not muscle strength . . . and the longitudinal prediction by cardiovascular fitness on subsequent academic achievement, speak in favor of a cardiovascular effect on brain function," Pedersen said.

The results from twins increases the likelihood that the causal relationship runs from cardiovascular health to brain performance.

Even among identical twin pairs, the link between cardiovascular health and intelligence remained strong, according to the study. Thus, the results are not a reflection of genetic influences on cardiovascular health and intelligence. Rather, the twin results give further support to the likelihood that there is indeed a causal relationship, Pedersen explained.

So how is your cardiovascular fitness? Ever run or swim or at least walk rapidly long distances?

By Randall Parker    2009 December 17 09:46 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 November 17 Tuesday
Tougher Tasks Boost Performance Of Easier Ones

People work harder on their current task when they have a tougher task coming up.

Consumers will work harder on a task if they're expecting to have to do something difficult at a later time, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

In today's fast-paced world, consumers frequently undertake unrelated tasks in a sequence. An individual might make a grocery list, decide whether to take out a home improvement loan, search the Internet for a vacation spot, and choose a dinner location—all before preparing lunch. "It seems reasonable to expect that when consumers know that they will have to work hard on a future task, they will devote less effort to the current task, in order to save energy for the upcoming demanding task. This is not what we found," write authors Anick Bosmans, Rik Pieters (both Tilburg University, The Netherlands), and Hans Baumgartner (Pennsylvania State University).

In a series of five studies, the authors observed that the more difficult a future task was expected to be, the harder consumers worked on a current task. "For example, consumers consulted more information on a web page when they were asked to evaluate a new soft drink when they expected that they would later on have to work on a difficult and demanding task," write the authors. Other participants were better able to come up with weight loss ideas when they believed they would have to work hard on a future job.

I've noticed this in my own performance. Faced with a difficult task I'm more efficient at getting through easier tasks even when I do not need to complete the easier tasks before doing the difficult one.

If you want to raise your overall performance then consider giving yourself more challenging tasks to do.

By Randall Parker    2009 November 17 09:32 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2009 September 25 Friday
Doing Tasks Depletes Willpower

Most of us have a finite supply of willpower.

HAMILTON, Ont. September 24, 2009—Have you ever sat down to work on a crossword puzzle only to find that afterwards you haven't the energy to exercise? Or have you come home from a rough day at the office with no energy to go for a run?

A new study, published today in Psychology and Health, reveals that if you use your willpower to do one task, it depletes you of the willpower to do an entirely different task.

Do some people not experience this depletion of willpower?

Regulating your emotions can deplete your willpower. So if someone is giving you a hard time and you are suppressing your desire to strangle them then you are depleting your will to exercise. Stay away from people who cause you to exert more effort regulating your emotions.

"Cognitive tasks, as well as emotional tasks such as regulating your emotions, can deplete your self-regulatory capacity to exercise," says Kathleen Martin Ginis, associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, and lead author of the study.

Martin Ginis and her colleague Steven Bray used a Stroop test to deplete the self-regulatory capacity of volunteers in the study. (A Stroop test consists of words associated with colours but printed in a different colour. For example, "red" is printed in blue ink.) Subjects were asked to say the colour on the screen, trying to resist the temptation to blurt out the printed word instead of the colour itself.

"After we used this cognitive task to deplete participants' self-regulatory capacity, they didn't exercise as hard as participants who had not performed the task. The more people "dogged it" after the cognitive task, the more likely they were to skip their exercise sessions over the next 8 weeks. "You only have so much willpower."

Avoid situations that deplete your willpower unnecessarily. What situations or tasks deplete your willpower? Introspect and see if you can identify what does it to you and which depleters you can avoid.

By Randall Parker    2009 September 25 12:01 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (34)
2009 September 08 Tuesday
Brain Mistake Signal Stronger In Better Academic Performers

The error-related negativity (ERN) signal is stronger when better students make mistakes.

In the first study ever to link academic performance to a neural signal, participants performed a Stroop task – a well-known test of cognitive control – while hooked up to EEG electrodes that measured their brain activity.

U of T researchers monitored a brain signal known as the error-related negativity (ERN) in each participant's brain while they completed the task. ERN signals are observed approximately 100 milliseconds after a mistake is made, and are involved in cognitive control and self-regulation. Large ERN signals indicate a participant is responding strongly when they've made a mistake; smaller ERN signals indicate they are less responsive to their mistakes.

The researchers then compared the size of each participant's ERN signals to their official university transcript grades.

"Those students with larger ERN signals did significantly better in school, showing that these neural signals have important real world implications," says doctoral researcher Jacob Hirsh.

Did higher academic performers do better only because their brains could recognize more mistakes? Or did they also do better because their brains more loudly signaled a mistake? Could a lower performing person improve their performance by listening more carefully to their doubts?

I'd like to know how strongly the ERN signal's strength correlates with IQ. Does use of ERN signal in combination with IQ predict academic performance more accurately than using either of these measures alone? Not surprisingly, half the ERN signal's strength is down to your genes.

