Saturday, November 1, 2014

Boosting Mental Performance

News Brief by Steven Hefter

It is widely believed in the neuroscience world that in order to stay focused on a task at hand, the brain’s network that controls external, involved thinking must be activated, while the default network, or the part of the brain that are associated with day-dreaming, must be turned off.  Cornell University neuroscientist Nathan Spreng and his team of researchers refute this claim, and instead hypothesize that activating areas of the brain that are associated with “off-task” mental activity can enhance mental activity on difficult tasks at hand.

There are many studies that show that activation of the default network hinders the ability of the brain to focus on tasks, but, according to Spreng, in those studies the default network activity conflicts with the task.  For example, if a person reminisces about an event that happened in the past while trying to read a book, the efficiency of reading will decline.

Spreng used a different research method in which off-task brain activity aids the completion of the experimental task.  The task in Spreng’s research study, called “famous faces n-back,” tests whether the long-term memory of famous people, which activates the default network, can boost short-term memory.  The task involved viewing a set of famous and anonymous faces continuously and then assessing whether the current face matched the one two faces back.  The authors of the study explain how participants were more accurate in matching famous faces.  Therefore, if the task demand is associated with default network processes, then “off-task” mental activity can improve execution of goal-oriented tasks.  Spreng explains that there is an “ongoing dialogue” between completing external tasks and internal significance.

The study was titled “Goal-congruent default network activity facilitates cognitive control” and was published in the Journal of Neuroscience in October.

Cornell University. "Reminiscing can help boost mental performance." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 October 2014. .

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