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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:

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 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: 


- 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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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

  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.

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