Attention and Intelligence

Let's begin with this recent experiment by neuroscientists at Rutgers, which demonstrated that general intelligence (at least in rodents) is mediated by improvements in selective attention. Here's the abstract:

In both humans and mice, the efficacy of working memory capacity and its related process, selective attention, are each strongly predictive of individuals' aggregate performance in cognitive test batteries. Because working memory is taxed during most cognitive tasks, the efficacy of working memory may have a causal influence on individuals' performance on tests of "intelligence". Despite the attention this has received, supporting evidence has been largely correlational in nature. Here, genetically heterogeneous mice were assessed on a battery of five learning tasks. Animals' aggregate performance across the tasks was used to estimate their general cognitive abilities, a trait that is in some respects analogous to intelligence. Working memory training promoted an increase in animals' selective attention and their aggregate performance on these tasks. This enhancement of general cognitive performance by working memory training was attenuated if its selective attention demands were reduced. These results provide evidence that the efficacy of working memory capacity and selective attention may be causally related to an animal's general cognitive performance and provide a framework for behavioral strategies to promote those abilities. Furthermore, the pattern of behavior reported here reflects a conservation of the processes that regulate general cognitive performance in humans.

Obviously, every discussion of general intelligence in the context of mouse performance is bracketed by lots of question marks. Nevertheless, I think this research can help clarify what, exactly, intelligence is, and why it's so important. I think most people assume that intelligence is largely a matter of learning and memory, so that smarter people end up with more facts in their head. (We'll call this Trivial Pursuit model of intelligence.) This helps explain why people searched for centuries for a correlation between brain mass and raw intelligence, as if Einstein was nothing but a massive hard drive.

This rodent experiment, however, argues that intelligence is really about the ability to control the spotlight of attention. After all, having access to facts doesn't matter if we can't focus on the facts, or figure out which facts are actually important. (Herbert Simon said it best: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." To push Simon's metaphor a bit farther: Intelligence, then, is like a savings account that keep us from going broke when faced with too much information.) This is why training mice on selective attention tasks makes them smarter - it allows them to make better use of all the relevant information that's already out there.

This reminds me of the ideas I wrote about in the New Yorker last year, while discussing the work of Walter Mischel and the marshmallow task. Mischel pioneered a delayed gratification protocol in which four-year olds were given a choice between eating one marshmallow right away or waiting 15 minutes and getting two marshmallows. It later turned out that the ability to delay gratification as a little kid was a powerfully predictive test, and that kids who could delay for longer scored higher on the SAT, had fewer disciplinary problems and responded better to stressful situations.

At the time, psychologists assumed that children's ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel's conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the "strategic allocation of attention." Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow--the "hot stimulus"--the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from "Sesame Street." Their desire wasn't defeated--it was merely forgotten. "If you're thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you're going to eat it," Mischel says. "The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place."

Mischel's large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. "What's interesting about four-year-olds is that they're just figuring out the rules of thinking," Mischel says. "The kids who couldn't delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that's a terrible idea. If you do that, you're going to ring the bell before I leave the room."

According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. "If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television," Mischel says. "And you can save more money for retirement. It's not just about marshmallows."

In other words, delayed gratification isn't really about gritting our teeth or exerting willpower: it's about controlling the spotlight of attention. Likewise, intelligence isn't just about remembering abstract facts - it's about controlling what thoughts we're thinking about in the first place. (To put it another way, being smart is not just about having a larger working memory - it's about having more precise control over what's in working memory.) The brain is a bounded machine and the world is a confusing place, full of errata and distractions - intelligence is the ability to parse reality so that it makes just a little bit more sense. (As William James famously wrote, "Everyone knows what attention is...It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.") Our mind has strict cognitive limitations - selective attention helps us compensate.

