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In the present study, we investigated if attention to faces results in sensory gain modulation. Participants were cued to attend to faces or scenes in superimposed face-scene images while face discriminability was parametrically manipulated across images. The face-sensitive N170 event-related potential component was used as a measure of early face processing. Attention to faces modulated N170 amplitude, but only when faces were not highly discriminable. Additionally, directing attention to faces modulated later processing (~230–300 msec) for all discriminability levels. These results demonstrate that attention to faces can modulate perceptual processing of faces at multiple stages of processing, including early sensory levels. Critically, the early attentional benefit is present only when the “face signal” (i.e., the perceptual quality of the face) in the environment is suboptimal.
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A focus on the present, dubbed mindfulness, can make you happier and healthier. Training to deepen your immersion in the moment works by improving attention
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We investigated the impact of mindfulness training (MT) on working memory capacity (WMC) and affective experience. WMC is used in managing cognitive demands and regulating emotions. Yet, persistent and intensive demands, such as those experienced during high-stress intervals, may deplete WMC and lead to cognitive failures and emotional disturbances. We hypothesized that MT may mitigate these deleterious effects by bolstering WMC. We recruited 2 military cohorts during the high-stress predeployment interval and provided MT to 1 (MT, n = 31) but not the other group (military control group, MC, n = 17). The MT group attended an 8-week MT course and logged the amount of out-of-class time spent practicing formal MT exercises. The operation span task was used to index WMC at 2 testing sessions before and after the MT course. Although WMC remained stable over time in civilians (n = 12), it degraded in the MC group. In the MT group, WMC decreased over time in those with low MT practice time, but increased in those with high practice time. Higher MT practice time also corresponded to lower levels of negative affect and higher levels of positive affect (indexed by the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule). The relationship between practice time and negative, but not positive, affect was mediated by WMC, indicating that MT-related improvements in WMC may support some but not all of MT's salutary effects. Nonetheless, these findings suggest that sufficient MT practice may protect against functional impairments associated with high-stress contexts.
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Uncontrollable anxious thought characterizes a number of emotional disorders. Little is known, however, about the cognitive mechanisms that underlie the ability to control these thoughts. The present study investigated the extent to which two well-characterized executive control processes--working memory and inhibition--are engaged when an individual attempts to control worry. Participants completed a concurrent assessment of these processes while attempting to control personally-relevant worried and neutral thoughts. To examine the specificity of these effects to attempts to control worry, versus a residual "depletion" effect of having previously engaged in worry, a subset of participants completed the assessment without instructions to control their worried or neutral thoughts. Attempts to control worry engaged working memory and inhibition to a greater extent than did attempts to control neutral thought. This increased engagement was not explained solely by anxious affect, nor was it significantly associated with trait worry. Engagement did not differ by group, suggesting that executive control depletion by worry cannot be dismissed as an alternative explanation of these findings. These results highlight working memory and inhibition as potentially valuable constructs for deepening our understanding of the nature and treatment of worry and its control.
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Several recent studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during recognition memory tests have suggested that the ability to neuromodulate as a function of cognitive demand may be impaired in older adults due to age-related cell loss and neural volume reduction in memory specific regions. In the current study, older adults (ages 59-77) were tested with fMRI during a delayed-recognition task in which memory load for faces was varied across trials. Activity was greater in amplitude for three- versus one-face stimuli within the superior, middle, and inferior frontal gyri, intraparietal sulcus, and fusiform gyrus. It was concluded that the ability to modulate activity with increasing load is preserved in older adults despite reductions in neural volume.