Because the size of the ERN is only 50 per cent determined by genetics, though, Hirsh says students may be able to improve their ERN signals by attending to their mistakes, thereby helping to improve their academic performance. "The ERN is not set in stone," he says.

It is not obvious to me that most people can become better at recognizing when they've made mistakes.

By Randall Parker    2009 September 08 11:44 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
ADHD Driven By Dopamine Receptor Concentrations?

PET scans show brain receptor differences in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

UPTON, NY — A brain-imaging study conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory provides the first definitive evidence that patients suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have lower-than-normal levels of certain proteins essential for experiencing reward and motivation.

"These deficits in the brain's reward system may help explain clinical symptoms of ADHD, including inattention and reduced motivation, as well as the propensity for complications such as drug abuse and obesity among ADHD patients," said lead author Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a long-time collaborator on neuroimaging research at Brookhaven Lab.

The study, published in the September 9, 2009, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, also has important implications for treatment. "Finding ways to address the underlying reward-system deficit could improve the direct clinical outcome of ADHD, and potentially reduce the likelihood of other negative consequences of this condition," said study co-author Gene-Jack Wang, chair of Brookhaven's medical department.

Can't pay attention? It is all down to your dopamine receptors. You don't have enough of them to get rewarded for paying attention.

The scientists used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure two markers of the dopamine system — dopamine receptors, to which the chemical messenger binds to propagate the "reward" signal, and dopamine transporters, which take up and recycle excess dopamine after the signal is sent.

Lying in a PET scanner, each patient was injected with a minute amount of a "radiotracer" compound — a chemical labeled with a radioactive form of carbon and designed to bind specifically to one of the targets. Different tracers were used for each target, and patients were scanned for each at separate times. By detecting the signal from the radiotracers, the PET machine can measure the receptor and transporter locations and concentrations in various parts of the brain.

The results clearly showed that, relative to the healthy control subjects, the ADHD patients had lower levels of dopamine receptors and transporters in the accumbens and midbrain — two key regions of the brain directly involved in processing motivation and reward. In addition, the measurements of dopamine markers correlated with measures of behavior and clinical observations of ADHD symptoms, such as reduced levels of attention as measured by standard psychological tests.

A drug that would stimulate neurons to increase the synthesis of dopamine receptors would probably improve the ability of people to pay attention for longer periods of time. Do any existing drugs increase dopamine receptor synthesis?

Think about the continuing stream of discoveries about how neurotransmitter receptor concentrations alter behavior and mood. These discoveries are building up a foundation of knowledge needed to develop drugs that will alter mood, motivation, and intellectual performance. We will become more pharmacologically malleable as a result of drug development guided by these discoveries. Those new drugs might be 10 or 20 years off. But they'll come eventually.

By Randall Parker    2009 September 08 11:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2009 August 06 Thursday
People With More Memory Less Distractable

Could be that people with bigger working memory storage sets are able to retain their working set and restore it after experiencing a distraction. People with bigger working memory sets are less distractable.

"That blasted siren. I can't focus." That reaction to undesired distraction may signal a person's low working-memory capacity, according to a new study.

Based on a study of 84 students divided into four separate experiments, University of Oregon researchers found that students with high memory storage capacity were clearly better able to ignore distractions and stay focused on their assigned tasks.

Principal investigator Edward K. Vogel, a UO professor of psychology, compares working memory to a computer's random-access memory (RAM) rather than the hard drive's size -- the higher the RAM, the better processing abilities. With more RAM, he said, students were better able to ignore distractions. This notion surfaced in a 2005 paper in Nature by Vogel and colleagues in the Oregon Visual Working Memory & Attention Lab.

In experiments with some variations in approaches -- detailed in the July 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience -- students' brain activity was monitored using electroencephalography (EEG) while they studied images on a computer screen, recognizing a shape with a missing component, and then identifying the object after it moved simply to another location or amid distractions. Using a "task irrelevant probe" -- a 50 millisecond-long flash of light -- Vogel and Keisuke Fukuda, a doctoral student of Vogel's and lead author, were able to determine where exactly a subject's attention was focused.

All of the subjects were able to quickly and accurately identify the targets when the objects moved around the screen, but as distracting components were added some maintained accuracy while others diverted their attention and slipped in performing the assigned tasks.

Is the bigger working memory set just a proxy for IQ? Could be that a higher IQ brian does a better job of rapidly identifying whether a distraction can be ignored.

Vogel discusses his research in a YouTube clip.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 06 10:15 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2009 June 24 Wednesday
PER3 Gene Determines Brain Response To Sleep Deficiency

Do you mentally function well when sleep-deprived? I personally make more spelling mistakes when writing blog posts after midnite. Given the right variant of the gene PER3 the human mind becomes more active in response to reduced sleeping.

New imaging research in the June 24 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience helps explain why sleep deprivation affects some people more than others. After staying awake all night, those who are genetically vulnerable to sleep loss showed reduced brain activity, while those who are genetically resilient showed expanded brain activity, the study found. The findings help explain individual differences in the ability to compensate for lack of sleep.