So how can we bolster our selective attention abilities? This is pure speculation, but I see research like this as an important defense of difficult novels. When we read a complex narrative - say, Proust or Woolf or DFW - we're forced to constantly exert our attentional muscles just to follow along. On a deeper level, however, we're also being asked to switch between different kinds of informational streams. We need to pay attention to the sentence, and to the subtleties of language and character and plot, but we need to also remain aware of the larger themes unfolding in the work. Is this Marcel the narrator? Or Marcel the author? What is Proust telling us about memory and Paris and jealousy? Unpacking the text, in other words, is an extreme form of cognitive exercise, as we must alternate for hundreds of pages between local comprehension (the sentence and the mechanics of plot) and global understanding (the larger meaning of the novel). That's not easy, and it's often not particularly fun. (Why read Proust in an age of YouTube and the Twilight Saga?) But the difficult novel just might make you a touch smarter. It might even make it a little easier to not eat the marshmallow.


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Very interesting. One nitpick. You say:

"being smart is not about having a larger working memory - it's about having more precise control over what's in working memory."

But isn't it true that having a larger working memory will make it *easier* to ensure that the thing you are attempting to focus on will be included in working memory? Or, if we are assuming a more random model of what gets in there, more *likely*?

Excellent point, Andy. Thanks. I'll clarify the sentence.

My hypothesis is that the choice you make to expand your awareness, to see things from the perspective of another actor, is the fundamental act that grows awareness and attention capacity. As the awareness and attention capacity of the actor expand to approach infinity in n dimensions, the distinction between actors disappears.

The act of choosing doesn't happen in spacetime alone. We can measure the effects of our choices in spacetime, but the ability to act doesn't come from our spacetime dimensions alone.

I recently learned that the vast majority of high schoolers in California do not find themselves in any classes where they are asked to read novels or longer works of fiction. I would love to see a study in response to your intriguing speculation about the complexity of novels possibly having an effect on the strength of your working memory. My guess is that while a high schooler's working memory may be affected by such exercise, it might be more of a benefit to the very young who have a higher degree of neuroplasticity. I wonder what activities ask a toddler to focus attention judiciously.
I also wonder about the cognitive effect of the selective appropriation of attention that young people display while simultaneously talking on the phone, doing homework, watching TV and browsing the internet. It may well be that this is more of challenge to working memory than Proust could ever be!

By Eiffel Koppketcher (not verified) on 02 Apr 2010 #permalink

I think intense conversation with other human beings may be the best without specialized training. (Playing jazz might be better for a jazz musician, for example.)

If your goal was to exercise your attention, would you read a difficult novel or something nonfiction that is a bit beyond your current knowledge/understanding of the topic?

I'd probably argue that increased ability in selective attention also increases ability in non-focused (holistic?) attention. Since we're talking about cognitive capacity, it would seem reasonable that added depth could be translated to increased breadth if needed.

This may be related to why some people with ADHD, while in generally feeling less able to block out peripherals, can slip into a "hyperfocus" state where everything but the object of their attention is completely blocked out. Perhaps there's some kind of "short circuit" in the gradiation of attention that they can apply - either wide-open or completely narrowed, with no stops in between.

Let's pretend for a minute that working memory is the way most people describe it, like an empty box that can be 'filled'. You see i don't think it's the size of the box that matters, but how we make connections between the things we put in it. Imagine i drop two things into the box, they may or may not touch or connect with each other. However there's now 'three' things in the box, the two items, plus 'their relationship to each other'. As we put in more items, the number of ways they can connect to each other increases quickly, more quickly than the number of items does. Imagine being able to position things in the box in such a way that all the things are touching each other. These extra connections are what i think increases the memory, not the size of the box. It's got more to do with the structure of 'the sum of the ideas'. Like adding branches to a tree, perhaps, if you add only branches to the main trunk, it gets 'full' quickly, but if you are able to add branches to branches.. you can create a huge spread.. I agree that working memory capacity is something we should increase to improve our task and information handling abilities, and that this is linked to attention, but one of the reasons we don't get distracted is because instead of flitting between several unconnected ideas, we are able to construct a framework of relationships to hold them together, and then just focus on the framework, rather than flitting between the ideas. Like watching a juggler instead of having to try and focus on each of the balls. Thus we create a focussed 'attention'..

