Remembering where you left your wallet or cell phone and making sure you take everything with you on a busy morning is difficult, and sometimes memory tricks are needed. Reminders like Post-It notes can help, but a new study from Washington University in St. Louis shows how the brain remembers what is most important from all the stimuli in our environments.
While visual reminders are an excellent way to manage tasks, they don't have to be similar in appearance to the task; they can be a word or other meaningful reminder. Richard Abrams Richard Abrams, professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at the university explained that our environment, our "visual world" has a lot going on, much more than can be readily processed by the brain. He stated, "We can't fully process everything in a scene, so we have to pick and choose the parts of the scene we want to process more fully. That is what we call ‘attention.' We're more likely to direct our attention to things that match objects that we've interacted with."
Attention is vital for memory and efficiency. When there is too much happening around us, focus suffers. The new research found that a "match" does not need to be in appearance, it can be something that means the same thing as what we are trying to focus on
There is a brain process called "priming" where mental tasks are more manageable if they are similar to something you've recently done. In previous research, this effect was shown by study participants who were able to find an object quicker in a search if that object shared features like color or concept with objects we had seen previously. The recent research, which was published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, suggests that priming the brain intentionally with words, rather than images, can increase focus and attention.
One of the critical functions of the brain is to sort out what is important to notice in our surroundings and what can be ignored. When we act on something relevant in our environment, the brain learns that an object or event is important because we did something related to it. Passively observing something says Abrams, does not give that object importance regarding memory and focus.
The study investigated if a "priming word" could impact memory and focus. Study participants were asked to sit at a computer and watch as the words "No" or "Go" appeared. If the word flashed was "Go" they were asked to push a button when the primary word (which was usually an object like "KEYS") appeared. When the word "No" was seen they were still asked to look at the priming words, however, they didn't have to do anything else.
The next part of the research asked volunteers to look at two pictures, and find arrows that had been superimposed on them. They were instructed to find arrows that pointed left or right and to ignore those that pointed up or down. The content of the pictures was unimportant except for the appearance of the priming object (i.e., keys) in only one of the scenes.
It wasn't unexpected that subjects found the arrows faster when they were on the picture of the priming word, but what was a surprise that speed was even quicker when the subjects had pushed the button when seeing the priming word. Subjects who had been "primed" by seeing a word but not taking any action were slower to find the arrows than those who had the additional experience of taking action.
The team hopes that revealing the mechanism of taking action and finding something in a complex and crowded environment will have applications in jobs that require being able to zero in on important objects in sometimes chaotic situations. Abrams summarized the work saying, "In order for us to behave efficiently in the world, we have to make good choices about which of the many objects in a scene we are going to be processing. These experiments reveal one mechanism that helps us make those choices." Check out the video from the Washington U. below to see how the study worked.