November 13, 2013, by Yvonne Teoh

Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) – Foraging for Thought

Continuing with the series of posts on the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, here is Poh Wei Lin’s talk titled “Foraging for Thought.”

Whenever I tell people that I study psychology, the usual response I get is “Can you read my mind?” Just to be clear, I can’t, even if I stared deeply into your eyes.

However, my research looks into attention within our working memory and how these two interact to create thoughts. We all think that when a thought is formed, it is this nicely constructed perfect cloud. However in reality, our thoughts are created from a huge network of sub-thoughts and memories as you can see here at the bottom of the slide

Our memories are like documents stored away in file cabinets. However, we don’t have perfectly color coded labels that say where these memories or sub-thoughts were from. Is this memory from a real life experience or a fantasy and dream you created? How do you know the difference? What happens when you’re trying to remember something is you select a few documents from the cabinet and lay them out on the table so you can have easier access to these sub-thoughts. But what happens next? How do you know which document or sub thought connects with another to create a logical train of thoughts?

Studies have identified we do this simple process called refreshing that helps connect these sub-thoughts together to create a thought. The term “refreshing” means to briefly give attention to the already activated sub thoughts.

My PhD research studies this mechanism and there are two qualities to refreshing that we found. We measure refreshing by asking participants to hold two items in their mind and we cued them to refresh only one of items. The first quality about refreshing we found was that the longer a participant had refreshed an item, the slower they become at responding to the same item if they had to see it again. This inverse relationship means our attention within the reflective process is always inclined to move towards novel thoughts. It also moves in a systematic and efficient way to search for information instead of moving like a pinball bouncing of the sides directionless. The second quality we found is different languages and the structure of a word interferes with the process and it disrupts our memories from being stored properly into the cabinet. This can help explain how we sometimes can be forgetful or confused.

By understanding this underlying mechanism this process, we can identify which part of this process breaks down for students with ADHD or dyslexia, thus making learning difficult for them.

So to answer the previous question, I can’t read your thoughts but my research helps us understand how our sub-thoughts are arranged to create a stream of thoughts.

Poh Wei Lin
(PhD Student, School of Psychology, UNMC)

Posted in attentionblogdata collectionmemorypostgraduatepsychobabblepsychologyresearchunmc