Training attentional control improves cognitive and motor task performance

This post was contributed by Emmanuel Ducrocq, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. It is about a paper based on research he and his supervisor (Professor Naz Derakhshan) did in collaboration with Dr Mark Wilson and Dr Samuel Vine, and which is published today in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Emmanuel tweets at @manuduc and Professor Derakhshan at @ProfNDerakshan

tennis-player-676310Successful performance in sports is usually evaluated in terms of technical, tactical or physical abilities. However a crucial index of performance is the ability to perform under stress and high pressured situations. This is especially relevant sports demanding a high level of attention, such as tennis, golf, archery or shooting.

Recent research in sports psychology has shown that a key factor responsible for poor performance in sports under pressure is the inability to focus on what needs to be done and reduce distraction. This is often referred to as attentional control: the ability to resist distraction and attend to task goals efficiently. If athletes can’t exercise attentional control efficiently then they cannot plan and execute a skilled movement flexibly. The pressure to perform well, increases anxiety and so maintaining attention focus on task goals becomes exceptionally challenging giving way to worries, and doubts about performance  as well.

Attentional control has usually been targeted in sports by trying to promote specific gaze behaviours which has proven to show benefits to motor performance in sporting tasks such as golf or basketball. Crucially though, while this method is useful, it hasn’t been able to identify the underlying mechanisms responsible for sports improvement.

In a series of three exciting studies we wanted to improve motor task performance and we specifically focussed on tennis, which requires good attentional control to flexibly resist distraction. To this end, we trained inhibitory control using a computer-based training task to see how it could improve performance in a tennis task.

In the first experiment, participants were allocated to a training or control group and underwent six days of training on a visual search task that included task-irrelevant distractors requiring inhibition (training) or contained no distractors (control). Performance was measured pre- and post-intervention using an antisaccade task measuring distractibility. We found that training elicited a near-transfer effect; as performance on the antisaccade task was improved in the training group, and not in the control group. This was important to establish, as it showed that training on the visual search task could improve inhibition on another unrelated task.

In the second experiment training on the same paradigm showed transfer benefits on an attentional control index that we validated for tennis performance. Tennis players were assessed on a return of serves task and we found an initial far-transfer effect of training. Participants in the training group displayed an enhanced ability to focus on the ball around the time of contact with the ball.

The third experiment pushed the boundaries of this work further by assessing the potential effect of the training task on an objective gaze measures of inhibitory control during performance of a tennis task. Participants’ pre and post intervention performance was assessed on a volleying task performed under pressure while their gaze behaviour was recorded. We found a substantial effect of training on tennis performance when levels of pressure were elevated. Transfer effects of training were also observed on a specific gaze behaviour index of ‘inhibition’ in the field, confirming the mechanism by which training protected participants against the negative impact of anxiety.

Taken together, we have shown that a simple computer-based training task that reduces distraction and improves attentional control can have direct transfer benefits to tennis performance under pressure. This can obviously have great implications for improving motor performance in any competitive sport that needs to be performed under pressure.

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The Myth of the Optimism Bias?

This article was originally posted by ‘Neuroskeptic’ on DiscoverMagazine.com on 3 June 2016. The article discusses research on optimism bias, as carried out by a team of psychological researchers including Birkbeck’s Professor Ulrike Hahn.

OptimismAre humans natural, irrational optimists? According to many psychologists, humans show a fundamental optimism bias, a tendency to underestimate our chances of suffering negative events. It’s said that when thinking about harmful events, such as contracting cancer, most people believe that their risk is lower than that of ‘the average person’. So, on average, people rate themselves as safer than the average. Moreover, people are also said to show biased belief updating. Faced with evidence that the risk of a negative outcome is higher than they believed, people don’t increase their personal risk estimates properly.

But now a group of researchers, led by first author Punit Shah of London, hascriticized the theory of biased belief updating and, by extension, the whole optimism bias model. Shah et al. say that optimism bias may be a mere statistical artifact, a product of the psychological test paradigms used to assess it. They argue that even perfectly rational, unbiased individuals would seem ‘optimistic’ in these tests. Specifically, the authors say that the apparent optimism is driven by the fact that negative events tend to be uncommon.

The new work builds on a 2011 paper by Adam J. L. Harris and Ulrike Hahn, also authors of the present paper. The 2011 article criticized the claim that people show an optimism bias by rating themselves as safer than the average. The new paper takes aim at biased belief updating. Here’s how Shah et al. describe their argument:

New studies have now claimed that unrealistic optimism emerges as a result of biased belief updating with distinctive neural correlates in the brain. On a behavioral level, these studies suggest that, for negative events, desirable information is incorporated into personal risk estimates to a greater degree than undesirable information (resulting in a more optimistic outlook).

