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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Adolescents and multitasking

This post was contributed by Dr Iroise Dumontheil of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences, and co-author of the newly published study “Multitasking during social interaction in adolescence and early adulthood”. The paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, can be read hereClick here to read the news article

Presentation of multitasking paradigm (published in Royal Society Open Science)

Presentation of multitasking paradigm (published in Royal Society Open Science) * Caption below

Humans are social beings. We have evolved to function in groups of various size. Some researchers argue that the complexity of social relationships which require, for example, remembering who tends to be aggressive, who has been nice to us in the past, or who always shares her food, may have been an evolutionary pressure leading to the selection of humans with bigger brains, and in particular a bigger frontal cortex (see research by Robin Dunbar).

However, we do not always take into account the perspective or knowledge of a person we are interacting with. Boaz Keysar and later Ian Apperly developed an experimental psychology paradigm which allows us to investigate people’s tendency to take into account the perspective of another  person (referred to as the “director”) when they are following his instructions to move objects on a set of shelves. Some of the slots on the shelves have a back panel, which prevent the director, who is standing on the other side of the shelves, from seeing, and knowing, which objects are located in the slots. While all participants can correctly say, when queried, which object the director can or cannot see, adult participants, approximately 40% of the time, do not take into account the view of the director when following his instructions.

In a previous study, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (UCL), Ian Apperly (University of Birmingham) and I, demonstrated that adolescents made more errors than adults on the task, showing a greater bias towards their own perspective.  In contrast,  adolescents performed to the same level a task matched in terms of general demands but which required following a rule to move only certain objects, and did not have a social context (read the study here).

The Royal Society Open Science journal is publishing today a further study on this topic, led by Kathryn Mills (now at the NIMH in Bethesda) while she was doing her PhD with Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at UCL. Here, we were interested in whether loading participants’ working memory, a mental workspace which enables us to maintain and manipulate information over a few seconds, would affect their ability to take another person’s perspective into account. In addition, we wanted to investigate whether adolescents and adults may differ on this task.

What would this correspond to in real life? Anna is seating in class trying to remember what the teacher said about tonight’s homework. At the same time her friend Sophie is talking to her about a common friend, Dana, who has a secret only Anna knows. In this situation, akin to multitasking,  Anna may forget the homework instruction or spill out Dana’s secret, because her working memory system has been overloaded.

Thirty-three female adolescents (11-17 years old) and 28 female adults (22-30 years old) took part in a variant of the Director task. Between each instruction given by the director, either one or three double-digits numbers were presented to the participants and they were asked to remember them.

Overall, adolescents were less accurate than adults on the number task and the Director task (combined, in a single “multitasking” measure) when they had to remember three numbers compared to one number. In addition, all participants were found to be slower to respond when the perspective of the director differed from their own and when their working memory was loaded with three numbers compared to one number, suggesting that multitasking may impact our social interactions.

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*Image caption: Presentation of multitasking paradigm (image published in Royal Society Open Science paper). For each trial, participants were first presented with either (a) one two-digit number (low load) or (b) three two-digit numbers (high load) for 3 s. Then participants were presented with the Director Task stimuli, which included a social (c) and non-social control condition (d). In this example, participants hear the instruction: ‘Move the large ball up’ in either a male or a female voice. If the voice is female, the correct object to move is the basketball, because in the DP condition the female director is standing in front of the shelves and can see all the objects, and in the DA condition, the absence of a red X on the grey box below the ‘F’ indicate that all objects can be moved by the participant. If the voice is male, the correct object to move is the football, because in the DP condition the male director is standing behind the shelves and therefore cannot see the larger basketball in the covered slot, and in the DA condition the red X over the grey box below the ‘M’ indicates that no objects in front of a grey background can be moved. After selecting an object in the Director Task, participants were presented with a display of two numbers, one of which corresponding to the only number (e) or one of the three numbers (f), shown to them at the beginning of the trial. Participants were instructed to click on the number they remembered being shown at the beginning of the trial.

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Rehearsing “why” and “how” to not drink alcohol during social occasions may help promote safer student drinking

2014 photoThis post was contributed by Dr Dominic Conroy, a Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck. Dr Conroy is currently working on an NIHR-funded study with Professor Jonathan Smith to explore adolescents with conduct disorders’ experiences of multisystemic therapy. 

