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Training Attention and Emotional Self-Regulation — Interview with Michael Posner

(Editor’s Note: this is one of the 20 inter­views included in the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age)

Michael I. Pos­ner is a promi­nent sci­en­tist in the field of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science. He is cur­rently an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon (Depart­mentMichael Posner of Psy­chol­ogy, Insti­tute of Cog­ni­tive and Deci­sion Sci­ences). In August 2008, the Inter­na­tional Union of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence made him the first recip­i­ent of the Dogan Prize “in recog­ni­tion of a con­tri­bu­tion that rep­re­sents a major advance in psy­chol­ogy by a scholar or team of schol­ars of high inter­na­tional reputation.”

Dr. Pos­ner, many thanks for your time today. I really enjoyed the James Arthur Lec­ture mono­graph on Evo­lu­tion and Devel­op­ment of Self-Regulation that you deliv­ered last year. Could you pro­vide a sum­mary of the research you presented?

I would empha­size that we human beings can reg­u­late our thoughts, emo­tions, and actions to a greater degree than other pri­mates. For exam­ple, we can choose to pass up an imme­di­ate reward for a larger, delayed reward.

We can plan ahead, resist dis­trac­tions, be goal-oriented. These human char­ac­ter­is­tics appear to depend upon what we often call “self-regulation.” What is excit­ing these days is that progress in neu­roimag­ing and in genet­ics make it pos­si­ble to think about self-regulation in terms of spe­cific brain-based networks.

Can you explain what self-regulation is?

All par­ents have seen this in their kids. Par­ents can see the remark­able trans­for­ma­tion as their chil­dren develop the abil­ity to reg­u­late emo­tions and to per­sist with goals in the face of dis­trac­tions. That abil­ity is usu­ally labeled ‚ self-regulation.

The other main area of your research is atten­tion. Can you explain the brain-basis for what we usu­ally call “attention”?

I have been inter­ested in how the atten­tion sys­tem devel­ops in infancy and early childhood.

One of our major find­ings, thanks to neu­roimag­ing, is that there is not one sin­gle “atten­tion”, but three sep­a­rate func­tions of atten­tion with three sep­a­rate under­ly­ing brain net­works: alert­ing, ori­ent­ing, and exec­u­tive atten­tion.
1) Alert­ing: helps us main­tain an Alert State.

2) Ori­ent­ing: focuses our senses on the infor­ma­tion we want. For exam­ple, you are now lis­ten­ing to my voice.

3) Exec­u­tive Atten­tion: reg­u­lates a vari­ety of net­works, such as emo­tional responses and sen­sory infor­ma­tion. This is crit­i­cal for most other skills, and clearly cor­re­lated with aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance. It is dis­trib­uted in frontal lobes and the cin­gu­late gyrus.

The devel­op­ment of exec­u­tive atten­tion can be eas­ily observed both by ques­tion­naire and cog­ni­tive tasks after about age 3 –4, when par­ents can iden­tify the abil­ity of their chil­dren to reg­u­late their emo­tions and con­trol their behav­ior in accord with social demands.

“Exec­u­tive atten­tion” sounds sim­i­lar to exec­u­tive functions.

Exec­u­tive func­tions are goal-oriented. Exec­u­tive atten­tion is just the abil­ity to man­age atten­tion towards those goals, towards planning.

Both are clearly cor­re­lated. Exec­u­tive atten­tion is impor­tant for decision-making (how to accom­plish an exter­nal goal) and with work­ing mem­ory (the tem­po­rary stor­age of infor­ma­tion). For exam­ple, given that you said ear­lier that you liked my mono­graph,  I have been think­ing of the sub­head­ings and sec­tions there as I pro­vide you my answers, using my work­ing mem­ory capacity.

You said that each of the three func­tions of atten­tion are sup­ported by sep­a­rate neural networks.

Neu­roimag­ing allows us to iden­tify sets of dis­trib­uted areas that oper­ate together. Dif­fer­ent tech­niques allow us to see dif­fer­ent things. For exam­ple, fMRI lets us see the acti­va­tion of areas of grey mat­ter. A more recent tech­nique, dif­fu­sion ten­sor, is focused instead on the white mat­ter. It detects con­nec­tiv­ity among neu­rons, it helps us see a map of networks.

How many net­works have been iden­ti­fied so far?

So far, a num­ber of net­works have been iden­ti­fied. For an illus­tra­tion, you can see the won­der­ful inter­ac­tive Brain Map by the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, San Anto­nio (Note: http://www.brainmap.org/).

