Posts Tagged ‘Attentional Control’

I don’t want to think about it—Oh wait.

November 27th, 2020 No comments

Do you ever find yourself driving somewhere or walking to a place without even thinking about it? Take this for example: Your friend invited you over to their house to hang out. So you get ready to leave, jump in your car, and make your way there. As you begin to drive, you take all the normal turns you would to regularly get there until you realize you are five minutes away from their old address. They recently moved to a different house about 20 minutes from their old one, and what was going to be a 10 minute trip has turned into a 30 minute one. You’ve been to their new house before but for some reason you unconsciously still drove to their old address. Overtime, you continuously begin to remember that your friend does not, in fact, live at their old address until the association with them and their new address remains in the forefront of your mind while the old address is locked away in your archives of “things that are a distant memory”.

Inhibition is used to help block out things that we don’t necessarily want to remember.

This happens to people all the time in different scenarios during our daily lives, but why does this happen even when we know the correct route to take or decision to make? One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Olivia O’brien, made me wonder, briefly, this same thing after listening to her song “Inhibition” as it came on my playlist. I never really knew what inhibition actually meant but it really didn’t matter to me, the song was catchy and I figured it probably made sense in the context of the lyrics. Next thing I knew, we were discussing O’brien’s song title in my Cognitive Psychology class! Normally, I would be able to listen to music and go about my daily life without psychoanalyzing everything about it, but studying a subject such as cognitive psychology tends to make you question a lot of really normal processes that occur during everyday life. Taking this even further, to what extent can our inhibitory processes work sufficiently before we can’t keep unwanted memories from entering our present thinking state?

We use inhibition very often in many different situations, whether it’s something like the described scenario above, or something as simple as focusing our attention in any given moment. In many ways, inhibition is a fancy way of describing our control of memory retrieval when different cues remind us of things that we don’t necessarily want or need to remember in that moment (Levy & Anderson, 2002). This can be caused by different learned actions or traumatic experiences that link certain things in our environment to specific memories. Our inhibitory mechanisms take control of different conspicuous behaviors and they also target memories that are directly related to a cue to manage retrieval of them (Levy & Anderson, 2002). In this way, we can look at our inhibitory processes as a way for us to suppress unwanted accessibility to particular memories (Bjork, 2011). Things as simple as reading can cause us to use our inhibition to correctly read a word and find the right memory to pull into our working memory.

The Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, and the Orbitofrontal Cortex all work together in the inhibition process.

So inhibition is clearly important for us in order to go about our day without being entirely conflicted with ourselves and what we are seeing and trying to interpret. But what happens when we fail to use it? It feels like it would lead to a catastrophic level explosion of information trying to be interpreted by our working memory, ending what I imagine would be a mental breakdown. Thankfully, our inhibitory neurons do a really good job at making sure this doesn’t happen. Angie McCalla, a speech and language Pathologist at Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers outlines the three parts of the brain involved in making sure our inhibition abilities are set and ready to go. Altogether, the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC), the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), and the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC) work with each other to ensure that certain unwanted responses to things we are seeing and doing don’t end up occurring. The DLPFC is used to handle different thought processes and behaviors in the moment, which includes working recall and response inhibition. The ACC helps find competing responses to a cue and works to push back the incorrect response. Lastly, the OFC manages things such as impulse control and socially appropriate behaviors. This seems like a lot and is a little confusing. It took me a second to figure this out too, but luckily Benjamin J. Levy and Michael C. Anderson thread it together nicely in their article in the 2002 issue of Trends In Cognitive Sciences. They explained that since the ACC can help identify when two responses are trying to respond to one cue, it sends a signal to the DLPFC to put more restraints on our working recall and to put our inhibitory processes into action. This then signals the OFC to make a decision as to which response is the correct one to use based on the cue we are interacting with, and in turn, signals to inhibit the other unwanted response from our working memory. 

Still with me? Okay. Now that we know way more about how inhibition works than we did before, let’s look at how Kefi Mohamed Zeid found out that people who can fluently speak more than one language generally will have a more efficient ability to inhibit information using the Stroop Task.

The Stroop Task forces us to slow down and pull apart our automatic processes and inhibit our learned behaviors to correctly complete the task.