I've been struggling through Remembrance of Lost Time Vol.1 for about 6 weeks now, and you're not kidding about willpower.

Randy Engle and his colleagues have published excellent work about attentional control, working memory, intelligence, how these are related, and so on.

I noticed no mention of the concept of curiosity. Without which all the working memory in the world would remain largely unused.

I'm wondering if meditation wouldn't be a more direct (but possibly even *less* entertaining) way to develop one's attentional skill. While they vary considerably in detail, the one thing contemplative practices seem to have in common is an element of attentional control (or at least a meta-awareness of where one's attention is going).

There's much interesting research on neural plasticity and dynamics exhibited by long-time meditators (Richie Davidson's Tibetan Monk studies at U of W) as well as promising research on meditation as a tool for building emotional intelligence -- another handy skill in the self-control toolbox.


I work in research science, and I know highly intelligent people who seem to violate a lot of your assumptions about the meaning of intelligence; indeed, several of my most intelligent colleagues are totally ADD. I mean, I don't doubt that attention control is very helpful, and probably acts as a force multiplier for many intelligent people. But it doesn't seem to be the underlying ingredient.

What all the intelligent people I know have in common is an exceptional proficiency for (and efficiency with) with the identification and utilization of patterns, including the kinds of abstract patterns that underly natural phenomena and mathematical relationships.

When you stop to think about it, isn't this pattern ability precisely what IQ test questions are measuring? Isn't this what we mean by general intelligence?

There seems to be another definition of intelligence working here. I teach reading to community college students, and these abilities to eliminate distractions and focus for an extended period of time are essential to academic success. I do not think they are directly connected to the traditional methods of measuring intelligence, which seem to focus on working memory capacity, but they are the markers of successful students.

N.B. I doubt I'd score above 100 on most I.Q. tests, but I improved my ability to stay focused by reading books that were too long for my own good. (Just finished Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Cool stuff.) When I was in college, my academic standing improved with my ability to stay focused for longer periods of time, but I never became a fast reader or learner. I imagine my ability to stay afloat has something to do with my being in the humanities and not one of the hard sciences. No matter.

By Gopherus Agassizii (not verified) on 02 Apr 2010 #permalink

This is something which I have personally given much thought to, and I have noticed throughout my education the things that I learn the best (i.e. that I retain for the longest time) are the things that I continue thinking about outside of the classroom. This continued attention allows the time to see the topic in different lights, and find the connections with everyday life and with other items learned in the past. I find that it is these connections that hold the thought in my memory for the long haul. Connections that, without the attention paid, can never be made.

By David A. Keary (not verified) on 02 Apr 2010 #permalink

Exerting attention by reading books is like focusing attention on focusing attention. It won't help.

I'm smoking a pipe. YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID.

As I find the article very interesting, I actually want to add a little bit about the last paragraph. When you read a novel and try to remember the relation the current character has with the main character, or you deceiver the grammar, you still are 100% focused. We have a specialized brain region for almost 90% of all tasks. One region is just tracking the tone of the voice of a speaker, another region monitors what angle his eyes are apart.
We don't have to focus to do that, it happens automatic in brain regions which specialized just on that.
The attention you are talking about actually is when we must do something we don't have a specialized region for. Example: the first time you learn to ride a car, you focus on everything, and it is insanely hard to do all those 1000 things at the same time. But as you learn to drive, you can actually get from work to your front door and have no memory of ever actually driving, because your brain did it all on autopilot. [you used your partial lobe, your temporal lobe, your limbic system, and all that, but your frontal cortex was focused on the baseball game the whole time]

Intelligence as you describe it, is great for learning new things, fast. Or master novel task where one still cant utilize specialized areas.

That marshmallow test is either taken from, or taken by, B.F. Skinner. He writes about a similar experiment - which was actually used to help train children - in Walden Two.