Let me men­tion another fas­ci­nat­ing area of research. There is a type of neu­ron, named the Von Economo neu­ron, which is found only in the ante­rior cin­gu­late and a related area of the ante­rior insula, very com­mon in humans, less in other pri­mates, and com­pletely absent in most non-primates.  These neu­rons have long axons, con­nect­ing to the ante­rior cin­gu­late and ante­rior insula, which we think is part of the rea­son why we have Exec­u­tive Atten­tion. Dif­fu­sion ten­sor allows us to iden­tify this white mat­ter, these con­nec­tions across sep­a­rate brain struc­tures, in the live brain. From a prac­ti­cal point of view, we can think that neural net­works like this are what enable spe­cific human traits such as effort­ful control.

What is effort­ful control?

It is a higher-order tem­pera­ment fac­tor con­sist­ing of atten­tion, focus shift­ing, and inhibitory con­trol — both for chil­dren and adults. A com­mon exam­ple is how often you may make plans that you do not fol­low through with. A test often used to mea­sure exec­u­tive atten­tion is the Stroop Test (you can try it here). Effort­ful con­trol has been shown to cor­re­late with the scores on exec­u­tive atten­tion at sev­eral ages dur­ing child­hood, and imag­ing stud­ies have linked it to brain areas involved in self-regulation.

Good par­ent­ing has been shown to build good effort­ful con­trol, so there are clear impli­ca­tions from this research.

Tell us now about your recent research on atten­tion training

Sev­eral train­ing pro­grams have been suc­cess­ful in improv­ing atten­tion in nor­mal adults and in patients suf­fer­ing from dif­fer­ent patholo­gies. With nor­mal adults, train­ing with video games pro­duced bet­ter per­for­mance on a range of visual atten­tion tasks. Train­ing has also led to spe­cific improve­ments in exec­u­tive atten­tion in patients with spe­cific brain injury. Working-memory train­ing can improve atten­tion with ADHD children.

In one recent study we devel­oped and tested a 5-day train­ing inter­ven­tion using com­put­er­ized exer­cises. We tested the effect of train­ing dur­ing the period of major devel­op­ment of exec­u­tive atten­tion, which takes place between 4 and 7 years of age.

We found that exec­u­tive atten­tion was train­able, and also a sig­nif­i­cantly greater improve­ment in intel­li­gence in the trained group com­pared to the con­trol chil­dren. This find­ing sug­gested that train­ing effects had gen­er­al­ized to a mea­sure of cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing that is far removed from the train­ing exercises.

A col­lab­o­ra­tor of our lab, Dr. Yiyuan Tang, stud­ied the impact of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion with under­grads to improve exec atten­tion, find­ing sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments as well. We hope that train­ing method like this will be fur­ther eval­u­ated, along with other meth­ods, both as pos­si­ble means of improv­ing atten­tion prior to school and for chil­dren and adults with spe­cific needs.

Can you explain the poten­tial impli­ca­tions of this emerg­ing research on Edu­ca­tion and Health?

It is clear that exec­u­tive atten­tion and effort­ful con­trol are crit­i­cal for suc­cess in school. Will they one day be trained in pre-schools? It sounds rea­son­able to believe so, to make sure all kids are ready to learn. Of course, addi­tional stud­ies are needed to deter­mine exactly how and when atten­tion train­ing can best be accom­plished and its last­ing importance.

In terms of health, many deficits and clin­i­cal prob­lems have a com­po­nent of seri­ous deficits in exec­u­tive atten­tion net­work. For exam­ple, when we talk about atten­tion deficits, we can expect that in the future there will be reme­di­a­tion meth­ods, such as work­ing mem­ory train­ing, to help alle­vi­ate those deficits.

Let me add that we have found no ceil­ing for abil­i­ties such as atten­tion, includ­ing among adults. The more train­ing, even with nor­mal peo­ple, the higher the results.

Let me ask your take on that eter­nal ques­tion, the roles of nature and nurture.

There is a grow­ing num­ber of stud­ies that show the impor­tance of inter­ac­tion between our genes and each of our envi­ron­ments. Epi­ge­net­ics is going to help us under­stand that ques­tion bet­ter, but let me share a very inter­est­ing piece of research from my lab where we found an unusual inter­ac­tion between genet­ics and parenting.

Good par­ent­ing, as mea­sured by dif­fer­ent research-based scales, has been shown to build good effort­ful con­trol which, as we saw ear­lier, is so impor­tant. Now, what we found is that some spe­cific genes reduced, even elim­i­nated, the influ­ence of the qual­ity of par­ent­ing. In other words, some children’s devel­op­ment really depends on how their par­ents bring them up, whereas oth­ers do not — or do to a much smaller extent.

Too bad that we do not have time now to explore all the poten­tial eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions from emerg­ing research like that…let me ask a few final ques­tions. First, given that we have been talk­ing both about for­mal train­ing pro­grams (computer-based, med­i­ta­tion) and also infor­mal ones (par­ent­ing), do we know how for­mal and infor­mal learn­ing inter­act? what type can be most effec­tive when, and for whom?

