(Editor’s Note: this is one of the 20 interviews included in The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age )
Michael I. Posner is a prominent scientist in the field of cognitive neuroscience. He is currently an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Oregon  (Department of Psychology, Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences). In August 2008, the International Union of Psychological Science made him the first recipient of the Dogan Prize “in recognition of a contribution that represents a major advance in psychology by a scholar or team of scholars of high international reputation.”
Dr. Posner, many thanks for your time today. I really enjoyed the James Arthur Lecture monograph on Evolution and Development of Self-Regulation that you delivered last year. Could you provide a summary of the research you presented?
I would emphasize that we human beings can regulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions to a greater degree than other primates. For example, we can choose to pass up an immediate reward for a larger, delayed reward.
We can plan ahead, resist distractions, be goal-oriented. These human characteristics appear to depend upon what we often call “self-regulation.” What is exciting these days is that progress in neuroimaging and in genetics make it possible to think about self-regulation in terms of specific brain-based networks.
Can you explain what self-regulation is?
All parents have seen this in their kids. Parents can see the remarkable transformation as their children develop the ability to regulate emotions and to persist with goals in the face of distractions. That ability is usually labeled ‚ self-regulation.
The other main area of your research is attention. Can you explain the brain-basis for what we usually call “attention”?
I have been interested in how the attention system develops in infancy and early childhood.
One of our major findings, thanks to neuroimaging, is that there is not one single “attention”, but three separate functions of attention with three separate underlying brain networks: alerting, orienting, and executive attention.
1) Alerting: helps us maintain an Alert State.
2) Orienting: focuses our senses on the information we want. For example, you are now listening to my voice.
3) Executive Attention: regulates a variety of networks, such as emotional responses and sensory information. This is critical for most other skills, and clearly correlated with academic performance. It is distributed in frontal lobes and the cingulate gyrus.
The development of executive attention can be easily observed both by questionnaire and cognitive tasks after about age 3 –4, when parents can identify the ability of their children to regulate their emotions and control their behavior in accord with social demands.
“Executive attention” sounds similar to executive functions.
Executive functions are goal-oriented. Executive attention is just the ability to manage attention towards those goals, towards planning.
Both are clearly correlated. Executive attention is important for decision-making (how to accomplish an external goal) and with working memory (the temporary storage of information). For example, given that you said earlier that you liked my monograph, I have been thinking of the subheadings and sections there as I provide you my answers, using my working memory capacity.
You said that each of the three functions of attention are supported by separate neural networks.
Neuroimaging allows us to identify sets of distributed areas that operate together. Different techniques allow us to see different things. For example, fMRI lets us see the activation of areas of grey matter. A more recent technique, diffusion tensor, is focused instead on the white matter. It detects connectivity among neurons, it helps us see a map of networks.
How many networks have been identified so far?
So far, a number of networks have been identified. For an illustration, you can see the wonderful interactive Brain Map by the University of Texas, San Antonio (Note: http://www.brainmap.org/).
Let me mention another fascinating area of research. There is a type of neuron, named the Von Economo neuron, which is found only in the anterior cingulate and a related area of the anterior insula, very common in humans, less in other primates, and completely absent in most non-primates. These neurons have long axons, connecting to the anterior cingulate and anterior insula, which we think is part of the reason why we have Executive Attention. Diffusion tensor allows us to identify this white matter, these connections across separate brain structures, in the live brain. From a practical point of view, we can think that neural networks like this are what enable specific human traits such as effortful control.
What is effortful control?
It is a higher-order temperament factor consisting of attention, focus shifting, and inhibitory control — both for children and adults. A common example is how often you may make plans that you do not follow through with. A test often used to measure executive attention is the Stroop Test (you can try it here ). Effortful control has been shown to correlate with the scores on executive attention at several ages during childhood, and imaging studies have linked it to brain areas involved in self-regulation.
Good parenting has been shown to build good effortful control, so there are clear implications from this research.
Tell us now about your recent research on attention training
Several training programs have been successful in improving attention in normal adults and in patients suffering from different pathologies. With normal adults, training with video games produced better performance on a range of visual attention tasks. Training has also led to specific improvements in executive attention in patients with specific brain injury. Working-memory training can improve attention with ADHD children.
In one recent study we developed and tested a 5-day training intervention using computerized exercises. We tested the effect of training during the period of major development of executive attention, which takes place between 4 and 7 years of age.
We found that executive attention was trainable, and also a significantly greater improvement in intelligence in the trained group compared to the control children. This finding suggested that training effects had generalized to a measure of cognitive processing that is far removed from the training exercises.
A collaborator of our lab, Dr. Yiyuan Tang, studied the impact of mindfulness meditation with undergrads to improve exec attention, finding significant improvements as well. We hope that training method like this will be further evaluated, along with other methods, both as possible means of improving attention prior to school and for children and adults with specific needs.
Can you explain the potential implications of this emerging research on Education and Health?
It is clear that executive attention and effortful control are critical for success in school. Will they one day be trained in pre-schools? It sounds reasonable to believe so, to make sure all kids are ready to learn. Of course, additional studies are needed to determine exactly how and when attention training can best be accomplished and its lasting importance.
In terms of health, many deficits and clinical problems have a component of serious deficits in executive attention network. For example, when we talk about attention deficits, we can expect that in the future there will be remediation methods, such as working memory training, to help alleviate those deficits.
Let me add that we have found no ceiling for abilities such as attention, including among adults. The more training, even with normal people, the higher the results.
Let me ask your take on that eternal question, the roles of nature and nurture.
There is a growing number of studies that show the importance of interaction between our genes and each of our environments. Epigenetics is going to help us understand that question better, but let me share a very interesting piece of research from my lab where we found an unusual interaction between genetics and parenting.
Good parenting, as measured by different research-based scales, has been shown to build good effortful control which, as we saw earlier, is so important. Now, what we found is that some specific genes reduced, even eliminated, the influence of the quality of parenting. In other words, some children’s development really depends on how their parents bring them up, whereas others do not — or do to a much smaller extent.
Too bad that we do not have time now to explore all the potential ethical implications from emerging research like that…let me ask a few final questions. First, given that we have been talking both about formal training programs (computer-based, meditation) and also informal ones (parenting), do we know how formal and informal learning interact? what type can be most effective when, and for whom?
Great question. We don’t know at this point. A research institute in Seattle, funded by the National Science Foundation, is trying to address that question. One practical issue they address is the influence of bilingual education on cognition.
How can SharpBrains readers access the computer-based attention training program you talked about earlier?
Researchers and parents can download the program, which is aimed at kids aged 4 to 6. The computerized exercises are available on www.teach-the-brain.org . Click on learning tools and follow attention.
Finally, what can we expect from your lab in the next years?
We will hear soon if we obtain the NIH proposal to train children at age 5 and then follow-up over the years, compared to a control group. The program I mentioned earlier showed good short-term results, but we would like to track those kids over time and see what happens. For example, we will examine whether or not an early intervention might translate into a “snowball effect” of higher levels of cognitive and school performance.
- Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(43), 17152–17156.
–Rueda, M.R., Rothbart, M.K.. & Saccamanno, L. & Posner, M.I. (2005) Training,maturation and genetic influences on the development of executive attention. Proc.U.S Nat’l Acad of Sciences 102, 14931–14936.
- Rueda, M.R., Posner, M.I., & Rothbart,M.K. (2005) The development of executive attention: contributions to the emergence of self regulation. Developmental Neuropsychology 28, 573–594.