Tag Archives: Control

Bar neon sign.

Ignoring distractions or temptation is harder when you’re tired, stressed, or trying to remember something

Stress, tiredness, and general cognitive strain make it much harder for us to ignore signals in the environment for something rewarding — such as bright neon signs for fast food joints.

Bar neon sign.

Neon lights and ads are such tempting cues.
Image via Pixabay.

We all have impulses we’d like to have a better handle on. Some of you might be trying to diet, quit smoking, or kick some other habit; good luck. New research says that tiredness, stress, or any other drain on your mental resources can make it harder for you to resist tempting cues and thus make good on your decision. The team says that trying to hold information in our memory also produces this effect, the first time this link has been demonstrated.


“We knew already that participants find it hard to ignore cues that signal a large reward,” says study lead Dr. Poppy Watson at UNSW.

“We have a set of control resources that are guiding us and helping us suppress these unwanted signals of reward. But when those resources are taxed, these become more and more difficult to ignore.”

Researchers refer to the cognitive processes that allow us to pay attention, organize our life, focus, or regulate our emotions as ‘executive control’. It wasn’t yet clear whether our ability or inability to ignore reward cues (i.e. temptation) was related to executive control or a separate ability, but the present research suggests that the former is true: executive control processes are employed to keep us from distractions or temptations. However, the findings also show that these resources are limited.

“Now that we have evidence that executive control processes are playing an important role in suppressing attention towards unwanted signals of reward, we can begin to look at the possibility of strengthening executive control as a possible treatment avenue for situations like addiction,” says Dr. Watson.

For the study, the team had participants look at a screen on which various shapes — including a colorful circle — were being displayed. Their task was to locate and look at a diamond shape on the screen, and if successful, they’d be given money. However, if they looked at the colored circle — which played the part of the distraction/temptation — they wouldn’t receive money. To make things even harder, participants were told that the presence of a blue circle on-screen meant that they’d be paid more if they successfully completed the diamond task than if an orange circle was shown.

The team tracked where each participant was looking using eye-tracking technology. The team ran a low-memory load and a high-memory load version of the experiment. In the high-memory load version, the participants were also asked to memorize a sequence of numbers while performing the larger task. This set-up was used to further draw from the participants’ cognitive resources and to see how this impacted their ability to perform the diamond task.

Hot Dogs.

Image via Pixabay.

“Study participants found it really difficult to stop themselves from looking at cues that represented the level of reward — the coloured circles — even though they were paid to try and ignore them,” Dr. Watson says.

“Crucially, the circles became harder to ignore when people were asked to also memorize numbers: under high memory load, participants looked at the coloured circle associated with the high reward around 50% of the time, even though this was entirely counterproductive.”

The findings suggest that people need access to either full or at least a sizeable chunk of their cognitive control processes to successfully block distractions or temptations from the environment. This mechanism, ironically, seems to make it harder to ignore cues regarding habits or behaviors you want to change — because you’re paying attention to changing them specifically. This might also explain why people find it harder to focus on dieting or beating an addiction if they are under a lot of stress.

“There’s this strong known link between where your attention is and what you eventually do, so if you find it hard to focus your attention away from reward cues, it’s even harder to act accordingly,” says Dr. Watson. “Constant worrying or stress is the equivalent to the high-memory load scenario of our experiment, impacting on people’s ability to use their executive control resources in a way that’s helping them manage unwanted cues in the environment.”

The team wants to see if executive control can be strengthened and if that can be used in the context of drug rehabilitation.

The paper “Capture and Control: Working Memory Modulates Attentional Capture by Reward-Related Stimuli” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.


Your left hemisphere can veto the right one into submission — but they generally play nice

The two halves of your brain synchronize on a first-come-first-served basis, new research reveals — but the left side has the upper hand.


Image via Pixabay.

Our brain’s two hemispheres specialize in different tasks. In broad lines, the right hemisphere performs tasks that involve creativity, the left one handles tasks that have to do with logic, and each controls the movements of one half of the body.

Sounds quite complicated, huh? Well, it is. What makes the process even more complicated is that the brain often needs to reach a single response to a stimulus — in other words, one hemisphere needs to assert authority over the other, at times, and handle a specific scenario. Exactly how this power struggle is mediated, however, has remained unknown up to now.

Peas in a pod

A team of researchers from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum has worked to patch up our understanding on this subject, The team, comprised of Dr. Qian Xiao and Professor Onur Güntürkün, reports that hemispheric dominance is settled by slight differences in temporal activity patterns in both hemispheres — in pigeons, at least.