I wonder if there are implications here for those individuals with Asperger's who tend to have very selective attention, sometimes to such an extreme that it interferes with social functioning. Usually these individuals are highly intelligent, but their brains typically focus on details and are less likely to be able to take in multiple inputs at once or see the big picture. This intense focus seems to be a double-edged sword - it tends to be somewhat socially isolating, but can result in extraordinary talents.

I watched the Robert Downey as Sherlock Holmes movie yesterday and it was interesting how they portrayed his rapid thinking pattern: essentially fast cuts to anticipated events with voice-overs. Personally, I think such thinking goes way too fast for actually visualization, and certainly has no time for vocalization. How often do you know the answer to a question (internally posed to yourself) before it is actually asked?

There was one illustration of his thinking that I thought totally misrepresented the experience: A rapid sequence of thought visuals was happening as he sat in a chair (often he was immobile when the thinking took place); as he went to light his pipe, the rapid sequence of thought visuals was stopped... so he could light his pipe.

I believe the exact opposite happens. As we continue with our internal thinking, we put the pipe lighting, the tea pouring, the telephone dialing on autopilot, and, hence, burn our finger, spill the tea, misdial. Then we say, I was not thinking, when, in fact, that is exactly what we were doing, thinking, lo, thinking of something else.

It would have been interesting to see Downey / Holmes with the match burning his finger just at the end of the rapid sequence of thought visuals. Alternatively, he might have been shown walking while the rapid sequence of thought visuals ran. Perhaps this did happen, but I did not catch it and certainly did not follow the fight sequences that closely.

By Elizabeth Nolan (not verified) on 03 Apr 2010 #permalink

From Wikipedia: "Curiosity is an emotion related to natural inquisitive behavior such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in human and many animal species. The term can also be used to denote the behavior itself being caused by the emotion of curiosity. As this emotion represents a drive to know new things, curiosity is the fuel of science and all other disciplines of human study."

Curiosity then as the fuel of intelligence? I'm still curious as to why the word hasn't been mentioned but once here. Hey, folks, it really won't kill your cat.

This could also explain why music education improves school children's grades in other subjects. Playing music entails similar attentional demands - reading individual notes and chords, while retaining the key signature in working memory so that you know which notes are sharps or flats, while simultaneously paying attention to the meter, dynamics, melody, and phrasing, all the while keeping track of how each musical phrase fits within the overall arc of the composition.

With practice, reading music becomes more automatic, but advancing to longer and more complex compositions ratchets up the level of attention required to juggle multiple themes or melodies, often played simultaneously, maintaining awareness of how a greater number of increasingly diverse parts contribute to the whole over more extended periods of time, and finally unpacking and bringing out subtler and more abstract expressions of emotion and meaning. And doing all of that in front of an audience.

Like the prospect of hanging, it tends to focus the mind.

From Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnuget:

Most of my adult life has been spent in bringing to some kind of order sheets of paper eight and a half inches wide and eleven inches long. This severely limited activity has allowed me to ignore many a storm. It has also caused many of the worst storms I ignored. My mates have often been angered by how much attention I pay to paper and how little attention I pay to them.I can only reply that the secret to success in every human endeavor is total concentration. Ask any great athlete.To put it another way: Sometimes I donât consider myself very good at life, so I hide in my profession.I know what Delilah really did to Samson to make him as weak as a baby. She didnât have to cut his hair off. All she had to do was break his concentration.

Thank you, Dr.A.

Jonah you are correct: intelligence isn't just about breadth of information, but how you utilize/process that information; it's the depth of the breadth that makes one smart. Moreover intelligence is the ability, in variety of ways, to problem solve; working memory is what allows us to hold information in short term memory while problem solving. Interestingly enough I have had subjects score very high on intelligence tests but score low on the narrow cognitive ability of working memory (doesn't happen often). In order to do this these subjects were metacognitively aware of their wm deficiency and had very interesting adaptive behaviors to compensate (i.e. verbal repetition while problem solving).

Oh and you are right on for novels flexing and strengthening the working memory muscle! As text becomes more complex, the need for working memory increases! Cheers!