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We investigate if concentrative meditation training (CMT) offered during adolescent development benefits subsystems of attention using a quasi-experimental design. Attentional alerting, orienting, and conflict monitoring were examined using the Attention Network Test (ANT) in 13-15 year old children who received CMT as part of their school curriculum (CMT group: N = 79) vs. those who received no such training (control group: N = 76). Alerting and conflict monitoring, but not orienting, differed between the CMT and control group. Only conflict monitoring demonstrated age-related improvements, with smaller conflict effect scores in older vs. younger participants. The influence of CMT on this system was similar to the influence of developmental maturity, with smaller conflict effects in the CMT vs. control group. To examine if CMT might also bolster conflict-triggered upregulation of attentional control, conflict effects were evaluated as a function of previous trial conflict demands (high conflict vs. low conflict). Smaller current-trial conflict effects were observed when previous conflict was high vs. low, suggesting that similar to adults, when previous conflict was high (vs. low) children in this age-range proactively upregulated control so that subsequent trial performance was benefitted. The magnitude of conflict-triggered control upregulation was not bolstered by CMT but CMT did have an effect for current incongruent trials preceded by congruent trials. Thus, CMT's influence on attention may be tractable and specific; it may bolster attentional alerting, conflict monitoring and reactive control, but does not appear to improve orienting.
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We investigated whether mindfulness training (MT) influences information processing in a working memory task with complex visual stimuli. Participants were tested before (T1) and after (T2) participation in an intensive one-month MT retreat, and their performance was compared with that of an age- and education-matched control group. Accuracy did not differ across groups at either time point. Response times were faster and significantly less variable in the MT versus the control group at T2. Since these results could be due to changes in mnemonic processes, speed-accuracy trade-off, or nondecisional factors (e.g., motor execution), we used a mathematical modeling approach to disentangle these factors. The EZ-diffusion model (Wagenmakers, van der Maas, & Grasman, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 14:(1), 3-22, 2007) suggested that MT leads to improved information quality and reduced response conservativeness, with no changes in nondecisional factors. The noisy exemplar model further suggested that the increase in information quality reflected a decrease in encoding noise and not an increase in forgetting. Thus, mathematical modeling may help clarify the mechanisms by which MT produces salutary effects on performance.
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Current military deployments have resulted in many psychological and physical health issues and created interest in protective measures to mitigate effects of prolonged and repetitive stress. Mindfulness training has been successfully used for stress reduction in other contexts. The following case report presents a detachment of U.S. Marines who received Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT) prior to deployment. Self-report measures of mindfulness, perceptions of stress, predictors of compliance with mindfulness practice, and time spent engaging in practice were indexed. More time spent engaging in practice corresponded with greater self-reported mindfulness; increases in mindfulness were associated with decreases in perceived stress.
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We investigated the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training (CBT/MT) on attentional task performance in incarcerated adolescents. Attention is a cognitive system necessary for managing cognitive demands and regulating emotions. Yet persistent and intensive demands, such as those experienced during high-stress intervals like incarceration and the events leading to incarceration, may deplete attention resulting in cognitive failures, emotional disturbances, and impulsive behavior. We hypothesized that CBT/MT may mitigate these deleterious effects of high stress and protect against degradation in attention over the high-stress interval of incarceration. Using a quasi-experimental, group randomized controlled trial design, we randomly assigned dormitories of incarcerated youth, ages 16–18, to a CBT/MT intervention (youth n = 147) or an active control intervention (youth n = 117). Both arms received approximately 750 min of intervention in a small-group setting over a 3–5 week period. Youth in the CBT/MT arm also logged the amount of out-of-session time spent practicing MT exercises. The Attention Network Test was used to index attentional task performance at baseline and 4 months post-baseline. Overall, task performance degraded over time in all participants. The magnitude of performance degradation was significantly less in the CBT/MT vs. control arm. Further, within the CBT/MT arm, performance degraded over time in those with no outside-of-class practice time, but remained stable over time in those who practiced mindfulness exercises outside of the session meetings. Thus, these findings suggest that sufficient CBT/MT practice may protect against functional attentional impairments associated with high-stress intervals.