Students-drinking1Understanding how to successfully encourage university students to understand and heed government drinking recommendations remains one of the holy grails of health promotion research. One aspect of these drinking recommendations is to encourage individuals to take two ‘dry days’ per week where they do not drink any alcohol at all (National Health Service, 2014). In research recently published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, my research colleagues Dr Paul Sparks and Dr Richard de Visser and I were interested in assessing an exercise designed to explore how students might be encouraged to consider how occasional non-drinking during social occasions could be thought of as a more beneficial, achievable behaviour.

Students-drinking2This experiment involved a  ‘mental simulation’ exercise in which 211 undergraduate student participants were encouraged to ‘mentally simulate’ possible benefits of socialising without drinking alcohol and/or possible strategies which might make not drinking during a social occasion more straightforward. Findings indicated that compared with maintaining a drinks diary, mentally simulating benefits led to reduced overall weekly consumption, and mentally simulating strategies involved in non-drinking led to reduced episodes of heavy episodic drinking. Findings also suggested that all participants held more favourable perceptions of non-drinkers than they had at baseline, though not significantly so.

Several indicative areas for future research were clearly identified from this study. Options for delivering health promotion messages containing a non-drinking mental simulation to encourage young people and/or students to consider the achievability and possible advantages involved in periodically not drinking during social occasions are currently being explored in collaboration with DrinkAware. It would also be useful to understand whether improving perceptions of non-drinkers might offer one route toward promoting safer levels of alcohol consumption. So for example, measuring self-reported perceptions of ‘the typical non-drinker’ might provide a useful screening tool for identifying those most at risk of harmful drinking. However, future research might also help clarify how different strands of ‘perceptions of non-drinkers’ are implicated in alcohol-related perceptions and behaviour. For example, it would be useful to understand how beliefs about non-drinking as a behaviour  chosen by others or as a personal behaviour imagined or enacted by the respondent may hold links with drinking behaviour, just as ‘perceptions of the prototypical non-drinker’ seem to.

Students face a wealth of social opportunities involving alcohol consumption during their time at university. In this context research must continue to explore ways of encouraging students to think about drinking less during occasions when alcohol consumption is inevitable. This said, findings from my PhD research favour the view that efforts to successfully promote moderate drinking among students may benefit from greater consideration over how to encourage individuals to re-appraise non-drinking as a periodic behavioural option available to them personally. This might include instilling more positive appraisals of non-drinking as a social behaviour in others as well as prompting students to consider non-drinking at some social occasions as something more achievable and holding more distinct benefits than they may had previously thought. At a health promotion guideline level, this would be consistent with recent recommendations to take two ‘dry days’ each week provided by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

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What the Thunder Said: theatre-based intervention for children who have witnessed violent events

Natasha KirkhamThis post was contributed by Dr Natasha Kirkham from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences.

In 2012, I took part in a research project looking into children’s reaction to witnessing violent events. Working with a playwright from Theatre Centre, I conducted workshops in 10 primary schools, located in areas with high levels of violence. The workshops fed into the writing of a new play, which then toured primary schools across the UK. We handed out questionnaires to the children and their teachers about  responses to and understanding of violent behaviour and bullying before and after seeing the play.

Until now, my research has been solidly experimental, investigating theories on attention and learning. This project opened my eyes to just how important it is for developmental scientists to get out of the lab and into the field, to shake up their methods, and to listen to individual children.  And to remind ourselves that development does not happen in a vacuum. These children were extraordinary – tough, interesting, heart-breaking, and funny – and all of them had thoughtful, strong opinions about the very real bullying in their environments. I learned about ‘circle of friends’ (peer-groups assigned to befriend and look out for each other), I learned about the role of humour in the lives of these children (both appropriate and inappropriate), and I learned how easily these children shift between reality and fantasy (seamlessly moving from laughing about parents in prison to discussing Xbox characters). Importantly, I learned that with bullying, ‘walking away’ does not always work.

This experience was personally and professionally cathartic for me, offering new insights into modern-day parenting, coping strategies (for children and teachers), and developmental resilience. Ultimately, it proved to me that a lot of our ideas about how to deal with bullying need to be re-worked.

We hope that the pre and post play surveys will show a significant shift in people’s perspective on community violence and the effects of bullying, and provide some evidence for theatre-based intervention in areas rife with violence and trouble.

Dr Kirkham’s review of her experience with this project was originally published in The Psychologist magazine.

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