Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

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.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

5 Responses

  1. 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?

  2. 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/

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Neuroscience Interview Series

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

Follow us and Engage via…

twitter_logo_header
RSS Feed

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives