Out to dinner recently, a friend and I were discussing an organization whose name implies one thing, when in actuality, what they promote is entirely the opposite. We both racked our brains to come up with the name of that organization with no success. Days later, without any recent thought of the elusive name – the words Discovery Institute sprung forward in my mind. It was a spontaneous and surprising recall that brought me relief and pleasure. “Ah Ha! That’s what we were trying to remember the other night. Yes!” I said to myself. These types of memories are called Mind Pops.
They are also referred to as involuntary semantic memories. As was the case in my example, they are completely involuntary in that this type of recall occurs without any current conscious, active thought. In the more scholarly term (involuntary semantic memories), the word semantic suggests that the relevant recall springs forth from one’s semantic knowledge – for example, most commonly the item recalled is a word, phrase, image, melody, or a proper name that one has learned or has previously been exposed to. These recall events pop into conscious thought (i.e., your “mind“), without current conscious active pursuit – thus the origin of the more compelling descriptor Mind Pops.
These memory events are a relatively new topic of research revealing, as was the case in my example, that such events are not always truly random. Although the memory may be irrelevant at the exact moment that it pops into awareness, they usually are linked to one’s past experiences. Sometimes they occur with no conscious awareness of the the trigger itself. In my example, there was an event that consciously set the stage for my Mind Pop (i.e., striving to recall the Discovery Institute), but some Mind Pops are more mysterious.
Kvavilashvili and her colleague George Mandler, propose that “the completely out of the blue” Mind Pops are often explained by “long-term priming.” Priming itself is an interesting topic, but essentially it is a phenomena whereby your behavior can be altered by exposure to stimuli that enters your unconscious (implicit) memory. Research has demonstrated that people can be primed to be more polite and patient if unwittingly exposed to words in an unrelated task that lists concepts associated with being polite and patient. People will walk more slowly if they are implicitly primed with words associated with the elderly. Furthermore, recall of trivia is better if people are asked to think about the role of being a college professor before being asked the trivia questions relative to folks asked to first think about being a soccer hooligan (with other variables held constant).
This unconscious priming sets the stage for these mysterious out of the blue Mind Pops. Subconscious exposure to an image, a word, a song, or a scene serves as the trigger for later Popping. As the word subconscious implies, the exposure occurs completely outside of conscious awareness. When Kvavilashvili and Mandler asked subjects to journal their Mind Pops, there were numerous examples where the Pops had no clear, or very subtle, triggers. “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish and chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.” Kvavilashvili noted that “I got curious about [Mind Pops] because they seemed so random and out of the blue, but these mind pops are genuine fragments of knowledge about the world. What it shows us is that our subconscious often knows the meaning of an experience, even if consciously we don’t.”
Researchers like Dr. Lia Kvavilashvili are finding that Mind Pops are quite common. I’m sure that you have likely experienced such events yourself. Kvavilashvili suggests that they are most often words or phrases rather than images or sounds and that they usually occur in the midst of some routine activity such as engaging self care. In other words, they are most likely to occur when your mind is not focused on the task at hand and is free to wander. A variant of this phenomena is the Tip of the Tongue (TOT) experience – where you may be struggling to remember a name or a word and it feels as though it is right on the tip of your tongue; yet, you just can’t spit it out. Then later, when you have stopped actively pursuing it, the word surfaces. That letting go of pursuit allows your implicit (unconscious) memory do its work.
Although almost everyone experiences Mind Pops, there seems to be an increased frequency of Mind Popping in individuals with mental health issues. Researchers Keith Laws, Lia Kvavilashvili, and Ia Elua, conducted some preliminary research whereby they compared the frequency of Mind Pops in 37 individuals with schizophrenia, 31 people with depression, and 26 individuals with no mental health issues. On average, individuals with Schizophrenia reported 3-4 Mind Pops a weeks, while individuals with depression reported 1-2 a month, and healthy individuals reported 1-2 every six months. Invasive thoughts that bleed through consciousness are indeed some of the prominent features of schizophrenia and depression, so these categorical differences do make sense.
