Foraging for thought – new insights into our working memory

July 15, 2013, University of Nottingham
Foraging for thought – new insights into our working memory

(Medical Xpress)—We take it for granted that our thoughts are in constant turnover. Metaphors like "stream of consciousness" and "train of thought" imply steady, continuous motion. But is there a mechanism inside our heads that drives this? Is there something compelling our attention to move on to new ideas instead of dwelling in the same spot forever?

A research team led by Dr Matthew Johnson in the School of Psychology at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) may have discovered part of the answer. They have pinpointed an effect that makes people turn their to something new rather than dwelling on their most recent thoughts. The research, which has been published in the academic journal Psychological Science, could have implications for studying disorders like autism and ADHD.

Dr Johnson said: "We have discovered a very promising paradigm. The effect is strong and replicates easily – you could demonstrate it in any psychology lab in the world. The work is still in its early stages but I think this could turn out to be a very important part of our understanding of how and why our thoughts work the way they do."

Click here for full story
The paper "Foraging for Thought: An Inhibition-of-Return-Like Effect Resulting From Directing Attention Within Working Memory" sheds new light on what makes us turn our attention to things we haven't recently thought rather than ones we have. It was carried out in collaboration with Yale University, Princeton University, The Ohio State University, and Manhattanville College

The "inhibition of return" effect is well-established in . At certain time scales, people are slower to turn their thoughts back to a location they have just paid attention to. They are much quicker to focus on a new location. Some have interpreted this effect as a "foraging facilitator," a process that encourages organisms to visit new locations over previously visited ones when exploring a new environment or performing a visual search.

However, in this new study, the researchers weren't focusing on visual search, but on the process of thought itself. Participants were shown either two words or two pictures, and when the items disappeared, they were instructed to turn their attention briefly to one of the items they were just shown and ignore the other. Immediately afterwards they were asked to identify either the item they had just thought about, or the one they had ignored. For both pictures and words the participants were quicker to react to the item they had ignored.

Dr Johnson said: "The effect was shocking. When we began we expected to find the exact opposite – that thinking about something will make it easier to identify. We were initially disappointed – but when the effect was replicated over multiple experiments we realised we were onto something new and exciting."

Critically, the effect is temporary; on a later memory test participants remembered attended items better than ignored ones.

Dr Johnson said: "That's important. If thinking about things made us worse at remembering them long-term, it would make no sense for real-world survival. That's why we think we've tapped into something fundamental about how we think in the moment – a possible mechanism keeping our thoughts moving onto new things, and not getting stuck."

The researchers have more experiments planned to explore this effect. They say the new task could have implications for studying disorders like autism and ADHD, where attention may persist too long or move on too easily, as well as conditions with more general cognitive impairments, such as schizophrenia and ageing-related dementia.

Future studies planned also include applying cognitive neuroscience techniques to determine the effect's underlying neural foundations.

Explore further: Time perception altered by mindfulness meditation

More information: The full research paper can be found at: dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797612466414

Related Stories

Time perception altered by mindfulness meditation

June 21, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—New published research from psychologists at the universities of Kent and Witten/Herdecke has shown that mindfulness meditation has the ability to temporarily alter practitioners' perceptions of time – ...

Depression and negative thoughts

June 2, 2011
We all have our ups and downs—a fight with a friend, a divorce, the loss of a parent. But most of us get over it. Only some go on to develop major depression. Now, a new study, which will be published in an upcoming ...

Emotion in voices helps capture the listener's attention, but in the long run the words are not remembered as accurately

December 11, 2012
Does the emotion in our voice have a lasting effect? According to Annett Schirmer and colleagues from the National University of Singapore, emotion helps us recognize words quicker and more accurately straight away. In the ...

How visual attention affects the brain

June 26, 2013
New work at the University of California, Davis, shows for the first time how visual attention affects activity in specific brain cells. The paper, published June 26 in the journal Nature, shows that attention increases the ...

Pay attention: How we focus and concentrate

May 23, 2013
Scientists at Newcastle University have shed new light on how the brain tunes in to relevant information.

Seeing isn't believing

September 7, 2011
Pay attention! It's a universal warning, which implies that keeping close watch helps us perceive the world more accurately. But a new study by Yale University cognitive psychologists Brandon Liverence and Brian Scholl finds ...

Recommended for you

Curcumin improves memory and mood, study says

January 23, 2018
Lovers of Indian food, give yourselves a second helping: Daily consumption of a certain form of curcumin—the substance that gives Indian curry its bright color—improved memory and mood in people with mild, age-related ...

Priming can negate stressful aspects of negative sporting environments, study finds

January 23, 2018
The scene is ubiquitous in sports: A coach yells at players, creating an environment where winning is the sole focus and mistakes are punished. New research from the University of Kansas shows that when participants find ...

Social and emotional skills linked to better student learning

January 23, 2018
Students with well-developed and adaptive social and emotional behaviours are most likely to excel in school, according to UNSW researchers in educational psychology.

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.