"The extent to which individuals are affected by sleep deprivation varies, with some crashing out and others holding up well after a night without sleep," said Michael Chee, MBBS, at the Duke–National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, an expert on sleep deprivation who was not affiliated with the study. However, studying how the brain produces these behavioral differences is difficult: researchers usually do not know whether their study participants will be vulnerable to sleep deprivation until after a study is complete. Previous studies have shown conflicting results, perhaps because the study subjects differed widely in vulnerability to sleep deprivation.

In the current study, the researchers, led by Pierre Maquet, MD, at the University of Lìege in Belgium and Derk-Jan Dijk, PhD, at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, avoided this problem by selecting study participants based on their genes. Previous research showed that the PERIOD3 (PER3) gene predicts how people will respond to sleep deprivation. People carry either long or short variants of the gene. Those with the short PER3 variant are resilient to sleep loss — they perform well on cognitive tasks after sleep deprivation. However, those with the long PER3 variant are vulnerable — they show deficits in cognitive performance after sleep deprivation. Now the new study explains why.

Do the people with the short PER3 variant get any advantages over those with the long variant when they are well rested? It could be that lowered cognitive performance when tired also reduces harm to the brain when it is not well rested. Some of the genes that provide advantages in some environments also come at a cost in the same or other environments.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 24 11:19 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2009 June 09 Tuesday
REM Sleep Improves Creativity

Taking a nap that includes the stage of sleep with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) will improve your creativity when you wake up.

While evidence for the role of sleep in creative problem-solving has been looked at by prior research, underlying mechanisms such as different stages of sleep had not been explored.  Using a creativity task called a Remote Associates Test (RAT), study participants were shown multiple groups of three words (for example: cookie, heart, sixteen) and asked to find a fourth word that can be associated to all three words (sweet, in this instance).   Participants were tested in the morning, and again in the afternoon, after either a nap with REM sleep, one without REM or a quiet rest period.  The researchers manipulated various conditions of prior exposure to elements of the creative problem, and controlled for memory.

“Participants grouped by REM sleep, non-REM sleep and quiet rest were indistinguishable on measures of memory,” said Cai. “Although the quiet rest and non-REM sleep groups received the same prior exposure to the task, they displayed no improvement on the RAT test.  Strikingly, however, the REM sleep group improved by almost 40 percent over their morning performances.”

The authors hypothesize that the formation of associative networks from previously unassociated information in the brain, leading to creative problem-solving, is facilitated by changes to neurotransmitter systems during REM sleep

So if you get stuck on a problem take a nap. Here's the PNAS research paper.

Getting enough sleep will also improve your athletic performance.

WESTCHESTER, Ill. – Athletes who extended their nightly sleep and reduced accumulated sleep debt reported improvements in various drills conducted after every regular practice, according to a research abstract that will be presented on Monday, June 8, at SLEEP 2009, the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Results of the study indicated that sleep extension in athletes was associated with a faster sprinting drill (approximately 19.12 seconds at baseline versus 17.56 seconds at end of sleep extension), increased hitting accuracy including valid serves (12.6 serves compared to 15.61 serves), and hitting depth drill (10.85 hits versus 15.45 hits).

According to the lead author of the study, Cheri Mah, M.S., researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory at Stanford University in CA., many of the athletes who participated in the study realized for the first time the importance of sleep and how it impacts their performance during competitions.

Exercise might not help you sleep better. But it isn't clear as to the direction of causality. It could be that people who are live wires during the day also have a harder time sleeping.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 09 09:35 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2009 June 03 Wednesday
Longer Tests Improve Mental Performance?

Does this seem plausible to you?

In the study, 239 freshman college students from the Atlanta area took three different versions of the SAT Reasoning Test. Under conditions simulating the actual exam, with start times of 8 A.M. on three consecutive Saturdays, the students completed tests specially constructed for three different durations: 3.5, 4.5 and 5.5 hours. (The current SAT is 3.75 hours of testing over a 4.5-hour session. In this study, the short version of the test had one less of the verbal, math and writing sections; the long version had one more of each. Otherwise, the tests were the same.) Students received a cash bonus if they beat their previous SAT scores.

Before, during and after each test, students completed a questionnaire designed to asses their mood, emotions, confidence, subjective fatigue and more. As expected, the longer they worked on a test, the more the students reported mental fatigue. At the end of 5.5 hours of testing, students reported high levels of fatigue.

However, even though students reported greater fatigue for longer tests, their average performance for both the standard and long tests was significantly higher than for the short test. In fact, the short-form average score was 1,209 out of a possible 1,600; the standard-form average score was 1,222; and the long-form average score was 1,237. Scoring was weighted to make performance comparable across the different length tests.

Does the mind become more focused as the test proceeds? Do distractions fade from consciousness the longer you are hunched over puzzling out test questions?

Here is the full text of the research paper.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 03 11:16 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 June 01 Monday
Cell Phone Ringing Lowers Brain Peformance

I like research that demonstrates that which I already believe.

A flurry of recent research has documented that talking on a cell phone poses a dangerous distraction for drivers and others whose attention should be focused elsewhere. Now, a new study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology finds that just the ring of a cell phone may be equally distracting, especially when it comes in a classroom setting or includes a familiar song as a ringtone.