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Mindfulness is defined as paying attention in the present moment. We investigate the hypothesis that mindfulness training may alter or enhance specific aspects of attention. We examined three functionally and neuroanatomically distinct but overlapping attentional subsystems: alerting, orienting, and conflict monitoring. Functioning of each subsystem was indexed by performance on the Attention Network Test (ANT; Fan, McCandliss, Sommer, Raz, & Posner, 2002). Two types of mindfulness training (MT) programs were examined, and behavioral testing was conducted on participants before (Time 1) and after (Time 2) training. One training group consisted of individuals naive to mindfulness techniques who participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course that emphasized the development of concentrative meditation skills. The other training group consisted of individuals experienced in concentrative meditation techniques who participated in a 1-month intensive mindfulness retreat. Performance of these groups was compared with that of control participants who were meditation naive and received no MT. At Time 1, the participants in the retreat group demonstrated improved conflict monitoring performance relative to those in the MBSR and control groups. At Time 2, the participants in the MBSR course demonstrated significantly improved orienting in comparison with the control and retreat participants. In contrast, the participants in the retreat group demonstrated altered performance on the alerting component, with improvements in exogenous stimulus detection in comparison with the control and MBSR participants. The groups did not differ in conflict monitoring performance at Time 2. These results suggest that mindfulness training may improve attention-related behavioral responses by enhancing functioning of specific subcomponents of attention. Whereas participation in the MBSR course improved the ability to endogenously orient attention, retreat participation appeared to allow for the development and emergence of receptive attentional skills, which improved exogenous alerting-related process.

There is mounting evidence that prefrontal cortex (PFC) is activated during mnemonic operations such as working memory maintenance and also during response-related operations. In the current study, we examine the neural organization of mnemonic and response operations with respect to each other within PFC. Stimulus-evoked and sustained functional MRI activity was recorded during performance of a mental calculation task. The presence or absence of mnemonic and response demands was manipulated in a 2 x 2 factorial design with conditions requiring: (1) memory encoding and maintenance (M+); (2) response selection and execution (R+); (3) encoding, maintenance, and response execution (M+R+); (4) neither mnemonic nor response-related processes (M-R-). The first step of the analyses identified PFC voxels exhibiting differential activity during (M+) vs. (R+) trials. Within these voxels, we then examined activity during multiple phases of (M+R+) trials. Greater stimulus-evoked and sustained activity was observed within the anterior extent of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (BA 46) during R+ vs. M+ trials. In contrast, greater activity was observed in the posterior extent of dorsolateral PFC during M+ vs. R+ trials. Importantly, both regions were activated during (M+R+) trials. Activity levels during all of these conditions exceeded levels observed during (M-R-) control trials. These results suggest that integrative functions of PFC that allow past information to guide future actions may emerge from communication between discrete subregions supporting mnemonic and response operations.
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To facilitate visual search of complex scenes, information arising from recently attended locations is subject to a selective inhibition in processing known as inhibition of return (IOR). Although the mechanisms of IOR remain unresolved, both motor and perceptual influences have been proposed based on reaction time (RT) studies. Here we report the results of two reflexive cuing studies in which signal detection methodology was employed to directly examine the effects of IOR on perception. IOR was found to be associated with a significant reduction in the accuracy of target discriminations at recently attended locations. Further, these effects of IOR on response accuracy were independent of whether emphasis was placed on the speed of responding. These results provide the first direct evidence that IOR can affect the perceptual quality of visual processing.
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We investigate the hypothesis that those subregions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) found to support proactive interference resolution may also support delay-spanning distractor interference resolution. Ten subjects performed delayed-recognition tasks requiring working memory for faces or shoes during functional MRI scanning. During the 15-sec delay interval, task-irrelevant distractors were presented. These distractors were either all faces or all shoes and were thus either congruent or incongruent with the domain of items in the working memory task. Delayed-recognition performance was slower and less accurate during congruent than during incongruent trials. Our fMRI analyses revealed significant delay interval activity for face and shoe working memory tasks within both dorsal and ventral PFC. However, only ventral PFC activity was modulated by distractor category, with greater activity for congruent than for incongruent trials. Importantly, this congruency effect was only present for correct trials. In addition to PFC, activity within the fusiform face area was investigated. During face distraction, activity was greater for face relative to shoe working memory. As in ventrolateral PFC, this congruency effect was only present for correct trials. These results suggest that the ventrolateral PFC and fusiform face area may work together to support delay-spanning interference resolution.
