11/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can Games, Meditation and Parenting Help Improve Attention?

I am honored to interview today Michael I. Posner, 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."

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): 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?

Michael Posner (MP): 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.

AF: Can you explain what self-regulation is?

MP: 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.''

AF: Tell us now about your recent research on attention training

MP: 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.

AF: Can you explain the potential implications of this emerging research on Education and Health?

MP: 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.

AF: Let me ask your take on that eternal question, the roles of nature and nurture.

MP: 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.

AF: Dr. Posner, we appreciate your time and insights. Thank you.

MP: My pleasure.

This an excerpt from our full conversation, which you can read in its entirety here: Training Attention and Emotional Self-Regulation - Interview with Michael Posner.