Working memory has been correlated with IQ and reading ability in the past (more working memory suggests greater intelligence and greater reading comprehension). But it can also help us stay focused on a task, unless that task is not challenging, which allows our minds to wander. When that happens, "resources get misdirected" and we may lose interested in or failure to complete the task (at the very least, we may read ten pages of a boring book with no retention of the material.
Here are some of the details of the study from Science Daily:
The researchers asked volunteers to perform one of two simple tasks -- either pressing a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or simply tapping in time with one's breath -- and compared people's propensity to drift off.
"We intentionally use tasks that will never use all of their attention," Smallwood explains, "and then we ask, how do people use their idle resources?"
Throughout the tasks, the researchers checked in periodically with the participants to ask if their minds were on task or wandering. At the end, they measured each participant's working memory capacity, scored by their ability to remember a series of letters given to them interspersed with easy math questions.
In both tasks, there was a clear correlation. "People with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these simple tasks," says Levinson, though their performance on the test was not compromised.
The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.
"What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren't very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing," Smallwood says.
Interestingly, when people were given a comparably simple task but filled with sensory distractors (such as lots of other similarly shaped letters), the link between working memory and mind wandering disappeared.
"Giving your full attention to your perceptual experience actually equalized people, as though it cut off mind wandering at the pass," Levinson says.
Citation:D. B. Levinson, J. Smallwood, R. J. Davidson. The Persistence of Thought: Evidence for a Role of Working Memory in the Maintenance of Task-Unrelated Thinking. Psychological Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/0956797611431465
* * * * * * *Davidson's new book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live - and How You Can Change Them, co-authored with Sharon Begley, has been getting a lot of media attention, with the authors offering a lot of interviews. The cool (to me) part of this book (as I have begun reading it) is the history of his work in this field and how he was dismissed by his peers for so long.
But now his work confirms what he and other researchers at the fringe of where neuroscience overlaps with Buddhism have been proposing for so long - attention can change the wiring of the brain. Moreover, Davidson has identified six unique dimensions of emotional style—each linked with distinct brain structures, brain circuits, and brain activity:
- general outlook (positive or negative)
- social intuition
- sensitivity to context
- attention style (the ability to screen out distractions)
UC Berkeley's Greater Good blog recently reviewed the book for their readers:
We keep hearing about this new science of the brain and all it can tell us about how our minds work, from how our brains influence our decision-making to how our brains influence our love relationships. Now Richie Davidson—professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and one of the most distinguished neuroscientists of our time—claims that our brains determine the nature of our emotional lives, and that we can influence our emotional makeup through concentrated effort.Read the rest of the review. Unfortunately, this reviewer seemed more interested in a how-to book than a discussion of the science behind this new model of emotional styles, and found only two chapters of real interest. That's too bad - the science and the development of the ideas through time and against strong resistance is engaging (I suspect this is where Sharon Begley's journalism skills shine).
In his new book with journalist Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Davidson distills decades of research on the neurological bases of emotions. He claims that there are six dimensions of emotional style—resilience, general outlook (positive or negative), social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention style (the ability to screen out distractions)—each reflecting activity in specific brain circuits and structures. All of us, he writes, fall somewhere along a continuum between high and low on each of these dimensions, and much of this depends on how our brains are wired.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has run several stories on Davidson and his new book in the campus news - here are links to two of them:
- How does the compassionate brain, measured in the lab, predict what occurs in real life? (Feb. 1, 2012)
- In new book, leading neuroscientist describes your brain on emotion (March 5, 2012)