 

However, using task analyses, simulations and experiments we demonstrate that this pattern of results is a statistical artifact. In contrast with previous work, we examined participants’ use of new information with reference to the normative, Bayesian standard.

 

Simulations reveal the fundamental difficulties that would need to be overcome by any robust test of optimistic updating. No such test presently exists, so that the best one can presently do is perform analyses with a number of techniques, all of which have important weaknesses. Applying these analyses to five experiments shows no evidence of optimistic updating. These results clarify the difficulties involved in studying human ‘bias’ and cast additional doubt over the status of optimism as a fundamental characteristic of healthy cognition.

I asked Shah and his colleagues to explain the case against the optimism bias in belief updating in a nutshell. They said

All risk estimates have to fit into a scale between 0% and 100%; you can’t have a chance of getting a heart attack at some point in your life of less than 0% or greater than 100%. The problems for the update method arise from the fact that the same ‘movement’ in percentage terms means different things in different parts of the scale.

 

Someone whose risk decreases from 45% to 30% has seen their risk cut by 1/3, whereas someone whose risk increases from 15% to 30% has seen their risk double -much bigger change. So the same 15% difference means something quite different if you have to revise your beliefs about your individual risk downwards (good news!) or upwards (bad news!) toward the same percentage value. The moment people’s risk estimates are influenced by individual risk factors (a family history of heart attack increases your personal risk by a factor of about 1.6), people should change their beliefs to different amounts, depending on the direction of the change. The update method falsely equates the 15% in both cases.

 

If the difference in belief change simply reflects these mathematical properties of risk estimates then one should see systematic differences between those increasing and those decreasing their risk estimates regardless of whether they happen to be estimating a negative or a positive event. But in the first case, this will look like ‘optimism’, in the second case it will look like ‘pessimism’. This is the pattern our experiments find…

 

The evidence base thus seems far less stable than previously considered. There is, using various paradigms, plenty of evidence for optimism in various real-world settings such as sports fans predictions and political predictions, but these just show that certain people might be optimistic in certain situations, not that there is a general optimistic tendency across situations that would be required to say people are optimistically biased. It is also important to note that because this belief updating paradigm has been used in so many neuroscience studies, it means those neuroscience data are also uninterpretable.

Read the original article on DiscoverMagazine.com

Read the original article on DiscoverMagazine.com

In my view, Shah et al. make a strong case that the evidence for optimism bias needs to be reexamined. Their argument makes a crucial prediction: that people should show a ‘pessimistic’ bias (the counterpart of the optimism bias) when asked to rate their chance of experiencing rare, positive events. In the new paper, the authors report finding such a pessimistic bias in a series of experiments. But perhaps they should team up with proponents of the optimism bias and run an adversarial collaboration to convince the believers.

  • Punit Shah, Adam J. L. Harris, Geoffrey Bird, Caroline Catmur, & Ulrike Hahn (2016). A Pessimistic View of Optimistic Belief Updating Cognitive Psychology
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Make fear your friend

This post was contributed by Professor Naz Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences

 

“Fear is often thought of as a negative emotion, but a new idea in psychology suggests that using it the right way can turn it into an incredibly positive force in your life.”

 

So starts a three page health feature article in the February edition of Top Sante. Showcasing the expertise of Birkbeck’s Prof Naz Derakhshan, the article posits that  fear can be turned into a positive force in our lives – all we need to do is listen to it, trust in it, and learn from it. In other words, we need to befriend it.

“Instead of thinking of fear solely as a negative emotion, embrace it as an
important warning system,’ says Professor Derakhshan in the article. “Being afraid of something is a signal that its consequence is important to you so it should be attended to.”
Click below to read the full piece, which includes some handy tips on how to welcome fear as a positive friend in your life, and how to ultimately become its boss.
Make Fear Your Friend - page 1 (article copyright of Top Sante)

Make Fear Your Friend – page 1 (article copyright of Top Sante)

 

Make Fear Your Friend - page 2 (article copyright of Top Sante)

Make Fear Your Friend – page 2 (article copyright of Top Sante)

 

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Improving attentional control to reduce anxiety

This post was contributed by Prof Nazanin Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. Here, Prof Derakhshan describes her most recent study into how our cognitive flexibility can be trained and boosted to protect against the effects of anxiety

Anxiety-webAnxiety can be a debilitative emotion that can adversely affect our performance. For example, it is common for individuals with high levels of anxiety to worry excessively about a variety of issues ranging from their performance on upcoming examinations, job interviews, attending meetings, and giving talks to multi-tasking and managing everyday activities efficiently.