Using a total of 180 participants (90 younger and 90 older) who spoke both Arabic and French, Zeid tested them all on the Stroop Task with a slight twist. On top of reading the words, naming the colors, and the color-word condition, the participants also had a fourth condition in which they were shown the color-word condition but in the two languages (Arabic and French). Reid and his team found that participants who were more dominant in either language performed better on that test that was in their dominant language, but participants who were balanced in both languages performed equally as well on both the French and Arabic Stroop tests. Furthermore, they saw that the un-dominant language in participants who were more dominant in one than the other, is harder to retrieve information for as the older a participant was (Zeid, 2004). You may be wondering what the point of including this was, so let me explain: Since the older participants with a bias towards one language or the other had a progressively harder time on the Stroop Task in their non-dominant language, we can understand that over time, things that are not used as often can slowly became harder to access and are suppressed more heavily by our inhibition.

Let’s circle back to our hypothetical selves driving to our friend’s house. If we think of the two addresses, old and new, as the two languages present in Zeid’s study, we can see how the old address may have once been the dominant language to us, which is why it isn’t as easy to inhibit at first. As we slowly begin to learn the new address, however, we strengthen what was initially our non-dominant language. The more we practice it and don’t practice the other language, we almost switch which one is our dominant and non-dominant source of information. Once this switch is made, the newly dominant language, or our friends new address, has easier access to our working memory, leaving the non-dominant language, or our friends old address, under a heavier influence from our inhibitory processes.

After this deep, deep dive into inhibition, what it is, and how it works, I can officially say that Olivia O’brien’s song makes a lot more sense to me now, and that she is very lyrically gifted. Maybe someone else who reads this and listen’s to the song will be able to appreciate it as much as I do right now.



Anderson, M. C., & Levy, B. J. (2016). On The Relationship Between Interference And Inhibition In Cognition. In 1084770490 823458394 A. S. Benjamin & 1084770491 823458394 R. A. Bjork (Authors), Successful remembering and successful forgetting: A festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 107-132). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group.

Levy, B. (2002). Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(7), 299-305. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(02)01923-x 

McCalla, A. (2017, July 26). Executive Functioning – Where is it Controlled and How Does it Develop? / Remediation Techniques for Deficits and Dysfunction. 

Zied, K. M., Phillipe, A., Karine, P., Valerie, H., Ghislaine, A., Arnaud, R., & Didier, L. G. (2004). Bilingualism and adult differences in inhibitory mechanisms: Evidence from a bilingual stroop task. Brain and Cognition, 54(3), 254-256. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2004.02.036

Moving From Autopilot Towards Mindfulness

November 24th, 2020 No comments you ever been carrying on a conversation with a friend when you realize you have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about–let alone how you’re still talking? Or, maybe you’ve been driving when you blink and an entire hour goes by leaving you wondering where your mind went… and how your car is still intact? I could just be a bad friend, or a slacker driver, but I suspect I’m not alone. It’s likely that you’re zoned out a lot more often than you realize, and this isn’t without negative repercussions. In 2010, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert used a phone app to randomly record what 2,250 subjects’ minds were focused on in a specific moment in relation to what they were doing and how they were feeling. They discovered that the average person spends about 47% of their day on “autopilot,” following automated behaviors while their thoughts wander from the task at hand. Equally intriguing, when the participants reported their mind wandering, they also reported being significantly less happy in that moment. It may be unsettling to realize that you aren’t consciously aware of your behavior for half of your day, and that generally the more time we spend directed by automated behaviors, the less happy we’re likely to feel. (Killingsworth, 2010)
Read more…

You Should Be Paying Attention(al) to this Bias 

November 26th, 2019 2 comments

Putting all of your attentional resources towards studying!