"In any setting where people are trying to acquire knowledge and trying to retain that information in some way, a distraction that may just seem like a common annoyance to people may have a really disruptive effect on their later retention of that information," said the study's lead author, Jill Shelton, a postdoctoral psychology fellow in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study includes an experiment in which Shelton poses as a student seated in the middle of a crowded undergraduate psychology lecture and allows a cell phone in her handbag to continue ringing loudly for about 30 seconds.

Students exposed to a briefly ringing cell phone scored 25 percent worse on a test of material presented before the distraction.

Students tested later scored about 25 percent worse for recall of course content presented during the distraction, even though the same information was covered by the professor just prior to the phone ring and projected as text in a slide show shown throughout the distraction. Students scored even worse when Shelton added to the disturbance by frantically searching her handbag as if attempting to find and silence her ringing phone.

"Many of us consider a cell phone ringing in a public place to be an annoying disruption, but this study confirms that these nuisance noises also have real-life impacts," Shelton said. "These seemingly innocuous events are not only a distraction, but they have a real influence on learning."

They found song ring tones even more distracting than ringing sounds.

Big complaint: People in office settings should switch their phones to vibrate. If they do have the ringer on it should be turned way down. Also, when they get a call they should walk outside. The noise pollution is a big problem.

While I'm at it: allowing cell phone use on airplanes is an argument for driving. We really need sound deadening technology that will protect us from the noise pollution generated by others around us.

Any reader ever used a device that blocks cell phone frequencies? Such devices would be useful to turn on at the beginning of meetings and at symphony, opera, and ballet performances. Some places should be licensed to be allowed to turn on cell phone frequency jammers.

Are there any sociopaths among my readers who think it is okay to subject class mates and co-workers to your loud ringing cell phone?

By Randall Parker    2009 June 01 11:24 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2009 May 12 Tuesday
Meditation Boosts Brain Gray Matter?

Does meditation expand hte size of some areas of the brain?

That's the finding from a group of researchers at UCLA who used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of people who meditate. In a study published in the journal NeuroImage and currently available online (by subscription), the researchers report that certain regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger than in a similar control group.

Specifically, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus — all regions known for regulating emotions.

"We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behavior," said Eileen Luders, lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. "The observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue why meditators have these exceptional abilities."

Research has confirmed the beneficial aspects of meditation. In addition to having better focus and control over their emotions, many people who meditate regularly have reduced levels of stress and bolstered immune systems. But less is known about the link between meditation and brain structure.

Maybe meditation causes changes in the brain that account for this result. But since this was not a longitudinal study we do not know whether the meditators simply had more gray matter to start with.

Because this was not a longitudinal study — which would have tracked meditators from the time they began meditating onward — it's possible that the meditators already had more regional gray matter and volume in specific areas; that may have attracted them to meditation in the first place, Luders said.

Longitudinal study needed.

By Randall Parker    2009 May 12 10:50 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2009 May 11 Monday
Daydreaming Exercises Your Brain's Executive Network

If someone complains to you about your daydreaming just tell them you are thinking harder than they are.

A new University of British Columbia study finds that our brains are much more active when we daydream than previously thought.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that activity in numerous brain regions increases when our minds wander. It also finds that brain areas associated with complex problem-solving – previously thought to go dormant when we daydream – are in fact highly active during these episodes.

"Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness," says lead author, Prof. Kalina Christoff, UBC Dept. of Psychology. "But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks."

People who just do routine tasks are a bunch of mental slackers. Is it the daydreamers who are operating their "executive network". Tell anyone who complains about your daydreaming that you are going your lateral medial prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex a heavy work-out.

Until now, the brain's "default network" – which is linked to easy, routine mental activity and includes the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), the posterior cingulate cortex and the temporoparietal junction – was the only part of the brain thought to be active when our minds wander.

However, the study finds that the brain's "executive network" – associated with high-level, complex problem-solving and including the lateral PFC and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – also becomes activated when we daydream.

I feel so vindicated. Those grade school teachers who complained about my daydreaming were trying to hold back my intellectual development and turn me into a mental slacker. But I persevered against their resistance and did mental gymnastics in spite of them.

By Randall Parker    2009 May 11 10:02 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2009 April 14 Tuesday
To Perform Better Be The Ball

Picture yourself holding the thing you want to understand and control better and you will perform better.

We've heard it before: "Imagine yourself passing the exam or scoring a goal and it will happen." We may roll our eyes and think that's easier said than done, but in a new study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychologists Christopher Davoli and Richard Abrams from Washington University suggest that the imagination may be more effective than we think in helping us reach our goals.

A group of students searched visual displays for specific letters (which were scattered among other letters serving as distractors) and identified them as quickly as possible by pressing a button. While performing this task, the students were asked to either imagine themselves holding the display monitor with both hands or with their hands behind their backs (it was emphasized that they were not to assume those poses, but just imagine them).

