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Study probes attention-memory link

Research explores ‘selective attention’ and relationship between IQ and memory

When children engage certain attentional mechanisms, their IQ scores no longer predict how well they remember what they have seen, according to a new study by University researchers published online this month in the journal Cognition.

This finding emerged from the work of researchers in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences who have been exploring “selective attention” for the past three years.

Selective attention is engaged when people must select what to focus on from a variety of surrounding stimuli, said Julie Markant, a postdoctoral research associate in the CLPS department who led the study. “We live in a busy world, and we have to allocate our resources in a meaningful way,” she added.

Selective attention comprises two components — enhancement and suppression, Markant said.

For example, when reading a book in a coffee shop, a person must “enhance” his or her attention toward the words on the page and simultaneously “suppress” the “interfering information” like background conversations, Markant said.

The research team investigated the hypothesis that suppressing competing information would “promote improved learning and memory,” Markant said.

They studied children aged seven to 17 and divided them into two groups. Both groups were presented images of everyday objects, but the researchers manipulated the timing of the stimuli so that participants in each group engaged different attentional mechanisms.

While participants looked at a fixation cross in the center of the screen, a cue appeared in the periphery, followed by a picture of an object. Variation in the timing of the cue and the side on which the picture appeared engaged different components of attention.

In the “facilitation” condition, the cue and target picture appeared on the same side of the screen, separated by a very short delay. This short delay meant the cue would draw participants’ attention to the side of the screen where the picture appeared, enhancing their attention to the target.

But in the other condition, after the cue appeared on one side of the screen, there was a significantly longer delay, which caused the participants to shift their attention from the cued side to the other side of the screen, where the target picture ultimately appeared. The longer delay not only enhanced participants’ attention to the side of the screen where the target ultimately appeared but also caused them to simultaneously suppress attention toward the cued side, a phenomenon that researchers call “inhibition of return.”

After completing the task, participants  were given a surprise memory test to see if they could recognize the target pictures they had seen.

“They had no idea that it was a memory task,” Markant said. “We tried really hard to make sure that they didn’t guess it was a memory study.”

The researchers then looked at how participants’ engagement of attentional mechanisms and their scores on IQ tests influenced their performance on the memory task.

In the facilitation condition, “the only predictor of recognition memory was IQ,” Markant said, adding that this finding was not surprising and that many studies have found that higher IQ scores correlate with better memory performance.

This result suggests that attention in the facilitation condition is not correlated with “memory performance,” Markant said.

But in the “inhibition of return” condition, researchers observed no relation between IQ and memory performance, a “stunning reversal of what is normally found,” Markant said. This finding suggests that “suppression counteracted individual differences in IQ.”

Philip Tate, a senior lecturer at the School of Education at Boston University, said he was not surprised by the result that children with lower IQs did just as well in the “inhibition of return”  condition.

“They’re tapping into some sort of basic human processing thing ­— it means there are ways human beings learn that are not related specifically to IQ,” he said. “In the old days we used to think that IQ meant that you were efficient or inefficient at learning, … but that’s not true at all. So that was encouraging.”

Markant said she sees the study as important to future efforts to understand learning and memory. “When we’re thinking about the development of learning and memory, we should also be thinking about what’s changing in the attention system. So we want to be thinking about the integrated system,” she said.

The study may have implications for education, Markant said. For example, there may be opportunities to study whether training in attention can improve memory, she added. But, she noted, “we’re a long way from that at this point.”

To improve learning and memory, an intervention or training program “that focuses on driving the two systems together rather than focusing on one alone could be more successful,” she said. She added that she is also interested in studying the role of suppression in infants’ learning and memory.

Though Tate called the study  “carefully done”  and “another good step in the process of understanding memory and how attention relates to memory,” he said that in order to apply its findings to educational settings, more research and testing in schools would be required.

“It’s like the difference between finding something that seems to work in mice and actually testing it on mice, and then actually testing it on people,” Tate said. “So they’re a couple levels of development away from things that might actually work with real people in schools.”


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