According to the WHO (World Health Organisation) anxiety (and depression) will be the biggest cause of disability worldwide by 2025. People with high anxiety frequently report that they have difficulty concentrating on tasks that need undivided attention and are easily distracted. It goes without saying that the implications of anxiety’s effects on our everyday activities as well as on the challenging tasks demanding our attention are vast.

Unfortunately, anxious individuals remain at a disadvantage of getting stuck in a viral chain of worries and over-thinking, consequently needing to invest more effort as compensation to their worries in getting tasks done (see Berggren & Derakshan, 2013, for a review).

How can we explain the nature of the relationship between anxiety and performance?

In a theoretical breakthrough, we have proposed earlier (see Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos & Calvo, 2007; Derakshan & Eysenck, 2009) that a central mechanism by which anxiety impairs performance is via its adverse effects on attentional control. Attentional control is an important function of our working memory, a system that regulates incoming information and helps with temporary storage of information.

Attentional control or cognitive flexibility directs our attention towards what is relevant and away from what is irrelevant. Attentional control is thus a vital ingredient of our lives, it helps us be cognitively flexible, concentrate on tasks and resist distracting thoughts/information when we need to. When we have poor attentional control we become inefficient and can do badly in tasks; we can’t keep worries at bay, and get trapped in cycles of over-thinking that can hold us back from performing well. There is now substantial evidence to support the prediction that anxiety impairs performance via its impact on attentional control (see Berggren et al., 2013).

How can we reduce the effects of anxiety on performance?

If attentional control is a causal mechanism that can explain anxiety’s effects on performance then it can be trained and boosted to protect against the effects of anxiety on performance. In the current study, which will be published in the journal Biological Psychology, we asked participants with a high anxiety disposition to train on an adaptive cognitive task for a period of 15 days over three weeks, for half an hour every day, and all training was performed online.

The special thing about the training protocol is the adaptive nature of the task that increases and decreases in difficulty based on participant performance levels. Elsewhere, we have shown that training on this task improves attentional control in subclinical depression (see Owens, Koster & Derakshan, 2013; see also our BBCR4 programme on How to Have a Better Brain.

In the current study, we assessed participants’ levels of attentional control using a number of tasks measuring distractibility (e.g. a flanker task that was performed under stressful and non-stressful conditions), an antisaccade task measuring inhibition of threatening faces and resting state attentional control using electrophysiological measures. Participants completed these tasks before and after the intervention. We also had a control group who performed a non-adaptive version of the training.

Did training improve attentional control?

Graph from Prof Derakhshan's current study showing changes in anxiety as a function of engagement with training

Graph from Prof Derakhshan’s current study showing changes in anxiety as a function of engagement with training

Our results showed that those undergoing adaptive training compared with the control group showed greater transferability of training related gains onto attentional control measures. Specifically, they were better at inhibiting distractors in the flanker task, and this superiority was especially apparent when stressed, i.e. they could exercise attentional control much better than the control group when they were under stress.

The training group also had better resting state attentional control compared with the control group. Importantly, engagement with training as shown by improvement on the training task, from first to last day of training, correlated with reductions in anxiety levels after the intervention relative to before the intervention. This meant that those who improved more on the training task had lower levels of anxiety vulnerability after training.

Why are the results of the current study important?

The most important message here is that attentional control can be trained with transferrable effects on unrelated tasks measuring relevant cognitive functions such as distractibility, inhibition, and concentration in individuals suffering from high levels of anxiety. Furthermore, our findings showed that improving attentional control can reduce anxiety in individuals with an anxious predisposition.

They also attest to the causal mechanism of attentional control protecting against anxiety vulnerability especially under stress. The implications of improving attentional control are enormous in education and clinical science. Targeting and training working memory using adaptive tasks that exercise attentional control holds the potential to protect against longer term under-achievement in anxious pupils. It can also protect against the development of clinical anxiety which can be debilitative to the individual.

How can the current study be extended?

There are a few ways in which future research can build upon the current findings. First, if attentional control training shows promise to increase processing efficiency then it can be used as an adjunct to traditional therapies such as mindfulness and CBT that rely on pre-frontal functions such as concentration and attention focus.

Second, it is essential to examine the sustainability of the effects of adaptive cognitive training on performance and anxiety vulnerability and get an indication of how training effects consolidate with the environment over time. How are behaviours changed? Finally, it seems essential from a clinical point of view to look at how training can impact on a person’s quality of life and levels of resilience throughout time.

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