In my personal correspondence with Dr. Kvavilashvili, she differentiated Mind Pops from the Involuntary Autobiographical Memories I described in a previous post titled The Guilt-Empathy Connection. In that post I discussed a similar phenomena whereby “serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past. A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly. And all of this occurs outside of conscious control. For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible. The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.“ Dr. Kvavilashvili noted that there seem to be “personality and individual difference variables at play” in my type of guilt based Involuntary Autobiographical Memories.
In a cursory review of the literature, I did come across a study by Dr. Dorthe Berntsen and she wrote that “The involuntary [autobiographical] memories more frequently referred to specific episodes, came with more physical reaction, had more impact on mood, and dealt with more unusual and less positive events.“ This coincides with my anecdotal experiences (for whatever that is worth). For me, these events were indeed outliers, they were negative and viscerally so, and they did significantly affect my mood. Mind Pops are quite different from such Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in that the Pops are more semantic in nature (rather than biographical or experiential), and the Pops tend to be more positively experienced.
Although Mind Pops and Involuntary Autobiographical Memories are commonplace, they certainly constitute manifestations of our amazing and incredibly complex brain. Please share your interesting Mind Pops or Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in the Comments section below so that you can showcase the amazing capabilities of your brain. And when you have one of those “out of the blue” Mind Pops look deep to find the source of the subconscious trigger – you might be amazed by your inattentional blindness or the vastness of what your mind’s eye takes in beyond what you see.
Berntsen, D., and Hall, N. M., (2004). The episodic nature of involuntary autobiographical memories. Memory & Cognition. Jul; 32(5): 789-803.
I don’t know if you caught it the other night when you were watching the news while skimming your email, checking your twitter and RSS feeds, and updating your Facebook status, but there was an interesting story about multitasking. Silly me, who actually watches the news anymore? Anyways, much of the recent buzz on this endemic behavior (among the technologically savvy) is not good. Multitasking is a paradox of sorts – where we tend to romanticize and overestimate our ability to split attention among multiple competing demands. The belief goes something like this: “I’ve got a lot to do and if I work on all my tasks simultaneously I’ll get them done faster.” However, what most of us fail to realize is that when we split our attention, what we are actually doing is dividing an already limited and finite capacity in a way that hinders overall performance. And some research is showing that chronic multitasking may have deleterious affects on one’s ability to process information even when one is not multitasking (Nass, 2009).
Advances in computer technology seem to fuel this behavior. If you do a Google search on multitasking you will get a mix of information on the technological wonders of machines that can multitask (AKA computers) mixed with news regarding how bad media multitasking is for you.
Think about it. There has been increasing pressure on the workforce to be more productive and gains in productivity have been made lockstep with increases in personal computing power. Applications have been developed on the back of the rising tide of computer capacity, thus making human multitasking more possible. These advances include faster microprocessors, increased RAM, increased monitor size, the internet itself, browsers that facilitate the use of multiple tabs, relatively inexpensive computers with sufficient power to keep open email, word processing programs, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and YouTube. Compound these tools with hardware that allows you to do these things on the go. No longer are you tethered to the desktop computer with an Ethernet cable. Wifi and 3G connectivity allow all the above activities almost anywhere via use of a smart phone, laptop, iPad, or notebook computer. Also in the mix are devices such as bluetooth headsets and other headphones that offer hands free operation of telephones.
Currently, technology offers one the ability to divide one’s attention in ways inconceivable only a decade ago. The ease of doing so has resulted in the generalization of this behavior across settings and situations including talking on cell phones while driving, texting while driving, texting while engaged in a face to face personal interactions, and even cooking dinner while talking on the phone. Some of these behaviors are dangerous, some rude, and all likely lead to inferior outcomes.