In other words, the first to act takes control. However, the team also found that in the case of a conflict, the left hemisphere can veto its counterpart and assume control.

The brain’s hemispheres are linked via a heavy-duty bundle of nerve fibers, known as commissures. It was assumed that these commissures carried signals from one hemisphere to the other, which helped them sync up. For example, one hemisphere could send inhibitory signals to its counterpart in order to suppress some of its functions. One big issue with that hypothesis, however, is that the hemispheres also broadcast excitatory signals over the commissures.

“This is why it has remained a mystery where, exactly, functional brain asymmetries stem from,” says Güntürkün.

The team approached the issue using a new method. At the biopsychology lab in Bochum, they measured the brain activity of pigeons performing a color differentiation test. From the readings, the team extrapolated the activity of individual cells in the birds’ visuomotor forebrain. This brain network handles visual information and generates movement as a response. In birds, the left hemisphere is dominant for these tasks.

Visual Tectomotor Pathways.

Ascending and descending pathways of the visual tectomotor pathways in pigeons.
Image credits Qian Xiao, Onur Güntürkün, 2018, Cell Reports.

The duo occasionally blocked the activity of neurons that sent signals over the commissures to better understand how the two hemispheres sync. They also monitored the neurons that usually receive input from the other hemisphere. By putting these sets of observations together, they were able to model how this interaction affects the activity of the two halves of the brain.

They report that if both hemispheres want to assert control, the left hemisphere comes on top — for some reason, it’s able to delay the activity of neurons in the right hemisphere and over-ride it, so to speak. The researchers further showed that the two hemispheres are also theoretically capable of synchronizing their activity.

“The right hemisphere simply acts too late to control the response,” Güntürkün explains.

“These results show that hemispheric dominance is based on a sophisticated mechanism. It does not hinge on one general inhibitory or excitatory influence; rather it is caused by minute temporal delays in the activity of nerve cells in the other hemisphere.”

The paper “Asymmetrical Commissural Control of the Subdominant Hemisphere in Pigeons” has been published in the journal Cell Reports.

Gun arm.

Largest body of U.S. doctors vote for sweeping gun restrictions

Guns’r bad, ‘mkay?

Gun arm.

Image credits Kerttu / Pixabay.

U.S. doctors are fed up with the country’s gun epidemic. At the American Medical Association’s annual policymaking meeting in Chicago, earlier this week, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of more gun control and other measures designed to reduce gun violence.

Less pew-pew, please

“We as physicians are the witnesses to the human toll of this disease,” Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency-medicine specialist at Brown University, said at the meeting.

The AMA, the largest physicians group in the U.S., voted in favor for blanket support in favor of assault weapon bans and against arming teachers. They also voted to support:

  • Laws requiring licensing, safety training for gun owners, and firearm registration.
  • Laws preventing people under 21 years of age from buying firearms or ammunition.
  • The right of relatives to obtain court orders to remove guns from imminently-violent or suicidal persons.
  • The elimination of loopholes allowing people with a history of domestic violence or stalking to buy and own firearms.
  • Better training for doctors to help them recognize patients at risk of committing suicide.

The unprecedented support for gun control measures comes amid a streak of school shootings, high rates of gun violence in U.S. cities, and rising rates of suicide — with guns accounting for roughly 49% of cases in the last category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The association’s policy body voted 446 to 99 in support of these measures, according to the New York Times.

“Is this really what we need?,” I hear an AR-15 totting patriot ask. “Does gun control really work?” Yes, Billy, it does. There’s a huge body of literature already published that links more thorough gun control laws to fewer gun-induced deaths — both homicides and suicides — fewer cases of domestic shootings, and lower rates of accidental infant mortality by firearm (which is astonishingly high). The U.S. currently sees more than 11 times the rate of mass shooting events than any other developed country, according to a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences. And no, arming teachers flat-out doesn’t work.

While the effort is primarily aimed at legislators, AMA puts a lot of faith in the public. They hope people like you and me will pick up the message and demand that our representatives step up and make the changes we need. AMA members are already frustrated because they’ve seen “so little action from either state or federal legislators” up to now, says Dr. David Barbe, the former AMA president.

The American Medical Association, while being the largest single physician group in the U.S., still represents under a quarter of the nation’s doctors (243,000 registered members in 2017). Their decisions do have weight in the eyes of policy-makers and the medical sector at large — but if you want to see change for the better in regards to gun control, your best bet is to add your voice to that of AMA.