The results showed that simply imagining a posture may have effects that are similar to actually assuming the pose. The participants spent more time searching the display when they imagined themselves holding the monitor, compared to when they imagined themselves with their hands behind their backs. The researchers suggest that the slower rate of searching indicates a more thorough analysis of items closer to the hands. Previous research has shown that we spend more time looking at items close to our hands (items close to us are usually more important than those further away), but this is the first study suggesting that merely imagining something close to our hands will cause us to pay more attention to it.

They call the space around your body the "peripersonal space". Sounds cool.

Isn't this the message that Chevy Chase's character explained to Danny the Caddy in Caddyshack? "Stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball".

"Find your center, hear nothing, feel nothing".

By Randall Parker    2009 April 14 10:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2009 February 05 Thursday
Red For Detail But Blue For Creativity

News you can use: Color your environment based on the type of mental work you are trying to do.

A new University of British Columbia study reconciles a debate that has long raged among marketers and psychologists: What colour most improves brain performance and receptivity to advertising, red or blue?

It turns out they both can, it just depends on the nature of the task or message. The study, which could have major implications for advertising and interior design, finds that red is the most effective at enhancing our attention to detail, while blue is best at boosting our ability to think creatively.

"Previous research linked blue and red to enhanced cognitive performance, but disagreed on which provides the greatest boost," says Juliet Zhu of UBC's Sauder School of Business, author of the study which will appear in the Feb. 5 issue of Science Express. "It really depends on the nature of the task."

Between 2007 and 2008, the researchers tracked more than 600 participants' performance on six cognitive tasks that required either detail-orientation or creativity. Most experiments were conducted on computers, with a screen that was red, blue or white.

Red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31 per cent compared to blue. Conversely, for creative tasks such as brainstorming, blue environmental cues prompted participants to produce twice as many creative outputs as when under the red colour condition.

Okay, but what is mellow yellow good for? Also, what sort of work will you do best in a purple haze?

By Randall Parker    2009 February 05 11:06 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 January 20 Tuesday
Personalize Your Activities To Overcome Procrastination

News you can use (if you can only get past the procrastination stage and begin to apply it).

Led by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz in Germany, an international team of psychologists wanted to see if there might be a link between how we think of a task and our tendency to postpone it. In other words, are we more likely to see some tasks as psychologically "distant"-- and thus making us save them for later rather than tackling them now?

The psychologists handed out questionnaires to a group of students and asked them to respond by e-mail within three weeks. All the questions had to do with rather mundane tasks like opening a bank account and keeping a diary, but different students were given different instructions for answering the questions. Some thought and wrote about what each activity implied about personal traits: what kind of person has a bank account, for example. Others wrote simply about the nuts and bolts of doing each activity: speaking to a bank officer, filling out forms, making an initial deposit, and so forth. The idea was to get some students thinking abstractly and others concretely. Then the psychologists waited. And in some cases, waited and waited. They recorded all the response times to see if there was a difference between the two groups, and indeed there was a significant difference.

The findings, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, were very clear. Even though all of the students were being paid upon completion, those who thought about the questions abstractly were much more likely to procrastinate--and in fact some never got around to the assignment at all. By contrast, those who were focused on the how, when and where of doing the task e-mailed their responses much sooner, suggesting that they hopped right on the assignment rather than delaying it.

The authors note that "merely thinking about the task in more concrete, specific terms makes it feel like it should be completed sooner and thus reducing procrastination." They conclude that these results have important implications for teachers and managers who may want their students and employees starting on projects sooner. In addition, these findings are also relevant for those of us resolving to have better time management skills in the New Year!

Sound useful? I am going to try pondering tasks I put off that I really want to get to and try picturing myself doing the tasks, why those tasks matter to my life, and what traits one needs to have to accomplish those tasks. Find out if this works.

By Randall Parker    2009 January 20 10:39 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 January 18 Sunday
"Sully" Sullenberger Genius At 12 Years Old

While Sullenberger is hailed as a hero the big story here was not bravery. Rather, Sullenberger put in an impressive mental performance of decision making which was greatly aided by a genius-level mind.

Ace pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III was in seclusion Friday, a day after he saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew aboard US Airways Flight 1549. But America was learning much about its newest hero - even his IQ scores.

Sullenberger, 57, led the pack even as a child, when he consistently tested in the 99th percentile in every academic category. His IQ qualified him for the "genius society" Mensa when he was just 12 years old.

Innate intellectual ability matters a great deal. A dumber society will be a more accident-prone and less safe society.

By Randall Parker    2009 January 18 11:02 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2008 October 28 Tuesday
Interrupts Cut Into Work Productivity

A New York Times article looks at work interrupts as enemies of productivity.

A 2005 study, “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work,” found that people were interrupted and moved from one project to another about every 11 minutes. And each time, it took about 25 minutes to circle back to that same project.

Interestingly, a study published last April, “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress,” found that “people actually worked faster in conditions where they were interrupted, but they produced less,” said Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine and a co-author of both studies. And she also found that people were as likely to self-interrupt as to be interrupted by someone else.

“As observers, we’ll watch, and then after every 12 minutes or so, for no apparent reasons, someone working on a document will turn and call someone or e-mail,” she said. As I read that, I realized how often I was switching between writing this article and checking my e-mail.

Professor Mark said further research needed to be done to know why people work in these patterns, but our increasingly shorter attention spans probably have something to do with it.

