When Less Attention Improves Behavior

Reducing attentional resources improves memory performance in confabulating patients

Milan, Italy, 21 January 2009 - A new study conducted at the Centre for Studies and Research in Cognitive Neuroscience of the University of Bologna, and published by Elsevier in the February 2009 issue of Cortex shows that, in confabulating patients, memory accuracy improves when attentional resources are reduced.

Most cognitive processes supporting adaptive behavior need attentional resources for their operation. Consider memory. If memory was a car, attention would be its fuel: New information is not stored into memory if not attended to, and distraction often leads to misremembering past events. What if the car’s brakes are broken? Will adding fuel still be a good thing? Confabulation is a devastating memory disorder consisting in the uncontrolled production of “false memories”. Patients often act upon their false memories, with dramatic consequences. The research published in Cortex shows that if memory in confabulation is like a car with broken brakes, then it is best not to add fuel.

The study involved patients with lesions in the prefrontal lobe, including patients with and without confabulation, and healthy individuals. In two experiments, participants retrieved their memories either with full attention or divided attention (i.e., while doing another task). Non-confabulating patients and healthy individuals performed better when their full attention was devoted to the memory task. Not so for confabulating patients: Under full attention, confabulating patients exhibited high false-memory levels, which were strongly reduced when their attention was divided between two tasks.

The results of this study are important both theoretically and practically. First, they indicate that lack of attention during memory retrieval is not the reason for confabulation. Rather, confabulating patients might over-process irrelevant information during mnemonic decisions, and therefore reducing attentional resources available for such a dysfunctional processing enhances memory. Moreover, the results are crucial for developing rehabilitative interventions tailored to confabulating patients. Training them to double-check the accuracy of their memories may not be useful. In fact, these patients should be trained not to attend, and act upon, their mnemonic impressions.

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Notes to Editors:
The article “Divided attention during retrieval suppresses false recognition in confabulation” by Elisa CIaramelli, Simona Ghetti and Marco Borsotti will appear in Cortex, Volume 45, Issue 2 (February 2009), published by Elsevier in Italy. The full text article is available to members of the media upon request. Please contact the Elsevier press office, newsroom@elsevier.com. To schedule an interview, contact Dr. Elisa Ciaramelli, elisa.ciaramelli@utoronto.ca.

About Cortex
Cortex is an international journal devoted to the study of cognition and of the relationship between the nervous system and mental processes, particularly as these are reflected in the behaviour of patients with acquired brain lesions, normal volunteers, children with typical and atypical development, and in the activation of brain regions and systems as recorded by functional neuroimaging techniques. It was founded in 1964 by Ennio De Renzi. The Editor in-chief of Cortex is Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. Fax: 0131 6513230, e-mail: cortex@ed.ac.uk. Cortex is available online at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00109452.

About Elsevier
Elsevier is a global information analytics company that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare and improve performance for the benefit of humanity. Elsevier provides digital solutions and tools in the areas of strategic research management, R&D performance, clinical decision support, and professional education; including ScienceDirect, Scopus, ClinicalKey and Sherpath. Elsevier publishes over 2,500 digitized journals, including The Lancet and Cell, more than 35,000 e-book titles and many iconic reference works, including Gray's Anatomy. Elsevier is part of RELX Group, a global provider of information and analytics for professionals and business customers across industries. www.elsevier.com

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