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Selective attention has been shown to bias sensory processing in favor of relevant stimuli and against irrelevant or distracting stimuli in perceptual tasks. Increasing evidence suggests that selective attention plays an important role during working memory maintenance, possibly by biasing sensory processing in favor of to-be-remembered items. In the current study, we investigated whether selective attention may also support working memory by biasing processing against irrelevant and potentially distracting information. Event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded while subjects (n = 22) performed a delayed-recognition task for faces and shoes. The delay period was filled with face or shoe distractors. Behavioral performance was impaired when distractors were congruent with the working memory domain (e.g., face distractor during working memory for faces) relative to when distractors were incongruent with the working memory domain (e.g., face distractor during shoe working memory). If attentional biasing against distractor processing is indeed functionally relevant in supporting working memory maintenance, perceptual processing of distractors is predicted to be attenuated when distractors are more behaviorally intrusive relative to when they are nonintrusive. As such, we predicted that perceptual processing of distracting faces, as measured by the face-sensitive N170 ERP component, would be reduced in the context of congruent (face) working memory relative to incongruent (shoe) working memory. The N170 elicited by distracting faces demonstrated reduced amplitude during congruent versus incongruent working memory. These results suggest that perceptual processing of distracting faces may be attenuated due to attentional biasing against sensory processing of distractors that are most behaviorally intrusive during working memory maintenance.
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Mindfulness training (MT) is a form of mental training in which individuals engage in exercises to cultivate an attentive, present centered, and non-reactive mental mode. The present study examines the putative benefits of MT in University students for whom mind wandering can interfere with learning and academic success. We tested the hypothesis that short-form MT (7 h over 7 weeks) contextualized for the challenges and concerns of University students may reduce mind wandering and improve working memory. Performance on the sustained attention to response task (SART) and two working memory tasks (operation span, delayed-recognition with distracters) was indexed in participants assigned to a waitlist control group or the MT course. Results demonstrated MT-related benefits in SART performance. Relative to the control group, MT participants had higher task accuracy and self-reported being more "on-task" after the 7-week training period. MT did not significantly benefit the operation span task or accuracy on the delayed-recognition task. Together these results suggest that while short-form MT did not bolster working memory task performance, it may help curb mind wandering and should, therefore, be further investigated for its use in academic contexts.
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We investigated the top-down influence of working memory (WM) maintenance on feedforward perceptual processing within occipito-temporal face processing structures. During event-related potential (ERP) recordings, subjects performed a delayed-recognition task requiring WM maintenance of faces or houses. The face-sensitive N170 component elicited by delay-spanning task-irrelevant grayscale noise probes was examined. If early feedforward perceptual activity is biased by maintenance requirements, the N170 ERP component elicited by probes should have a greater N170 amplitude response during face relative to house WM trials. Consistent with this prediction, N170 elicited by probes presented at the beginning, middle, and end of the delay interval was greater in amplitude during face relative to house WM. Thus, these results suggest that WM maintenance demands may modulate early feedforward perceptual processing for the entirety of the delay duration. We argue based on these results that temporally early biasing of domain-specific perceptual processing may be a critical mechanism by which WM maintenance is achieved.