What I wonder: Do we interrupt ourselves because it is in our nature to periodically look around and pay attention to other things in our environment? Do modern working conditions create demands upon us that clash with the mind's own instincts? Do we need to somehow suppress our instinctive tendencies in order to maximize our productivity?

Her study found that after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort and pressure.

So then how much of our stress and frustration stems from inflicting ourselves with interrupts of checking mail, checking web sites, sending text messages, and answering cell phone calls? I am amazed at how many times certain co-workers let themselves get interrupted by cell phone calls. I get interrupted enough by people in front of me without the need to get still more interrupts from people in other locations.

Also see my previous posts Brain Limits Ability To Multitask Interruptions, Work Distractions Lower Effective IQ, and Brain Scans Indicate When Best To Multitask.

By Randall Parker    2008 October 28 11:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2008 September 02 Tuesday
Brain Scans Indicate When Best To Multitask

If only you could sit under an fMRI brain scanner all day the machine operator could tell you when it best to juggle lots of interrupts.

While having the study participants multitask, Leber and his colleagues at Yale University monitored their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The research confirmed that multitasking is, on average, inefficient. However, the brain scans allowed the researchers to predict when people would be poor multitaskers and optimal multitaskers.

There's another way to spin this result: If we could find ways to up the level of activity in certain areas of hte brain then we could multitask better.

Most dramatically, the changes in performance were preceded by changes in the participants' brain activity patterns. Higher levels of activity in brain regions such as the basal ganglia, anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex, and parietal cortex corresponded to better multitasking performance.

"What is so striking about this result is that brain activity predicted multitasking performance before participants even knew whether they would be asked to switch or repeat tasks," Leber said.

Being able to predict when people are in optimal multitasking states raises tantalizing prospects for maximizing productivity in our daily lives, according to Leber. Ideally, we should reserve task juggling for known periods of optimal multitasking while doing repetitive tasks during known periods of poor multitasking.

I would like to know what sorts of environmental influences put us in states where we are more able to multitask. Also, what do we lose in such states? Are we less able to think through a single task when in a state where our multitasking ability is improved? That is what I perceive. I get into states where I think I'm better off handling yet more interrupts once I've started getting interrupted. Getting back to the single minded focus on a single task can be hard once one starts juggling lots of things.

If you get interrupted a lot and find it hard to get back into a focused mental state then meditation might help.

Experienced Zen meditators can clear their minds of distractions more quickly than novices, according to a new brain imaging study.

After being interrupted by a word-recognition task, experienced meditators' brains returned faster to their pre-interruption condition, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine found.

The results will be published online by the journal Public Library of Science One (PLoS ONE). http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0003083

By Randall Parker    2008 September 02 11:27 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2008 June 18 Wednesday
Optical Illusions Caused By Brain Projecting Future

The brain has image processing circuitry that shows you a best guess image of the present based on info seen at least a tenth of a second ago.

When shown two images in quick succession, one of a dot on the left of a screen and one with the dot on the right, the brain sees motion from left to right, even though there was none. The visual system has apparently constructed the scenario after it has been perceived, reconciling the jagged images by imputing motion.

In an experiment originated by Dr. Nijhawan, people watch an object pass a flashbulb. The timing is exact: the bulb flashes precisely as the object passes. But people perceive that the object has moved past the bulb before it flashes. Scientists argue that the brain has evolved to see a split second into the future when it perceives motion. Because it takes the brain at least a tenth of a second to model visual information, it is working with old information. By modeling the future during movement, it is “seeing” the present.

Dr. Changizi and his colleagues hold that it is a general principle the brain applies to a wide variety of illusions that trick the brain into sensing motion.

Usually the brain's visual simulation of the future helps you to understand the past, present, and future. But your conscious mind is constantly getting fed a projection based on older sensory input.

Do you think this generation of illusion by the mind is limited to what you see? I seriously doubt it. There are plenty of signs from the research literature that human brains fool themselves in all sorts of ways. People in negative moods seem to form more accurate memories than those in positive moods. Whether depressed people see themselves more or less accurately than non-depressed people is debated. My guess is the answer is it depends on the depth of the depression and which aspect of self-evaluation is in question.

Non-depressed people create an illusion of being in control when they do well in circumstances where they really have no control.

Individual subjects were placed in front of a panel with a green light, a yellow light and a spring loaded button, and were instructed to make the green light flash as often as possible. In one segment, they would win money every time the green light went on. In another, they would lose money when it didn't. A screen in the room showed their score. Afterward, subjects were asked how much control they had. … Among the "normal," non-depressed subjects, it depended on whether they were losing or making money. When they were winning money, they thought they had considerable control. … When they were losing money, they thought they had virtually no control. In other words, these subjects took credit for good scores and dished off blame when scores were poor. … The depressed subjects saw things differently. Whether they were winning or losing money, they tended to believe they had no control. And they were correct: the "game" was a fiction.

This desire to feel in control is probably adaptive. Even if one is not in absolute control believing and behaving as if one has some control over one's circumstances probably boosts survival by motivating people to act and to try to manipulate reality.