Quick comment for Matt:

I agree some of the most intelligent people I know have ADHD. If you read Russell Barkely's work on ADHD, individuals with ADHD have a difficult time with allocation of attention, not just paying attention. It's why super ADHD kids can play video games for hours while neglecting to eat and/or do any other goal directed behavior that they are suppose to. One of my favorite colleagues wrote her dissertation in 50hrs, then being hospitalized for exhaustion. Try to have a 5 min conversation with her, if she is not subjectively stimulated, it won't happen. However, give her the task of structural equation modeling and she won't sleep or eat until it's done.

Oh and in my mind working memory is different than attention, working memory is the ability to hold bits of information in short term memory while performing mental operations on said information. The connection between WM and attention is: in order to perform working memory you had to pay attention to information presented. Even the act of disregarding superfluous information is working memory based.

Perhaps struggling through a difficult novel not only enhances cognition, but also may help prevent cognitive decline. Attesting to this point is evidence suggesting that elderly individuals who are more intellectually active have lower risks for cognitive decline. Reading difficult books is probably one of many ways to prevent/combat dementia.

Yes you can train in being selectively attentive through meditation! mindfulness-awareness practice for one. It employs the same distraction strategy as used by the successful marshmallow collectors, but is far superior. Rather than distracting yourself from the marshamllow by thinking about or doing something different, you train in not buying into thoughts at all. You train in simply being present. Of its own accord, your mind on occasion will come back from thinking about whatever and simply be present for whatever sense perceptions are happening. With practice you can stay there without thinking, in a relaxed state of mind. We spend lots of time and money on going to vacation just do find places where our sense perceptions will be sufficiently inticing to keep us present and thus we 'get away from it all'. Meditation is a lot cheaper though more boring.
But the end product, being present and relaxed more of the time, has a huge pay off: of the few thoughts that do arise, there will be long awaited insights into the problems and dilemmas that concern us. See the book "Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science" by RM Roberts for some examples of discoveries that arouse out of a relaxed present mind.

I'll second the reference to Randy Engle and colleagues including Kane and Conway, along with younger researchers like Nash Unsworth, Rich Heitz and Mike Bunting. There is also a paper by Kyllonen and Christal showing a VERY high relationship between WMC and a traditional measure of general fluid intelligence.

Two notes: 1. Many intelligence researchers differentiate the types of intelligence you speak of. These make up crystalized intelligence (gC) which is essentially the amount of knowledge you have, and fluid intelligence (gF) which is the type of processing intelligence you're focusing on here, which is highly related to WMC. 2. The evidence that training on cognitively demanding tasks (such as reading) increases WMC generally is still developing, and training effects do not necessarily follow from the relationship between WMC and gF. While it is reasonable to expect some generalized training effects (and some evidence exists for these) the robustness of these effects and their utility in everyday tasks is still an open question.

There is a fantastic tv show about this coming up on BBC2 on Sunday 22.50 (UK time)exploring this issue.
Ten people are secretly filmed as they witness what they believe to be a real crime â a knife attack in a Manchester pub. When later interviewed by the police, the witnessesâ accounts vary greatly and are radically different to what actually happened.
Take a look at the trailer for it - unbelievable stuff!

This was fantastic; a full dose of motivation ;)

I think this is a fresh and interesting take on intelligence...I recently read Jeff Hawkin's book "On Intelligence" where he argues that intelligence is merely the brain's ability to anticipate future events. I think the way he describes it, it sounds more like your definition of the unconscious brain from your book where you argue that the brain's ability to predict or anticipate events gets better through practice. I personally always thought intelligence was the brain's ability to make connections between the vast amount of data that it receives, to make patterns and have insight but i guess from your view that's more creativity than intelligence.

also i never said for this blog.. maybe as the âcommentâ link is just not so impressive eyecatching.. but thats things i like relating to this blog. Its nice and quite, no people leaving stupid comments or having bullshit discussions.its merely a good blog to get your latest information in design/art world. keep it up