You rush into a library late on a rainy night, toting all your calculus notes with you. In just a few days, you have the biggest exam of the semester, and you know you have to do well to keep up your grades. As you walk in, you are greeted by an extensive number of stimuli, the warmth of the library, the smell of coffee floating through the air, the sound of pages rustling. You head to your favorite spot in the cubicle section of the library, pull your books out of your backpack, and get ready to start studying for your exam. Before you do though, you take a quick look at the people around you. You notice a person in a bright red rain jacket about 20 feet away from you, sitting on a chair reading a book. You also notice a group of students huddled around a table, and a man in a suit typing away on his laptop. But that’s enough of observing people, you are here to work on calculus! You really immerse yourself in the math, reading your textbook, reviewing notes, and solving problems in your notebook. You check the clock on the wall every once in a while and after a solid hour and a half of intense studying, you decide to take a break. You feel proud of what you’ve accomplished and decide to go to the next door cafe to get yourself a treat. As you stand up you scan the environment around you – to your surprise, you don’t see the group of students, the businessman, or the woman in the bright red raincoat. Instead there are new people around you that you don’t recognize – How did this happen? You weren’t asleep and you didn’t leave your spot in the library, yet you didn’t notice people leave or enter the space. This is an example of attentional bias, which causes people to pay attention to certain things while ignoring other stimuli. In this example, your attention was directed to the task at hand – so much so that attention was not paid to your surroundings.

Now, imagine you are in a classroom where a professor is going through a lecture with slides. You start to zone out, thinking about something completely unrelated to the class, while staring at the floor. You snap back to reality, look at the slides, and don’t recognize what your professor is talking about. Despite being in the closed classroom without distractions, you can’t remember what your professor was talking about, or what the past couple slides covered. This once again is attentional bias allowing you to ignore certain stimuli in your environment.

Read more…

I TOTALLY needed that $99 pair of light-up, pizza-alien sneakers…

November 25th, 2019 No comments

The $99 pair of light-up pizza, alien shoes that we all TOTALLY need (source)

Amazon Prime one-click ordering is dangerous territory. Bacon-patterned duct-tape? A ten-pound bag of gummy bears? A pool floaty shaped like a dinosaur? The only thing standing between you and these extremely valuable purchases is 1-click (and free 2-day delivery, of course). But you needed that $99 pair of light-up pizza-alien sneakers– your purchase was entirely justified. Even though you already have 5 other pairs of sneakers, your life would not be complete without this specific pair. Let’s be real, every person (including you) has impulsively bought something and then spent the rest of the day validating or rationalizing your decision. Well, that urge to justify your purchase is a real psychological phenomenon named Post-Purchase Rationalization, or the idea that people tend to justify and defend the purchases they make even if the purchase was impulsive, misguided, inadequate or so on (i.e. you telling yourself that buying those sneakers was a good decision is you post-purchase rationalizing). 

Read more…

Don’t Worry, Your New Friend Isn’t Actually Following You

November 25th, 2019 2 comments

Imagine you are a college student at a party on a Saturday night. A friend introduces you to a guy that you have never met before; in fact, you have never even seen him before. The next day, you see the guy you just met in the dining hall, and then again later that afternoon in the library. Over the next few weeks, you start to feel like you see this guy everywhere you go on campus. This is called the frequency illusion. You may think that you are seeing him more often, but this is a distortion of reality and likely false.

When you meet a new person on campus and then you start seeing them all the time.

So, why are you feeling this way? It’s due to the frequency illusion, which is a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to notice something we have recently been introduced to much more often than we remember in the past. You may begin to notice the boy from the party more often, even though you do not recall ever seeing him before. The two major cognitive aspects of the frequency illusion are confirmation bias and selective attention (Zwicky, 2006). Confirmation bias occurs when people actively seek ways to confirm their original beliefs, while selective attention refers to our ability to focus on a particular stimulus while in the presence of multiple stimuli. Since attention is a limited resource, we are not able to attend to all of the stimuli that may be present in our environment. We need to recognize which is the most relevant, and dedicate our attentional resources to that stimulus. The two combine to create the frequency illusion; from the example above, now that you have met this guy, you choose to pay attention to him when you encounter him on campus (selective attention). Once you see him around a few times, you believe that he is everywhere and start to look for ways to confirm this belief (confirmation bias).  Read more…

What was I saying? Oh, right, Absent-mindedness…

April 26th, 2018 No comments

It’s a Saturday night. You come home early to catch your favorite TV show. You’re in such a hurry that you throw your keys somewhere carelessly. When it’s time to go out, you can’t remember where you put your keys. It’s not at the regular spot where you usually place your keys. It takes a long time for you to find them. Does this seem familiar? When things like this happen, you might wonder if there’s something wrong with your mind. In fact, it is a common phenomenon called absent-mindedness.