By Randall Parker    2008 June 18 10:29 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2008 April 14 Monday
People Make Decisions Seconds Before They Know

You often make up your mind and then wait to find out what you decided.

Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain. This is shown in a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with the Charité University Hospital and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made. "Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings." (Nature Neuroscience, April 13th 2008)

Do we just have the illusion of free will? Probably. Does our mind full the conscious part of the brain into believing it is in charge when it is not?

Imagine a computer that monitors your brain, detects a choice you want to make, and carries out your will before you consciously know what you decided.

In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision. Normally researchers look at what happens when the decision is made, but not at what happens several seconds before. The fact that decisions can be predicted so long before they are made is a astonishing finding.

The ability to detect decision in advance would give fighter pilots a big advantage. Ditto for car drivers who need to avoid an accident.

Thanks to Jill (whoever she is) for the heads up.

By Randall Parker    2008 April 14 10:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2007 July 29 Sunday
Gestures Improve Memory Retention

Gesticulate to learn more.

Kids asked to physically gesture at math problems are nearly three times more likely than non-gesturers to remember what they’ve learned. In today’s issue of the journal Cognition, a University of Rochester scientist suggests it’s possible to help children learn difficult concepts by providing gestures as an additional and potent avenue for taking in information.

“We’ve known for a while that we use gestures to add information to a conversation even when we’re not entirely clear how that information relates to what we’re saying,” says Susan Wagner Cook, lead author and postdoctoral fellow at the University. “We asked if the reverse could be true; if actively employing gestures when learning helps retain new information.”

It turned out to have a more dramatic effect than Cook expected. In her study, 90 percent of students who had learned algebraic concepts using gestures remembered them three weeks later. Only 33 percent of speech-only students who had learned the concept during instruction later retained the lesson. And perhaps most astonishing of all, 90 percent of students who had learned by gesture alone—no speech at all—recalled what they’d been taught.

I find that both saying what I learn and writing what I learn helps to retain the concepts and information better. Also, getting questioned about recently learned information increases retention.

By Randall Parker    2007 July 29 11:24 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2007 May 03 Thursday
Noise Degrades Messages In Brain

Ever find a thought somehow gets lost in the noise? Our neurons suffer from noise effects when transmitting data.

Addressing a current issue in neuroscience, Aldo Faisal and Simon Laughlin from Cambridge University investigate the reliability of thin axons for transmitting information. They show that noise effects in ion channels in the brain are much larger than previously assumed – meaning the fidelity of transmission is compromised.

Neurons in the cerebral cortex of the brain can have a wiring density of up to 4km per mm3 by using incredibly thin axons as wires, with an average diameter of 0.3 micrometers (1ìm is one millionth of a meter). Although, as in computer chips, this miniaturization economizes on space and energy, it increases the noise introduced by thermodynamic fluctuations in a neuron's voltage-gated ion channels. Axons use action potential (AP) to transmit information fast and reliably to synapses, but the reliability of transmissions down fibers of less than 0.5 ìm in diameter was unknown until this paper.

The human brain is a pretty flawed instrument. Those who claim that human bodies must be the product of an intelligent designer obviously aren't looking at the human body from an engineering perspective. The deficiencies of the structure and function of the human body seem obvious though.

Looking forward a future generation of transhumans will gain many advantages over humans. Those advantages will come from intelligent design done by humans to improve our brains with better designs of brain components.

You can read the full article.

By Randall Parker    2007 May 03 10:54 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2006 July 25 Tuesday
Distractions Reduce Learning

You learn less when you have to juggle more distractions.

Multi-tasking affects the brain's learning systems, and as a result, we do not learn as well when we are distracted, UCLA psychologists report this week in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn," said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study. "Even if you learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily. Our study shows that to the degree you can learn while multi-tasking, you will use different brain systems.

"The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember," Poldrack added. "Our data support that. When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don't learn as well as if you had paid full attention."

You'll remember less about how you did a task if you had to do another task at the same time.

Participants in the study, who were in their 20s, learned a simple classification task by trial-and-error. They were asked to make predictions after receiving a set of cues concerning cards that displayed various shapes, and divided the cards into two categories. With one set of cards, they learned without any distractions. With a second set of cards, they performed a simultaneous task: listening to high and low beeps through headphones and keeping a mental count of the high-pitch beeps. While the distraction of the beeps did not reduce the accuracy of the predictions - people could learn the task either way - it did reduce the participants' subsequent knowledge about the task during a follow-up session.

When the subjects were asked questions about the cards afterward, they did much better on the task they learned without the distraction. On the task they learned with the distraction, they could not extrapolate; in scientific terms, their knowledge was much less "flexible."

This result demonstrates a reduced capacity to recall memories when placed in a different context, Poldrack said.

If you have only one task to focus on your can notice more patterns and look at it in more ways while you are doing it. You can basically sift through and make more sense of it. That lets you use the experience of that task in more ways.

It is a continual source of amazement to me just how distracting office workplaces are. This report is yet another argument against the rows of cubicles with all the noise and distractionn the lack of walls brings.

