Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Extending Brain-Training to the Affective Domain: Increasing Cognitive and Affective Executive Control through Emotional Working Memory Training

Schewizer, Hampshire, and Dalgleish (2011) conducted a study investigating whether brain-training, specifically working memory (WM) training, improves cognitive functions beyond the training task. Their focus was on emotional material, arguing that it constitutes much of the information we process on a daily basis. The research suggests WM training improves performance in other WM tasks and in fluid intelligence, but only WM training involving emotional material improves affective information on an emotional Stroop task.

The authors began by differentiating between the areas of cognitive ability brain-training claims to improve, namely working memory (the capacity to actively maintain bits of information in the presence of distractions), fluid intelligence (abstract reasoning and problem-solving abilities), and control over emotional or personal material you want to disengage or engage with. They asserted that for any brain-training methodology to have a wide impact on real-world cognitive functions, there needs to be a transfer across training content. Their main question of interest  was can cognitive training with only neutral information have transferable benefits to cognitive processing of personally relevant material.

Forty-five participants received WM training using either emotional or neutral material, or an undemanding control task. The authors used already established and validated tasks to test transfer effects by modifying the dual n-back task to examine WM and fluid intelligence. They used three versions, one with neutral words and faces, the second with highly emotional words and negative facial expressions (an emotional Stroop task), and a third non-WM-dependent feature that matched the control group's "training". Both groups receiving training showed linear improvement significantly greater than the control group in terms of completion time. Training performance and cognitive transfer affect between the two trained groups did not vary significantly in the digit span task but did in terms of affective transfer effects where the affective training group showed significant pre- to post-training improvements in emotional Stroop performance. Neither the neutral training group or the control group demonstrated affective training effects.

The study was well done in terms of providing adequate background research in addition to explaining their process and results clearly. They took care for controlling mitigating factors that could affect the results, subjecting all three groups of participants to pre-testing to ensure the mean of each group was on the same level. The authors used already validated tasks for testing which strengthened their results. As the emotional Stroop test only looks at the cognitive reaction effects of words with negative connotations, I would be interested in seeing if there is similar affective transfer effects for positively emotionally charged words.

The findings related to better controlling cognitive abilities despite the presence of distractions, particularly in relation to emotional information, relevant or distracting to the task, is of utmost importance to members of the intelligence community. This study suggests that appropriate brain-training can improve decision making in situations that would require the manipulation of emotional material, something analysts commonly have to do.


Schweizer S, Hampshire A, Dalgleish T (2011) Extending brain-training to the affective domain: Increasing cognitive and affective executive control through emotional working memory training. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24372. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024372


  1. You make a really good suggestion- measuring how people do with positive material instead of negative material. I also agree that the authors put a lot of care into how they set up this test and could venture a guess they didn't have enough time to do both positive and negative tests. Lastly, I think you're also spot-on for suggesting this would work well for intel analysts, particularly those that deal with highly stressful or crisis situations.

  2. I found this study very interesting. Not only is it interesting to see how negatively charged words interact with cognitive function, but like you mentioned, it would be interesting to apply positively associated words. Particularly in the case of the intelligence community -- it is key to understand the various factors that may influence an assessment, particularly when it is presented to a decision maker. Understanding and being able to either apply or combat emotionally charged words, has the potential to play a direct role in communication within the intelligence community.

  3. I thought it was interesting that the study focused on emotional material because we are taught that emotions add biases to the research. But you brought up a good point of also studying the effect of positive words. I think this research would have benefited from being able to compare results from negative and positive words. The authors were systematic in their study of cognitive training. It is clear that the authors were knowledgeable about previous research on cognitive training. Using already validated tasks tor testing the results is likely to add more validity to their methodology.