Don’t believe it? If you don’t, you are likely among the worst skilled of those who multitask. “Not me!” you may claim. Well research has shown that those who routinely multitask are also the most confident in their ability to do so (Nass, 2009). But when you look at the products of these “confidently proficient” multitaskers, you find the poorest outcomes.
Multitasking involves shifting attention from one task to another, refocusing attention, sustaining attention, and exercising ongoing judgment about the pertinence and salience of various competing demands. Doing this successfully is exceptionally difficult and is likely well beyond the capacity of most typical human beings. Our brains can only generally concentrate on one task at a time, and as such, multitasking necessitates devoting shorter periods of time on dissimilar tasks. As a result, overall effectiveness, on all tasks is reduced.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, including Professor David E. Meyer, point out that the act of switching focus itself has deleterious effects. When you switch from task A to task B you lose time in making the transition and the completion time of the transition itself increases with the degree of complexity of the task involved. Depending on how often you transition between stimuli, you can waste as much as 40% of your productive time just in task switching (APA, 2006).
Shorter periods of focus reduce overall time on task and each transition reduces this time further. Dr. Glenn Wilson at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London in 2005 discovered that his subjects experienced a 10-point fall in their IQ when distracted by incoming email and phone calls. This effect size was “more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana” and was similar to the effects of losing a night’s sleep (BBC, 2005).
As for the negative long term affects of multitasking, Dr. Nass noted that:
“We studied people who were chronic multitaskers, and even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought.”
Nass (2009) has found that these habitual multitaskers have chronic filtering difficulties, impaired capacity to manage working memory, and slower task switching abilities. One must be careful to avoid the Illusion of Cause in this situation. Correlation is not causation and we must avoid inferring that multitasking causes these cognitive declines. The reverse may be true or other undetected variables may cause both.
Much of the research in this area is in its infancy and thus limited in scope and depth, so it is prudent to be a bit skeptical about whether or not multitasking is bad for you. But with regard to the efficacy of multitasking – when you look at the issue from an anecdotal perspective, apply the tangentially related evidence logically, and then consider the data, you have to conclude that multitasking on important jobs is not a good idea. If you have important tasks to accomplish, it is best to focus your attention on one task at a time and to minimize distractions. To do so, avoid temptation to text, tweet, watch TV, check your email, talk on the phone, instant message, chat on Facebook, Skype, or otherwise divide you attention. If you believe employing these other distractions helps you do better, you are deluding yourself and falling victim to the reinforcement systems that make multitasking enjoyable. Socializing, virtually or otherwise, is more pleasurable than the arduous processes involved in truly working or studying.
You can likely apply the same principles to plumbing, cooking, housework, woodworking, etc. The key to success, it seems is to FOCUS on one task at a time, FINISH the job, and then move one. You’ll save time, be more efficient, and do a better job! Remember – FOCUS & FINISH!
In psychology there are some pretty famous studies that have penetrated popular culture. Many folks are at least familiar with Skinner’s rat box, Pavlov’s salivating dogs, Milgram’s obedience studies, Bandura’s Bobo Dolls, and Harlow’s rhesus monkeys reared by wire frame terry cloth mothers. In recent history, perhaps the most well known study pertains to inattentional blindness. If you have never heard of or seen a video of six college students, three in black shirts and three in white shirts, bouncing a couple basketballs back and forth, see the following video before you proceed.
So, of course I am referring to Daniel Simons’ Invisible Gorilla study. Just about everyone I know has seen this video, and I don’t recall any of them telling me that they did see the gorilla. I didn’t and I was absolutely flabbergasted – because I tend to be a pretty vigilant guy. This video is a graphic illustration of what Chabris and Simons (2010) refer to as the Illusion of Attention, and about 50% of those who watch the video while counting passes among white shirted players miss the gorilla.