By Randall Parker    2006 July 25 10:34 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2006 June 29 Thursday
Parts Of Brain Used For Math Differ For English, Chinese Speakers

Chinese and English speakers both use the inferior parietal cortex when doing math. But Chinese and English speakers use different additional brain regions for calculating.

“But native English speakers rely more on additional brain regions involved in the meaning of words, whereas native Chinese speakers rely more on additional brain regions involved in the visual appearance and physical manipulation of numbers,” says Eric Reiman of the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, US, one of the team.

Specifically, Chinese speakers had more activity in the visual and spatial brain centre called the visuo-premotor association network. Native English speakers showed more activity in the language network known as perisylvian cortices in the left half of the brain.

Reiman and his colleagues suggest that the Chinese language’s simple way of describing numbers may make native speakers less reliant on language processing when doing maths. For example, “eleven” is “ten one” in Chinese “twenty-one” is “two ten one”.

Note that the native Engilsih speakers used in the study probably were not ethnic Chinese. So this study does not control for genetic factors. I'd like to see this study repeated in an English speaking country with Chinese ethnics who were raised to speak English from birth. Also, a comparison with other groups and with more languages would provide more controls.

If people use different parts of the brain to perform the same problems they probably think differently about the world.

The difference "may mean that Chinese speakers perform problems in a different manner than do English speakers," said lead author Yiyuan Tang of Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China.

"In part that might represent the difference in language. It could be that the difference in language encourages different styles of computation and this may be enhanced by different methods of learning to deal with numbers," Tang said in an interview via e-mail.

More use of some part of the brain to do computations might reduce the availability of that part of the brain for other uses. That, in turn, probably changes how the mind models the world.

This report is consistent with previous research which found differences in which parts of the mind process language. See Mandarin Language Uses More Of The Brain Than English.

I'd also like to brain scan comparisons done of people with different occupations (e.g. physicists, mathematicians, truck drivers, lawyers, reporters) for how they do mathematics. Do they differ between occupations as much as English and Chinese speakers differ?

By Randall Parker    2006 June 29 09:18 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2003 June 29 Sunday
Mandarin Language Uses More Of The Brain Than English

Dr. Sophie Scott of the University College London and colleagues have discovered that English and Mandarin language speakers use their brains in different ways to decode language.

They found that the left temporal lobe, which is located by the left temple, becomes active when English speakers hear English.

...

However, they found that both their left and right temporal lobes become active when they hear Mandarin.

"People who speak different sorts of languages use their brains to decode speech in different ways," said Dr Scott.

Two questions immediately arise in my mind in response to these results:

  • By causing more language processing to take place on the right side of the brain does the use of Mandarin versus English exert subtle effects on how people think about the world?
  • Did the need to speak Mandarin exert any kind of natural selection effect on genes coding for mental characteristics in humans in those areas where it has been spoken for a long time? For instance, did it select for a greater integration between the two halves of the brain in order to be able to process tones and integrate them with the brain's language center?l

People have been arguing for a long time whether the language one speaks is responsible for at least some of the conceptual model which one uses to make sense of the world. I'm reminded of Samuel Delaney's Babel 17 in which a character learns a more precise alien language and by doing so has the way she looks at life altered.

Locked into English, Rydra awakens to a certain reality - she is trapped in a strange restraining web. In desperation she switches in her thoughts to the language Babel-17, which she has partially mastered: "She looked down at the - not 'webbing' but rather a three particle vowel differential, each part of which defined one stress of the three-way tie, so that the weakest points in the mesh were identified when the total sound of the differential reached its lowest point." The perspective afforded by the new language enables her to see the weakness of the webbing: "By breaking the threads at these points, she realized, the whole web would unravel". Switching to another language creates another reality: Rydra is able to free herself."

Now, Delaney's novel is kinda nuts and hard slogging to get thru. If I went back and read it now I'd probably not even like it as much as I did way back when. But while the exact effects that Babel-17 had on the characters in his book may have little in common with the differences caused by thinking in different human languages the idea that the structure of a language has effects on how we think seems a lot more plausble. That two languages can differ so much in their intellectual demands that the effects of hearing them causes a large visible difference in brain scans certainly makes much more plausible the idea that differences between human languages can cause significant differences in cognitive processing.

For example, given that parsing the sounds of Mandarin language into something intelligible causes both sides of the brain to light up does that make it more likely that a Mandarin speaker will access different kinds of memories (textual vs emotional vs visual and so on) from both sides of the brain than a person who interprets spoken language on only one side of the brain? My point here is not to argue that doing so will enhance total cognitive performance. I'm just thinking that something about how people reason about reality (e.g. whether they tend to think spatially or whether they tend to connect melodies to textual memories) will be different if they use both versus one side of the brain to interpret language.

Also, if more of the mind is used to process language then that raises the possibility that less of the mind is available for other purposes. Whatever area of the right temporal lobe that processes language sounds in Mandarin speakers is not available to do whatever that part of the brain tends to do in English speakers. Did this create an extra selective pressure in evolution among Chinese that caused some other part of the brain to be bigger to accomodate the greater need for brain area to do language processing?

By Randall Parker    2003 June 29 11:01 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
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