Absent-mindedness is a cognitive bias that happens when people “zone out” and make mistakes in daily life (Broadbent, Cooper, FitzGerald, & Parkes, 1982). The mistakes can be anything related to a lack of attention, e.g., walking in a room and forgetting why you came in, dropping something unintentionally, or throwing your phone in a trash can and keeping the coffee cup (which happened to me once). Absent-mindedness is where attention and memory come together, even though they seem to be two separate things.

How is absent-mindedness related to attention? Before answering this question, we need to know that our attention has a limited capacity (Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Biondi, Behrends, & Moore, 2015). One theory suggests that when our limited attentional resource is occupied, the rate of absent-mindedness may increase (Fisher & Hood, 1987). This means that if you are talking to a friend while walking down the street and paying little attention to your surroundings, you might end up bumping into someone if that person is being absent-minded as well!
Read more…

Absentmindedness: Why am I so bor…. oh wait I love this song!

April 26th, 2018 No comments

Do you ever find yourself bored for no reason? Wishing you were somewhere else doing something else? Or how about doing more than one thing at once? For example, you are driving…searching for your favorite song knowing full well that scrolling through your playlist while driving is dangerous. (click here to learn more about the perils of distracted driving).

Taken from

This humorous clip points to how multitasking while driving results in errors. In this situation, you are attending to two different tasks at once. We find ourselves in these situations more frequently than we like to admit. This has a lot to do with how and where we direct our attention. Interests and desires impact attentional control. The more we are interested in a task, the more attention we give to it. Attentional control is affected by how much attention we have to give each task.  We, only have a finite amount of attentional resources, and each task requires different levels of attention. This can lead to the cognitive bias, absentmindedness, which is the failure to attend to a task resulting in mistakes and forgetful behavior particularly when two tasks are being attempted simultaneously. A point of distinction is that multitasking which leads to absentmindedness is not a positive attribute and one we should avoid. Read more…

Isn’t The Weber-Fechner Law The Same As Any Other Equation? Never mind, I Just Noticed The Difference

April 24th, 2018 No comments

Imagine that you and your best friend are sitting in the back of the classroom during a lecture on a Friday afternoon. All you can think about is the concert  you’re going to tonight that you’ve been excited about for months, so you give up on trying to listen to your professor explain nuclear chemistry. You quietly whisper back and forth with your friend, talking about what you plan on wearing and what time you need to leave. Finally, the lecture ends and before you know it you’re at the concert. The music is blasting and you’re having a great time, but after singing along to several songs you decide you need to go buy something to drink. You start to tell your friend that you’ll be right back, but she doesn’t hear you. You say her name louder a few times, but she still doesn’t notice. Finally, you lean in close and yell in her ear. She nods and says something back but you can’t hear it over the music. You could hear each other just fine a few hours ago in class, but now it’s nearly impossible. What you’re experiencing is a difference in background intensity, and Ernest Weber and Gustav Fechner have a law that will tell you all about it. Read more…

Under Budget and Over Time: The Planning Fallacy is Why You’re Always Behind Schedule

April 17th, 2017 8 comments

You are a busy college student who has a lot to do after a long day of classes. So you decide to try to organize your life and make a detailed schedule for your evening. You set aside an hour to get that workout in, and then another generous hour for dinner with your friends. Then to the library, you give yourself 45 minutes to read a history article and an hour to finish your lab report, followed

Evening Schedule

by an hour and a half for that chapter of chemistry notes. If all goes as planned, you’ll be back in your room snuggled up with Netflix by 11pm. The problem is, halfway through that chemistry chapter, you glance at your phone and it reads 11:43pm. What happened? You planned out everything you had to do and thought you had given yourself enough time to do it. Unfortunately, you have fallen victim to the planning fallacy. Read more…

Why Have I Seen so Many Dogs Today… and Other Effects of the Attentional Bias

April 17th, 2017 3 comments

Have you ever experienced that feeling where you’re in a bad mood and everything seems to be going wrong that day? Maybe all of your friends seem mad at you, or maybe you do something embarrassing like trip, and you feel like everybody is making fun of you.  These are basic examples of the phenomenon that cognitive psychologists call the attentional bias.  This describes the tendency for you to focus on certain pictures, objects, facial expressions, or other stimuli in your environment based on what is dominating your thoughts.  This means that someone who is very interested in dogs and reads a lot of information about them, or looks at pictures of them online all the time, will tend to focus more on dogs in their environment.

Cute dogs

Read more…