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Spatial working memory is a cognitive brain mechanism that enables the temporary maintenance and manipulation of spatial information. Recent neuroimaging and behavioral studies have led to the proposal that directed spatial attention is the mechanism by which location information is maintained in spatial working memory. Yet it is unclear whether attentional involvement is required throughout the period of active maintenance or is only invoked during discrete task-phases such as mnemonic encoding. In the current study, we aimed to track the time-course of attentional involvement during spatial working memory by recording event-related brain potentials (ERPs) from healthy volunteers. In Experiment 1, subjects performed a delayed-recognition task. Each trial began with the presentation of a brief stimulus (S1) that indicated the relevant location that subjects were to maintain in working memory. A 4.8-5.3 sec delay interval followed during which a single task-irrelevant probe was presented. The delay interval concluded with a test item (S2) to which subjects made a response indicating whether the S2-location was the same as the S1-memory location. To determine if attention was differentially engaged during discrete phases of the trial, task-irrelevant probes were presented early (400-800 msec following S1-offset) or late (2600-3000 msec following S1-offset) during the delay interval. Sensory-evoked ERPs (P1 and N1) elicited by these irrelevant probes showed attention-like modulations with greater amplitude responses for probes occurring at the S1-memory locations in comparison to probes presented at other locations. This pattern was obtained for both early- and late-delay probes. Probe-evoked activity during delayed-recognition trials was similar to activity observed when spatial attention was explicitly focused on a location in visual space (Experiment 2). These results are consistent with a model of spatial working memory in which perceptual level selective attention is utilized throughout the entire period of active maintenance to keep relevant spatial information in mind.
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Recent neuroimaging and neuropsychological work has begun to shed light on how the brain responds to the viewing of facial expressions of emotion. However, one important category of facial expression that has not been studied on this level is the facial expression of pain. We investigated the neural response to pain expressions by performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as subjects viewed short video sequences showing faces expressing either moderate pain or, for comparison, no pain. In alternate blocks, the same subjects received both painful and non-painful thermal stimulation. Facial expressions of pain were found to engage cortical areas also engaged by the first-hand experience of pain, including anterior cingulate cortex and insula. The reported findings corroborate other work in which the neural response to witnessed pain has been examined from other perspectives. In addition, they lend support to the idea that common neural substrates are involved in representing one's own and others' affective states.
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Working memory (WM) representations serve as templates that guide behavior, but the neural basis of these templates remains elusive. We tested the hypothesis that WM templates are maintained by biasing activity in sensoriperceptual neurons that code for features of items being held in memory. Neural activity was recorded using event-related potentials (ERPs) as participants viewed a series of faces and responded when a face matched a target face held in WM. Our prediction was that if activity in neurons coding for the features of the target is preferentially weighted during maintenance of the target, then ERP activity evoked by a nontarget probe face should be commensurate with the visual similarity between target and probe. Visual similarity was operationalized as the degree of overlap in visual features between target and probe. A face-sensitive ERP response was modulated by target-probe similarity. Amplitude was largest for probes that were similar to the target, and decreased monotonically as a function of decreasing target-probe similarity. These results indicate that neural activity is weighted in favor of visual features that comprise an actively held memory representation. As such, our findings support the notion that WM templates rely on neural populations involved in forming percepts of memory items.
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Dynamic adjustments in cognitive control are well documented in conflict tasks, wherein competition from irrelevant stimulus attributes intensifies selection demands and leads to subsequent performance benefits. The current study investigated whether mnemonic demands, in a working memory (WM) task, can drive similar online control modifications. Demand levels (high vs. low) of WM maintenance (memory load of 2 items vs. 1 item) and delay-spanning distractor interference (confusable vs. not confusable with memoranda) were manipulated using a factorial design during a WM delayed-recognition task. Performance was best subsequent to trials in which both maintenance and distractor interference demands were high, followed by trials with high demand in either of these 2 control domains, and worst following trials with low demand in both domains. These results suggest that dynamic adjustments in cognitive control are not triggered exclusively by conflict-specific contexts but are also triggered by WM demands, revealing a putative mechanism by which this system configures itself for successful task performance.
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