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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 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. Read the rest of this entry »

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