Shaping your cognitive environment for optimal cognition

Humans are the animals that manipulate their cognitive environment.

I reported recently on an intriguing study involving an African people, the Himba. The study found that the Himba, while displaying an admirable amount of focus (in a visual perception task) if they were living a traditional life, showed the same, more de-focused, distractible attention, once they moved to town. On the other hand, digit span (a measure of working memory capacity) was smaller in the traditional Himba than it was in the urbanized Himba.

This is fascinating, because working memory capacity has proved remarkably resistant to training. Yes, we can improve performance on specific tasks, but it has proven more difficult to improve the general, more fundamental, working memory capacity.

However, there have been two areas where more success has been found. One is the area of ADHD, where training has appeared to be more successful. The other is an area no one thinks of in this connection, because no one thinks of it in terms of training, but rather in terms of development — the increase in WMC with age. So, for example, average WMC increases from 4 chunks at age 4, to 5 at age 7, 6 at age 10, to 7 at age 16. It starts to decrease again in old age. (Readers familiar with my work will note that these numbers are higher than the numbers we now tend to quote for WMC — these numbers reflect the ‘magic number 7’, i.e. the number of chunks we can hold when we are given the opportunity to actively maintain them.)

Relatedly, there is the Flynn effect. The Flynn effect is ostensibly about IQ (specifically, the rise in average IQ over time), but IQ has a large WM component. Having said that, when you break IQ tests into their sub-components and look at their change over time, you find that the Digit Span subtest is one component that has made almost no gain since 1972.

But of course 1972 is still very modern! There is no doubt that there are severe constraints on how much WMC can increase, so it’s reasonable to assume we long since hit the ceiling (speaking of urbanized Western society as a group, not individuals).

It’s also reasonable to assume that WMC is affected by purely physiological factors involving connectivity, processing speed and white matter integrity — hence at least some of the age effect. But does it account for all of it?

What the Himba study suggests (and I do acknowledge that we need more and extended studies before taking these results as gospel), is that urbanization provides an environment that encourages us to use our working memory to its capacity. Urbanization provides a cognitively challenging environment. Our focus is diffused for that same reason — new information is the norm, rather than the exception; we cannot focus on one bit unless it is of such threat or interest that it justifies the risk.

ADHD shows us, perhaps, what can happen when this process is taken to the extreme. So we might take these three groups (traditional Himba, urbanized Himba, individuals with ADHD) as points on the same continuum. The continuum reflects degree of focus, and the groups reflect environmental effects. This is not to say that there are not physiological factors predisposing some individuals to react in such a way to the environment! But the putative effects of training on ADHD individuals points, surely, to the influence of the environment.

Age provides an intriguing paradox, because as we get older, two things tend to happen: we have a much wider knowledge base, meaning that less information is new, and we usually shrink our environment, meaning again that less information is new. All things being equal, you would think that would mean our focus could afford to draw in. However, as my attentive readers will know, declining cognitive capacity in old age is marked by increasing difficulties in ignoring distraction. In other words, it’s the urbanization effect writ larger.

How to account for this paradox?

Perhaps it simply reflects the fact that the modern environment is so cognitively demanding that these factors aren’t sufficient on their own to enable us to relax our alertness and tighten our focus, in the face of the slowdown in processing speed that typically occurs with age (there’s some evidence that it is this slowdown that makes it harder for older adults to suppress distracting information). Perhaps the problem is not simply, or even principally, the complexity of our environment, but the speed of it. You only have to compare a modern TV drama or sit-com with one from the 70s to see how much faster everything now moves!

I do wonder if, in a less cognitively demanding environment, say, a traditional Himba village, whether WMC shows the same early rise and late decline. In an environment where change is uncommon, it is natural for elders to be respected for their accumulated wisdom — experience is all — but perhaps this respect also reflects a constancy in WMC (and thus ‘intelligence’), so that elders are not disadvantaged in the way they may be in our society. Just a thought.

Here’s another thought: it’s always seemed to me (this is not in any way a research-based conclusion!) that musicians and composers, and writers and professors, often age very well. I’ve assumed this was because they are keeping mentally active, and certainly that must be part of it. But perhaps there’s another reason, possibly even a more important reason: these are areas of expertise where the proponent spends a good deal of time focused on one thing. Rather than allowing their attention to be diffused throughout the environment all the time, they deliberately shut off their awareness of the environment to concentrate on their music, their writing, their art.

Perhaps, indeed, this is the shared factor behind which activities help fight age-related cognitive decline, and which don’t.

I began by saying that humans are the animals that manipulate their cognitive environment. I think this is the key to fighting age-related cognitive decline, or ADHD if it comes to that. We need to be aware how much our brains try to operate in a way that is optimal for our environment — meaning that, by controlling our environment, we can change the way our brain operates.

If you are worried about your ‘scattiness’, or if you want to prevent or fight age-related cognitive decline, I suggest you find an activity that truly absorbs and challenges you, and engage in it regularly.

The increase in WMC in Himba who moved to town also suggests something else. Perhaps the reason that WM training programs have had such little success is because they are ‘programs’. What you do in a specific environment (the bounds of a computer and the program running on it) does not necessarily, or even usually, transfer to the wider environment. We are contextual creatures, used to behaving in different ways with different people and in different places. If we want to improve our WMC, we need to incorporate experiences that challenge and extend it into our daily life.

This, of course, emphasizes my previous advice: find something that absorbs you, something that becomes part of your life, not something you 'do' for an hour some days. Learn to look at the world in a different way, through music or art or another language or a passion (Civil War history; Caribbean stamps; whatever).

You can either let your cognitive environment shape you, or shape your cognitive environment.

Do you agree? What's your cognitive environment, and do you think it has affected your cognitive well-being?

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