Great ques­tion. We don’t know at this point. A research insti­tute in Seat­tle, funded by the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, is try­ing to address that ques­tion. One prac­ti­cal issue they address is the influ­ence of bilin­gual edu­ca­tion on cognition.

How can Sharp­Brains read­ers access the computer-based atten­tion train­ing pro­gram you talked about earlier?

Researchers and par­ents can down­load the pro­gram, which is aimed at kids aged 4 to 6. The com­put­er­ized exer­cises are avail­able on www.teach-the-brain.org. Click on learn­ing tools and fol­low attention.

Finally, what can we expect from your lab in the next years?

We will hear soon if we obtain the NIH pro­posal to train chil­dren at age 5 and then follow-up over the years, com­pared to a con­trol group. The pro­gram I men­tioned ear­lier showed good short-term results, but we would like to track those kids over time and see what hap­pens. For exam­ple, we will exam­ine whether or not an early inter­ven­tion might trans­late into a “snow­ball effect” of higher lev­els of cog­ni­tive and school performance.

To learn more: 

Ref­er­ences:

- Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al. (2007). Short-term med­i­ta­tion train­ing improves atten­tion and self-regulation. Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sci­ences, 104(43), 17152–17156.

–Rueda, M.R., Roth­bart, M.K.. & Sac­ca­manno, L. & Pos­ner, M.I. (2005) Training,maturation and genetic influ­ences on the devel­op­ment of exec­u­tive atten­tion. Proc.U.S Nat’l Acad of Sci­ences 102, 14931–14936.

- Rueda, M.R., Pos­ner, M.I., & Rothbart,M.K. (2005) The devel­op­ment of exec­u­tive atten­tion: con­tri­bu­tions to the emer­gence of self reg­u­la­tion. Devel­op­men­tal Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy 28, 573–594.

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6 Responses

  1. […] Next up we have a hand­ful of neu­ro­science and psy­chol­ogy posts. Sharp Brains brings us an inter­view with Michael Pos­ner in Train­ing Atten­tion and Emo­tional Self-Regulation and Ouroboros tells us how our thoughts can affect our health with An apple a day keeps the doc­tor away, but beware of intru­sive thoughts. It’s Alive is using his brain to pon­der Sex, what is it good for? and round­ing out the brainy part of this edi­tion of Tan­gled Bank, we have a pair of posts from Neu­ro­topia: Remem­ber the Old Days? and It’s not the size that counts, it’s how you use it!. […]

  2. Aditya says:

    Thanks for the fan­tas­tic review!

    I’d be very curi­ous to hear which research insti­tute in Seat­tle Dr. Pos­ner is refer­ring to.

    Any idea?

  3. Hello Aditya, I asked that ques­tion to Dr. Pos­ner. His response:

    It’s the Life Insti­tute. Learn­ing in infor­mal and for­mal envi­ron­ments. The direc­tor is John Brans­ford, School of Edu­ca­tion. The bilin­gual work is by Patri­cia Kuhl, Dept. of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Dis­or­ders and also Co-Director of the Institute”.

    Their URL is http://life-slc.org/

  4. Very inter­est­ing arti­cle, par­tic­u­larly the parts about exec­u­tive atten­tion and effort­ful con­trol. We work in cor­po­rate envi­ron­ments using neu­ro­science as the foun­da­tion for chang­ing cor­po­rate cul­tures and improv­ing per­for­mance. Many orga­ni­za­tions are expe­ri­enc­ing intense pres­sures that lead to frag­mented atten­tion, and as a result, decreased per­for­mance. We are try­ing to use the ideas such as those Dr. Pos­ner describes to help peo­ple become bet­ter at focus­ing atten­tion and, ide­ally, improv­ing cor­po­rate performance.

  5. Dear William, indeed, both atten­tional con­trol and emo­tional self-regulation can be great areas of work at the exec­u­tive level. There is still lim­ited top-quality pub­lished stud­ies focused on those spe­cific audiences/ goals (usu­ally research is more focused with peo­ple with spe­cific health or learn­ing prob­lems), but we hope to see com­pa­nies pay more atten­tion to oppor­tu­ni­ties to improve cog­ni­tive (and cor­po­rate) performance.

  6. […] Dr. Michael Pos­ner, Ore­gon neuroscientist, was recently inter­viewed by Alvaro Fernandez on the neu­ro­science of attention/attentiveness and emo­tional self-regulation. Dr. Pos­ner the­o­rizes that there is a spe­cific por­tion of the human brain that is used to allo­cate atten­tion. From this atten­tion comes “effort­ful con­trol“: the abil­ity to focus atten­tion in order to accom­plish a task. […]

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