Some fortunate people have more “working memory” than others. It’s as if they have an extra pair of hands available for mental juggling; extremely useful for doing arithmetic and similar tasks in your head. These folk with abundant working memory capacity also tend to fare well academically and in their careers. Little surprise that “brain training” games like Lumosity and Cogmed target working memory in pursuit of these knock-on benefits (though the evidence that the training brings such benefits is weak).
What is surprising is the discovery a number of years ago that mentally dextrous people with greater working memory capacity seem to be particularly susceptible to “brain freeze” or choking under pressure.
For a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University attempted to find out more about why this happens. Their results suggest that actually it’s only a subgroup of high working memory people who have this problem and it’s because of their high distractibility. These high ability chokers or brain freeze victims are “typically reliant on their higher working memory resources for advanced problem solving” but their poor attentional control renders them easily distracted by anxiety, causing their usual mental deftness to break down when the pressure is on.
Daniel Kish’s life reads like the origins story out of a super hero comic book. To treat his cancer, doctors removed both Kish’s eyes when he was aged one. Later, as a child, he taught himself to echolocate like a bat. Using the echoes from his own clicking sounds he detects the world around him. He can even cycle busy streets and it’s his life’s mission to empower other blind children by teaching them echolocation or what he calls flashsonar.
Psychologists studying the skill have found that it is eminently teachable, for blind people and the sighted. But what’s also become clear is that there is a huge amount of variation between individuals: some people, blind or sighted, seem to pick it up easily while others struggle. A new study in Experimental Brain Research is among the first to try to find out which mental abilities, if any, correlate with echolocation aptitude. The findings could help screening to see who is likely to benefit from echolocation and offer clues to how to help those who struggle.
In the UK we’re familiar with the practical implications of increasing population density: traffic jams, longer waits to see a doctor, a lack of available housing. What many of us probably hadn’t realised is how living in crowded environment could be affecting us at a deep psychological level, fostering in us a more future-oriented mindset or what evolutionary psychologists call a “slow life history” strategy.
In their paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Oliver Sng at the University of Michigan and his colleagues present a range of evidence that shows how this strategy plays out in the more patient ways that we approach our relationships, parenting and economic decisions. In essence, the researchers are proposing that the presence of greater numbers of other people in close proximity prompts us to invest in the future as way to compete more effectively.
If you look at the research literature on self-serving biases, it’s little surprise that critical thinking – much needed in today’s world – is such a challenge. Consider three human biases that you may already have heard of: most of us think we’re better than average at most things (also known as illusory superiority or the Lake Wobegon Effect); we’re also prone to “confirmation bias”, which is favouring evidence that supports our existing views; and we’re also susceptible to the “endowment effect” which describes the extra value we place on things, just as soon as they are ours.
A new paper in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by Aiden Gregg and his colleagues at the University of Southampton extends the list of known biases by documenting a new one that combines elements of the better-than-average effect, confirmation bias and the endowment effect. Gregg’s team have shown that simply asking participants to imagine that a theory is their own biases them to believe in the truth of that theory – a phenomenon that the researchers have called the Spontaneous Preference For Own Theories (SPOT) Effect.
Understanding jokes requires a certain amount of mental agility, psychologists tell us, because you need to recognise a sudden shift in meaning, or appreciate the blending of odd contexts that don’t normally go together. A new study in the journal Cognitive Processing has tested whether intelligence plays the same role in the appreciation of sick or black humour: the kind of jokes that make light of death, illness and the vulnerable. Consistent with past research linking intelligence with joke appreciation, the participants who most liked cartoons based on black humour also scored highest on verbal and non-verbal IQ.
Between 1837 and 1860 Charles Darwin kept a diary of every book he read, including An Essay on the Principle of Population, Principles of Geology and Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. There were many others: 687 English non-fiction titles alone, meaning that he averaged one book every ten days. After Darwin finished each one, how did he decide what to read next? In this decision, a scientist like Darwin was confronted with a problem similar to that afflicting the squirrel in search of nuts. Is it better to thoroughly search one area (or topic), or to continually jump to new areas (topics)? Foraging, whether for nuts or information, comes down to a choice between exploitation and exploration. In a new paper in Cognition, a team led by Jaimie Murdock has analysed the contents of the English non-fiction books Darwin read, and the order he read them in, to find out his favoured information-gathering approach and how it changed over time.
The traffic lights turn amber: should you brake or accelerate on through? If there’s a teenager at the wheel, the chances are he or she will put their foot down and keep going. Teenagers love taking risks, more so than any other age group. This is partly down to the immaturity of the teen brain: they do not yet show the same connectivity between frontal decision making areas and deeper reward-related brain areas, as compared with adults. But there’s also a social element. When an adult is around, teens tend to take fewer risks, and their brains show less reward-related activity after taking a risk, a phenomenon that psychologists call “social scaffolding” because it is as if the adult presence is helping the teen to attain adult-like behaviour. A new study in Developmental Science builds on these findings and makes the claim that a teenager’s brain is influenced to a greater extent by the presence of his or her mother than by an unfamiliar adult. Continue reading “Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around”→
Life would be awfully confusing if we weren’t able to recognise familiar faces. It’s a skill most of us take for granted, and we rarely stop to consider the impressive cognitive wizardry involved. But some of us are better at it than others: in the last decade or so it’s become apparent that around two per cent of the population are born with a severe face-recognition impairment (known as congenital prosopagnosia), that there is a similar proportion of “super-recognisers” with unusually exceptional face-recognition skills, and that the rest of us are on a spectrum in between.
Where do you think your abilities lie? A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that, unless you are severely impaired at face-recognition, you probably don’t have much insight into this question. When participants were confronted with the question: “Overall, from 1-‘very poor’ to 9-‘very good’, how would you describe your general ability to recognise faces?”, the research found that most participants’ answers bore no relation to their performance on a range of lab-based face-recognition tests.
It’s popularly believed that left-handers are uncommonly blessed with talents like high intelligence or an artistic temperament, but this is a myth. In fact, some studies even show cognitive deficits in lefties (though other research has failed to confirm this) and in terms of their take-home salaries, surveys suggest that left-handers lag behind the right-handed by as much as ten per cent, possibly indicating a difficulty in competing under commercial conditions. In a recent study in PLOS One, Marcello Sartarelli from the Universidad de Alicante attempted to replicate this deficit under controlled laboratory conditions using a simulated labour market. Lefties actually competed more strongly than expected, but they also exhibited some intriguing performance quirks linked with personality that set them apart from the right-handed majority.
Much attention has been focused recently on whether brain training programmes have the far-reaching benefits claimed by their commercial purveyors. Brain training usually involves completing exercises on computer to strengthen your working memory – essentially your ability to hold in mind and process multiple items of information at once (“cognitive training” would be a more apt name). The argument put forward by brain training companies like Lumosity and Posit Science, is that working memory is such a fundamental mental process that if you boost your working memory capacity through training, then you will experience wide-ranging benefits, even in ostensibly unrelated activities, such as in your performance at work. However, a comprehensive review published earlier this year concluded that there is in fact inadequate evidence to justify such bold claims. Now a study in Memory and Cognition brings even worse news for brain training enthusiasts – compared to control conditions, working memory training was actually found to worsen performance on a test of recognition memory. Continue reading “Brain training may be harmful to some aspects of memory performance”→