This particular illusion concerns me because I spend a fare amount of time riding a bicycle on the roads of Western New York. So why should I or anyone who rides a bicycle or motorcycle, or anyone who drives while texting or talking on a cell phone be concerned?
The cold hard truth is that we may completely miss events or stimuli that we do not expect to see. If you don’t expect to see, and therefore fail to look for, bicycles and motorcycles, you may look right at them but fail to see them. LOOKING IS NOT SEEING just as hearing is not listening. This hearing/listening analogy is dead on. How often have you been caught hearing someone but not listening to what was actually being said? Chabris and Simons discuss in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, a study conducted by Daniel Memmert of Heidelberg University that demonstrated (using an eye-tracker) that virtually everyone who missed the gorilla looked directly at it at some point in the video (often for a full second). Bikers are the invisible gorillas of the roadways.
And as for drivers, if you are distracted by a cell phone conversation or by texting, you are less likely to see unexpected events (e.g., bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, wildlife).
Most drivers who text and talk on cell phones do not have problems. In fact, most driving is uneventful – as a result, most people get away with these behaviors. However, it is when there is an unexpected event that mobile phone users struggle with seeing and responding fluently to these events. You are under the same illusion as everybody else who has not been in an accident. Everyone believes, until they hit or kill somebody, that they are proficient drivers even while texting or talking on the phone. And by the way, hands free head sets make no difference. Driving while talking on a cell phone disables you as much as does alcohol.
Think about driving down a road not seeing and subsequently hitting a young child on a bike. Think about having to live with killing a middle aged couple with three kids in college who were lawfully riding down the road on a tandem bicycle. You hit the invisible gorilla. Live with that!
Daniel Simons, in a recently published study, also suggests that even if you are expecting an unexpected event, it is likely that you will miss other unanticipated events. Check out The Monkey Business Illusion video even if you have seen the invisible gorilla video. Test yourself.
I have long known that I am at risk while riding my bike on the road. I have recently incorporated wearing bright hi-vis attire as I ride. Doing so is completely inconsistent with my style; but I have done so in an effort to be safer. I was surprised to learn that research shows that doing so will increase your visibility for those that are looking for you – but that it will likely make no difference at all for inattentionally blind drivers. For those drivers who do not expect to see cyclists, hi-vis clothing will not likely increase the likelihood that you will be seen. Using head and tail lights works on a similar level. They do increase visibility but only for those looking for such strange sights. The best way to increase one’s safety while riding is to look like a car.
It is also important to note that riding in areas where there are more bikers helps too. Chabris and Simons (2010) noted a report by Peter Jacobson, a public health consultant in California who analyzed data on accidents involving automobiles striking pedestrians or cyclists. He found that in cities where there were more walkers and cyclists, there were actually fewer accidents. More folks walking or riding bikes seems to increase the level of driver expectation for seeing such individuals – thus making one less at risk of being victimized by inattentional blindness. It was further noted that drivers who also ride bikes may actually be more aware – if only more people would get out of their cars and get back on bicycles.
The bottom line is that our intuition about our attention is problematic. Intuitively we believe that we attend to and see, what is right before us. Research and real world data shows us that this is not the case. At the very least, when driving, we need to be aware of this erroneous assumption, and work diligently to avoid distractions like talking on the phone or texting. As for cyclists (motor powered or not) we must anticipate that we won’t be seen and behave accordingly. Although hi-vis clothing and lights may not aid in your visibility for some drivers, it will for those that are looking out for you.
Chabris and Simons contend that this illusion is a by product of modernity and the subsequent fast paced highly distracting world we live in. We have evolved for millions of years by process of natural selection in a middle sized slow paced world. Traveling faster than a few miles an hour is a relatively new development for our species. Today we travel in motor vehicles at break neck speeds. On top of that we distract ourselves with cell phones, Blackberries, iPhones, iPods and GPS units. Although the consequences of these factors can be grave – in most cases we squeak by – which is a double edged sword because it essentially reinforces the illusion and the behavior.