Category: Cognition

Psychologists have shown that it’s possible to train one-year-olds’ attention skills

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What’s the best age for a child start school? Four, as in the UK? Six or seven, as in Sweden? What about one?

By Emma Young

According to a new paper in Developmental Psychology, children as young as 12-months-old can be taught to get better at focusing their attention – which may help with their acquisition of language, and other types of learning. This new study involved typical, healthy infants. But the findings could also be taken as support for the idea that interventions aimed at children showing problems with attention (who may go on to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for example) can, and should, start at a very young age.

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Having an open-minded personality manifests at a basic level of visual perception

Rene Descartes' diagram of the human brain and eye, 1692.By Christian Jarrett

Openness to Experience is one of the so-called Big Five personality traits and, among other things, it’s associated with being more creative, curious and appreciative of the arts. Like all the traits, where you score has important implications – for instance, there’s recent evidence that being more Open is associated with having more “cognitive reserve”, which gives you protection from the harmful effects of dementia.

Openness correlates with, but is distinct from, intelligence, and psychologists are trying to find out more about what the basis of Openness is at a cognitive and neural level. A new paper in Journal of Research in Personality shows that the trait runs deep, even affecting a very basic aspect of visual perception. It seems Open people literally see the world differently.

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Brief mindfulness training does not foster empathy, and can even make narcissists worse

By Emma Young

Sharing with others, helping people in need, consoling those who are distressed. All these behaviours can be encouraged by empathy – by understanding what other people are thinking and feeling, and sharing their emotions. Enhance empathy, especially in those who tend to have problems with it – like narcissists – and society as a whole might benefit. So how can it be done?

In fact, the cultivation of empathy is a “presumed benefit” of mindfulness training, note the authors of a new study, published in Self and Identity, designed to investigate this experimentally. People who are “mindfully aware” focus on the present moment, without judgement. So, it’s been argued, they should be better able to resist getting caught up in their own thoughts, freeing them to think more about the mental states of other people. As mindfulness courses are increasingly being offered in schools and workplaces, as well as in mental health settings, it’s important to know what such training can and can’t achieve. The new results suggest it won’t foster empathy – and, worse, it could even backfire.

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Neural changes after taking psychedelic drugs may reflect “heightened consciousness”

Girl's Portrait With Crazy Hair - Lifestyle Concept.By Emma Young

Is there anything psychedelic drugs can’t do? A recent wave of scientific scrutiny has revealed that they can elicit “spiritual” experiences, alleviate end-of-life angst, and perhaps treat depression – and they might achieve at least some of all this by “heightening consciousness”, according to a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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New review punctures the myth that now is three seconds long

Three SecondsBy Emma Young

“When you say it’s gonna happen now
When exactly do you mean?”

Ask a psychologist the answer to this question – posed in this case by Morrissey in The Smiths song, How soon is now? – and she might reply “within the next three seconds”.

The idea that “now”, also known as the “subjective present”, is constrained within this time limit has proved popular. But a new evaluation in Psychological Bulletin of dozens of research papers on everything from embraces and reading poetry to tapping along to a beat concludes that there’s no good evidence for it. Our experience of the present cannot, it seems, be so strictly defined.

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Experienced meditators have enhanced control over their eye movements

Young Woman Profile Close upBy Alex Fradera

Mindfulness meditation seems to improve the control we have over our eyes, probably because of its known beneficial effects on attentional systems in the brain. That’s according to research published recently in Consciousness and Cognition.

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“I forgot” may (sometimes) be a credible excuse for breaking the speed limit

Motorcycle Officer Giving Speeding Ticket to MotoristBy Alex Fradera

When someone breaks the speed limit, we tend to explain it away as recklessness, machismo, or impatience. But new research led by Vanessa Bowden at the University of Western Australia, suggests that problems in memory, not temperament, may often be the culprit. According to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, traffic stops and other interruptions can disrupt our ability to keep track of recent changes to the speed limit. But the research doesn’t entirely let us off the hook: when waiting at a stop, we can reduce these interfering effects by making sure we keep our attention on the road.

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Why more highly educated people are less into conspiracy theories

By Christian Jarrett

In this era of “fake news” and rising populism, encountering conspiracy theories is becoming a daily phenomenon. Some people usually shrug them off – they find them too simplistic, biased or far-fetched – but others are taken in. And if a person believes one kind of conspiracy theory, they usually believe others.

Psychologists are very interested in why some people are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, especially since the consequences can be harmful: for example, by avoiding getting their kids vaccinated, believers in vaccination conspiracies can harm wider public health; in other cases, a belief in a conspiracy against one’s own ethnic or religious group can foment radicalism.

One of the main differences between conspiracy believers and nonbelievers that’s cropped up in multiple studies is that nonbelievers tend to be more highly educated. For a new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam has conducted two large surveys to try to dig into just what it is about being more educated that seems to inoculate against belief in conspiracy.

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A scientific measure of our visual imagination suggests it is surprisingly limited

The ThinkerBy Alex Fradera

The human mind has been so successful in transforming the material world that it is easy to forget that it too is subject to its own constraints. From biases in our judgment to the imperfection of our memory, psychology has done useful work mapping out many of these limits, yet when it comes to the human imagination, most of us still like to see it as something boundless. But new research in the journal Cognition, on the capacity of our visual imagination, suggests that we soon hit its limits.

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People with higher working memory ability suffer more from brain freeze

Puzzled businessman scratching his headBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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